Last Thursday morning, I kept calling my friend who’s been in the hospital for over a month. I usually call her every morning to check in, but that morning she didn’t answer her phone. I thought to myself: She’s in the bathroom. She’s having physical therapy. She’s talking to the doctor. She’s on the other phone. Finally, when it became clear that there was not going to be an answer, our friend Elaine and I decided to go see her and make sure that all was well.
We walked into her room in the nursing home and saw the empty bed, sheets neatly folded on top, and her flowers, altar, and personal items gone. I gasped, then heard Elaine ask someone where our friend was. ICU. She’d been taken to ICU.
Over the next couple of days, I began musing on my experience of uncertainty. My triple-earth-sign nature is quite uncomfortable with it. I like knowing the results of things. I like knowing there’s money in the bank, that I have a clean bill of health from my doctor, that I have a roof over my head and fresh veggies in the larder. I like goals and plans and blueprints. I like thinking that I have some control over my life.
I don’t like living with uncertainty for months and years on end.
And yet, even as I write this, I hear a faint cosmic chuckle somewhere in the background. What is life, if not uncertain?
For two days, we thought we might lose our friend. We are all very grateful she weathered that particular storm. But during those days of uncertainty, I felt flattened. Walking a razor’s edge. Keenly aware of the dance of life and death, and how intertwined the two are. After all, this is familiar terrain. I have been an intimate witness to long illnesses that ended in the death of loved ones more than once.
In between visits to the hospital last week, I went for walks, drank a lot of water, took a lot of naps, and read mystery novels (my drug-of-choice for escapism). And I prayed. Of course I prayed. I sent energy spiraling around her body, wrapping her up like a cocoon. I chanted “Om Tara Tuttare,” feeling the forcefield build. I built altars. I lit candles. I cried.
And yet, equanimity proved to be elusive.
As my friend Gretchen said, “Uncertainty is a soul-stretching mistress.”
Now that the crisis has passed, I’m asking myself: How can I make peace with uncertainty?
In search of answers, I dipped into books by three of my favorite spiritual teachers: Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo, The Seven Whispers by Christina Baldwin, and Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron. After reflecting on their thoughts on the subject, I decided to ask another wise teacher, the Tarot, my question:
What can you teach me, dear Tarot, about how I can make peace with uncertainty?
I turned up three cards.
Tucked inside every uncertain situation is the opportunity to open up to a bigger, deeper experience of life. To connect with Spirit, to feel yourself in union with the Great Mystery. To feel that sense of timeless peace, that all will be well, that all will be more than well. To lift us up outside of our everyday lives and touch the face of the Infinite. To know in our human hearts what our souls know all the time — that we are all One, that all will ultimately be well.
What practice will take me there? What actions does this card suggest? Devotional singing. Ritual. Going to a sacred spot in nature and pouring your heart out. Doing whatever spiritual practices are mostly likely to connect you with the Divine.
The challenge of every uncertain situation is to know when your map no longer serves you, and to have the courage to throw the map away. Or to learn how to cope when the map is lost, tugged out of your hands by a gust of wind. The map may be composed of strategies, goals, and plans, or the worldview from which you operate every day. Mark Nepo writes: “When we lose our map, our real knowledge of the path begins. It’s humbling because we’re forced to touch the Earth itself instead of our representation of the Earth. . . This is how being lost can be a prelude to a deeper way, because once we admit that we’re not sure where life is taking us, then we are ripe for transformation. Then we are shapable.”
What practice will take me there? What actions does this card suggest? It suggests that the practice of surrendering to surprise in small things, as Christina Baldwin writes, “allows us to practice the resilience we need to respond to whatever life offers.” We can practice reacting with curiosity instead of panic when the we lose the map.
I’ve used this particular three-card layout for many years, and have long been comfortable with the term “resolution” as an alternative to the more commonly used term “outcome.” Resolution is more active: we can resolve to take action to change our situation, rather than seeing ourselves at the whim of fate, which is what outcome suggests to me. But I just read this passage from Pema Chodron:
“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”
So. The resolution to making peace with uncertainty is to cultivate “an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” And this reading suggests that the Three of Earth will take us to that place. As my friend Julie Clay said, “with community, we can tolerate all sorts of ambiguity.” Knowing we are not alone. That others stand with us, in the good times and the bad. That a net of prayer, of love and good will, is woven by friends and family and friends of friends. That together we make the medicine — with a little laughter thrown in — that can heal.
What practice will take me there? What actions does this card suggest? Opening up my heart to friends and community, and asking for help.
I will continue to practice making peace with paradox and ambiguity, through opening myself up to deep experiences with the Divine, through surrendering to surprise when my map is snatched away, and through opening my heart to friends and community, and asking for help.
How about you? What are some of the ways you have learned to make peace with uncertainty?