Not-knowing

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“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next.” – a tweet

Mostly, we like to be certain, don’t we? When I was in a leadership role, I often found myself in situations where folks expected me to know. I was expected to know the next step, the right thing to do, what not to do, and I was expected to know what would save us. Certainty would save us, and others would look to me as the leader to be certain, to know, to have the answer, to understand. Sometimes anger was expressed toward me, the leader, for not-knowing.

What do we really know? Do we know how this day will turn out? Do we know how we will feel, this afternoon? Do we know what our loved ones need from us? Do we know when we’ll feel better, or feel whole, or feel like ourselves? Do we know what will work, in any given situation? And do we know what “will work” looks like?

There is a kind of wisdom in not-knowing. Every day, we are confronted with situations that expect us to know. Every day, it is wisdom to not-know.

A friend of mine with young children posts on Facebook about funny conversations she has with her 3 little ones.
“We’re not going to MacDonald’s,” she says.
“Why?” her children ask. “Because.”
“Because why?” they ask.
“Because I said so,” she answers.
“Why?” they ask again.
“Because I’m the adult,” she says.

When we refuse to live in that state of not-knowing, we are like little children, asking “why, why, why” to every assertion. When we refuse to live in not-knowing, we refuse to accept what is true in every moment: we don’t know.

Our minds, our thinking, analyzing, always-knowing minds, expect to know. We expect to know the outcome of our actions, as if we were in control of others affected by those actions. We expect there’s a “right answer” to every question. When we take action, we expect everything to line up, like a squadron of soldiers, to have the outcome of that action be what we expect.

We think we are in control.

Finally, life is not like that. As much as our thinking-minds want to know, we can’t know. We can take action, and we can accept – or not accept – the result of our actions. We can live with the feelings of uncertainty, or we can do everything in our power to stay ahead of those feelings, to numb those feelings, to ignore those feelings. We can blame others when things don’t work out as we’d planned, or hoped, or dreamed.

Not-knowing requires a certain trust. Not-knowing requires us to set aside that constant, ringing question: “why?”
Sometimes, we just don’t know why. Like my friend and her children, as the mom, we simply get to decide. And then, we enter again through the gate of “not-knowing.” There it is again, and again, and again, and again…

Living in “not-knowing” is like a dance, a crazy, wonderful, energetic dance that whirls and whirls and ends up sometimes, across the dance floor, where we didn’t expect the dance to end up.

“Not-knowing” requires a certain trust, a trust in what is, and a trust in what is-not.
We can take an action, but when we do, everything else is out of our control. We don’t know how others will react. We don’t know if we will decide, now, or the next moment, or this afternoon, or tomorrow – that there is another choice we could have made.

To accept that life is “not-knowing” is to move into the dance, to be surprised, to live free of expectations, to know that we can do the best we can, and we will still receive gifts we didn’t know were there.  Feelings will still arise, unexpected events will occur.

We are not in control, as much as we want to be.  We simply – don’t know.  We live in a sea of uncertainty.

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I suppose one way to understand is that to be an adult means we don’t know.

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“I’m confused.”

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I have written about the beautiful birch tree that stands and grows and lives outside the front window of my house. I’m a city-girl, and honestly, until I grew older – and hopefully, wiser – I did not pay much attention to trees. I loved the elm trees I walked beside on the streets of Milwaukee as a child, because they were beautiful, their branches growing out over the streets, touching the branches of their neighbors on the other side. Years later, many of them would be gone, victims of Dutch Elm disease, and their disappearance changed the landscape of those working-class neighborhoods, the blocks of flats with their slanted roofs, forever.

Besides noting their beauty, however, I did not think of trees as inhabiting the same world of sensation and feeling as I do, now.

To have believed then that I would love a tree, actually love a tree and know that it loves me would not have suited my busy – too busy! – child’s mind. But I do love this tree, and I know the tree loves me. I’ve come to the beginning of things, the way life is understood in so many less-linear cultures than ours.

I watch with interest the passing of the seasons and the passing of the days through the branches of this particular tree.

This dry winter season, confuses the tree. I’m certain this long drought – we’re in the third year of drought in California – confuses humans, as well. But I can see the confusion in the tree. The calendar tells us it is January, the month when light comes back, minute by minute, moving toward the longest day in June. The tree still balances on its branches yellow leaves, the leaves of November. By the end of this month or the beginning of February, we can expect the new leaves to begin pushing up onto the branches.

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Confusion is surely an important – and ordinary – part of human experience, as well. We don’t do confusion well,  do we? Many years ago, I learned a trick in some leadership journal, a trick I have used many times. In a meeting or conversation, when a suggestion or idea is presented and resistance and misunderstanding grows, a useful way to learn what is really happening is to say: “I’m confused.”

We don’t “do” confusion.   The common response to saying these words: “I’m confused,” is: Answers! I expect that “I’m confused” gets our minds going: “We can’t have this! We can’t be confused! We have to know! We have to explain! We know the answer! We know what’s right! We know what to do!”

Confusion moves so quickly to anxiety.  And then…

Saying “I’m confused” brings more information into a meeting or conversation. Some answers are given. Some unexplained events or feelings are explained, for the moment.  We are compelled by the insertion of “confused” to provide answers!

Confusion plays itself out every day, in every situation, in every relationship, in every event, personal and global. It is so difficult for us to wait – or not wait – for confusion itself to simply tell us what is needed – or not needed, for confusion – a visitor – to take its own to time to stay and to pass.

We move so quickly to answers, to explanations, to actions that may or may not be needed – or even good. We move so quickly because confusion – that dark and deep feeling in the pit of us – isn’t comfortable. We move so quickly to explain away this deep and dark feeling, to give it an answer, to move it along:

“Thank you for coming, but here, here is your hat, and there, there is the door!”

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I will continue to watch the tree outside my window these next weeks, hopefully, months and years. I want to see how the tree handles these confusing times, these times when its sustenance has not been provided.

I continue to observe myself as I live in confusing times, changing times, times burdened by too much information, too soon, too often, too carelessly given.

I watch the rest of us, too.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void…”  Genesis 1:1-2

The Star

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I started to follow in my sleep,
touched by the star itself.
The star paraded over my head
night after night.

One night I sat on a hill and watched the star
until the morning.
Then I knew it would lead me,
if I chose to follow.

I did.

The route: circuitous.
The country: rugged.
The ruler: vicious.
The companions: odd, and wise.
The nights: cold, colder than in my land.

I followed.
I did.

Stories say the star led us to a Child, the Child.
This I know now:

It led to Light.

—meb, Epiphany, 2015

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I choose to see the story for its mystical vividness, realness, and depth.

There are many traditions associated with the Magi, and traditions have broadened and deepened the story, through the years.  Many of the traditions have arrived via art through the ages.

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“The three Magi developed distinct characteristics in Christian tradition, so that between them they represented the three ages of (adult) man, three geographical and cultural areas, and sometimes other things. In the normal Western account, 14th century (for  Caspar is old, normally with a white beard, and gives the gold;  Melchior is middle-aged, giving frankincense from his native Arabia, and Balthazar is a young man, very often and increasingly black-skinned, with myrrh from Saba (modern south Yemen).”   from Wikipedia