The fact that we don’t know – that nothing is certain and we therefore can’t hold on to anything – can evoke fear and depression, but it can also evoke a sense of wonder, curiosity and freedom. Some of our best moments come when we haven’t yet decided what will happen next.– Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, “Open Stillness”I have two friends right now who are waiting for serious medical test results.
They’ve been prodded and poked, had all the X-rays, MRIs and ultrasounds, gone through other tests and lab work and regimens of drugs, and now, they wait. They are in that state of not knowing whether they have a serious, life-threatening disease or just benign lumps. They are deep in the medical maze of biopsies, more lab work and more appointments until they can get a clear diagnosis. Whew!
We’ve all been in this place of not knowing. Perhaps, we’ve waited for some less serious test result, such as a colonoscopy or strep throat or mammogram. It’s still unnerving not to know and can be challenging and uncomfortable. The days go by, and we finally feel relief just to get a result.
The question is not how we avoid this uncertainty and fear, but how we relate to its discomfort. We can spin out with our difficult emotions of anxiety, fright, dread and loss of control, or stay with these painful feelings. Sticking with it all is how we learn to relax in the middle of chaos and the disappearing ground beneath us. With practice, we can rest in the uncertainty of the present moment, whatever that may be.
This is sometimes called beginner’s mind. A beginner’s mind feels present, open and aware. Remember when we were kids and didn’t really think much about the future? We were so involved in each moment playing baseball or dancing or socializing, we weren’t concerned with anything else.
When we’re quiet and try to cultivate this presence, we free ourselves from expectation. Because we are alert and constantly taking in new information and experiences, we are renewed moment by moment. An open mind can relieve us from stress, preconception and prejudice and enrich every aspect of our lives. How might life be different if we approached it without assumptions and preconceived ideas, without knowing anything at all?
How might the medical waiting game be different if we didn’t have any expectations or fears?
Also, being more honest (“This medical challenge is really happening”) and compassionate toward ourselves can alleviate some of this stress. Rather than “I should be doing ...,” we can cultivate some kindness, “Maybe a hot bath would feel good right now.” Giving ourselves some gentleness and space around these tumultuous times can be helpful.
Life is complicated and full of many different highs and lows. As we age, accepting that illness and disease are more and more a part of all of our lives is a reality.
Our lives are impermanent and fleeting. Can we open to all these extremes of being? Could we be in the middle of these things and become more tender, more loving to ourselves and others?
Pema Chodron, in her book “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” says, “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.