Savoring Uncertainty and Embracing the Unknown

Finding presence and perspective in life’s uncertainty can open us up to the possibilities within — and even gratitude for — the unknown.

Many of us have negative ideas about uncertainty — as the absence of ease, comfort, or clarity. Trying to relate to uncertainty is difficult because it is like trying to relate to a lack of something, not a presence. But coming into communion with absence is important. It can help to think of uncertainty as mystery, and mystery as having a palpable presence.

It’s that knife-edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our truest power. 

Joanna Macy

Mystery asks us to muster courage for the encounter. We can access deep reservoirs of trust each time we face that which beckons, and perhaps frightens, us just beyond the edge of our knowing, beyond the edges of our control. Every time we look into the depths of the darkness and live to tell the tale, we are nourished in our trust and faith. This is how we build our spiritual musculature and how gratefulness comes alive.

Choosing to become present to mystery creates intimacy with those aspects of ourselves and life that do not always get the reverence they deserve. When we can hold our not-knowing with tenderness and curiosity, we develop comfort with our stillness, and vastness. Sometimes, simply exploring and affirming how intimate we already are with various forms of mystery can liberate us from feelings of fear and the need to control life. We then become able to receive — from within and around us — forms of wisdom and guidance that wait until the mind surrenders its need for certainty before the quiet beauty of possibility reveals itself to us.

You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather. 

Pema Chödrön

We hold — and are held in — mystery. The more we can create a grateful relationship to this fact, the better off we will be when life delivers itself to us in its inestimable fullness. If we can, as Pema Chödrön says, see ourselves as the sky, then unpredictable weather can pass without compromising our perspective. We know we are bigger than the passing storm. We are vast enough to hold our experiences, and the universe is vast enough to hold us. Weather comes and goes. We need not define ourselves through it. We do not control it, nor do we need to feel perpetually at its whim.

Responding like a victim to life’s unfolding, at odds with its mysteries, can lead us to develop vigilance. Vigilance can become our default setting for coping with the unknown, convincing us that if we are on alert, with our senses at peak arousal, we can anticipate and therefore better predict the future. Vigilant people stay tuned to the weather channel, radar, apps, and radio imagining that they can manage the upcoming storm — rather than seeing themselves as the sky. Vigilance takes us out of the organic moment-to-moment arrival of life in exchange for the illusion of control. And it is exhausting, as anyone who has lived in a state of consistent vigilance knows.

Almost everything you now know used to be unknown to you. And there are still plenty of unknowns that will make themselves known, and you will then be able to look back on any current uncertainty with a different perspective. When we let go of the idea that we can be in charge at all times, we develop more trust in the face of the unknowable. The more trust we extend, the more gratefully we can embrace not-knowing and learn from our experiences. We deepen our capacity to be with life as it is.

Perspective Prompts

The Privilege of Certainty

Spend a minute focusing on some of the things you know for sure. Tried and true formulas. Facts that hold up under scrutiny. We can search and confirm or disprove things as we never have before in history. Technology offers us answers to longstanding questions in seconds. We can learn words in a new language with the help of our phones. How wonderful to have the privilege of certainty. And what a welcome, gracious privilege uncertainty can be, too.

Consider the places of uncertainty in your life as spacious pockets of respite from the work of knowing and having to know. Allow yourself to sink into the mysteries of life with appreciation.

I am grateful for all that I am able to know, and the privilege of mystery that remains.

Find Pleasure in the Unknowable

Without the existence of all that is mysterious, we would live only with what is known and knowable. Imagine how our lives would shrink if everything unfolded exactly as we expected. How terribly one-dimensional it would be to construct and control everything. Instead, we have mystery to thank for the greatest joys and blessings in our lives: its unexpected teachings, the lessons that choose us, the love from across the room, the new friends, the chance encounters with beauty and inspiration, the gift of another day.

Think of times when beauty, love, and joy have surprised you. Know that their shared home is uncertainty.

I welcome the many surprises uncertainty has in store for me, including love.


Kristi Nelson

Kristi Nelson

About the Author

Kristi Nelson is the author of Wake Up Grateful and an ambassador for Grateful Living. She has a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and has spent more than 30 years in nonprofit leadership, development, and consulting. She has worked at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and the Soul of Money Institute. Nelson is a Stage IV cancer survivor who cherishes living among friends and family in western Massachusetts.

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