The Wisdom in Ambiguity

Sometimes it feels like we’re ‘in-between’. Neither here nor there. But rather somewhere in middle. In the middle of things, places, events, milestones, or even people. We’re in-between jobs. In-between partners. Homes or neighborhoods. Stages in life. In-between projects, to do lists, or vacations this year. As we speak, we’re somewhere in-between our prior full-blown Covid-19 pandemic and a longed-for return to normal life. We’re not just in between, though. We’re also caught ‘within’. Within states of bewilderment, worry, and confusion these days. Look no further than the horrific war now going on in Ukraine. This free, peaceful, and democratic nation was wrongfully and barbarically invaded by Russia a month ago. We’re glued to daily images of Ukraine as if we were watching a burning home engulfed in raging flames. We stand horrified and helpless. With no idea as to how it will turn out in the end. Much closer to home, runaway inflation is quickly driving prices up. Purchases of everyday staple items like food, clothing and gasoline are pinching our wallets like never before with no relief or clarity in sight. In short, a whole lot of things seem ‘up in the air’ and out of control. We’re untethered between and within myriad uneasy, swirling, and chaotic spaces. Understandably, we crave closure and resolution. We seek the restoration of what once was. Or the realization of what should be. Sometimes, even the ability to simply move on. Said another way, we want to end all the ambiguity in our lives.

How much is Already Determined?

Ambiguity is defined as ‘a state of uncertainty, obscurity, or indistinctness’. By its very nature, life’s ambiguity resists immediate clarity. It flies directly in the face of popular notions of Determinism. Determinists believe that outcomes in life are largely predetermined by previously existent causes. Things don’t (or shouldn’t) happen in irrational ways. Instead, events are predictable reactions to previous choices or actions—either our own or those of someone else that now impact us. In short, all things happen for a reason in life. Things eventually turn out how they’re meant to… whether we like the outcomes or not. There’s little ambiguity involved. The only in-between spaces entail the time lapses between cause-and-effect.

Conversely, Indeterminism holds that the universe sometimes operates in random ways. Chance plays a real part in the natural order of things. Actions and choices do frequently create downstream consequences. But more often than we’d like, things happen for no apparent reason at all. Or they simply don’t respond to human choices, decisions, or even otherwise normally logical, predictable laws of nature. As a result, we all live with a degree of uncertainty, randomness, and open-endedness. In short, ambiguity. Things simply make no sense at times. In our messy world, most of us crave determinism. We seek it in our religions, our values, and our way of viewing the world around us. The idea that someone or something else, far more omnipotent and knowing than us, ‘has our back’ is comforting. Unfortunately, the assurances that we seek are frequently fleeting ones.

In truth, being human involves varying degrees of both determinism and indeterminism. It’s not exclusively one way or the other. Life is lived on an evolving, graduated scale of these two extremes. Total certainty is impossible. All things are temporary in an ever-changing universe. At some level, we all know this. There are no guarantees. We could be diagnosed today with a terminal illness during a routine physical exam or diagnostic test. Right out of the blue when we thought we were in perfect health. Or we could be hit by a reckless driver who cuts us off suddenly in heavy traffic tomorrow. We could fall down a staircase that we’ve safely navigated in our home for 20 years. Or we could win $10 million dollars in a lottery that we’re playing for the very first time. Things can change for the better or the worse in an instant. All unplanned for and unexpected. On the other hand, we do exert some control over our lives. To believe otherwise would hold that any choices we might make are purely illusionary. That we have no personal agency. That we are helpless to influence outcomes of any kind. This would, indeed, be a terrible way to live.

Navigating the Undetermined

But how, in practical terms, can we navigate the ambiguous things in our lives? First, we can manage our thinking in healthier ways. When we’re caught up in a state of in-between, we can push back on catastrophizing the situation at hand. Stop dwelling on the worst potential results all the time. Of course, it’s important to consider every possible outcome, including worst-case scenarios, when ambiguity strikes. But we shouldn’t ruminate solely on the bad ones. When we think narrowly and negatively, it simply feeds our corresponding emotions of fear, insecurity, anger, and sadness. And when negative emotions take hold of us, we can no longer think positively, creatively, expansively, and logically.

Second, we have an important choice in the face of ambiguity. We can be ‘present’ with ourselves more fully, not merely with the factual situation at hand. We can take time to notice how we’re feeling, what we’re doing, what we’re saying to ourselves, and what we’re thinking at that moment. We can get in touch with ourselves emotionally, rather than abandoning ourselves. Sometimes the best thing to do in the face of ambiguity is to just sit there. To practice purposeful mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation, or prayer. Or to be with caring people who will sit with and empathetically listen to us.

Third, we can remain accountable. We can take ownership for ourselves and the parts of ambiguous situations that we can actually influence. When we complain or blame external people, things, or circumstances for ambiguous, uncomfortable events, we give control over to them. Further, when we ask others to rescue us from ambiguity in life, we surrender our God-given empowerment. In truth, we’re only helpless if we choose to be. We’re only impotent if we relinquish responsibility for our lives. Doing so may offer us short-term, temporary relief. But it’s a bad strategy for healthy living in the long run.

Finding Hope without Certainty

On a much, deeper spiritual level, though, we can do even more. There’s a way forward that doesn’t merely get us through and out of ambiguity. But, rather, one that ‘remains’ squarely within the inevitable spaces of it. One that brings peace when closure, clarity, or certainty aren’t possible. This way is one of ‘Hope’— not a hope that longs for specific outcomes. But rather one that is filled with possibilities. Real hope doesn’t require knowing exactly what will happen in the future. Nor is it grounded in passive optimism either. Instead, it’s built on our ability to thrive more fully in situations of ambiguity. We achieve this through learning to courageously move forward when confronted with the unknowable or the uncertain. Then to work purposefully and iteratively toward a good or better outcome, even when things are hazy and scattered all around us. Even when we have no idea how things will turn out in the end. We do this because we’re confident that we somehow matter as individuals in the universe of things. That we truly matter to our loving creator God, to others, and to our world. Therefore, the positive and constructive actions that we take always matter as well.

Not only that. Our purposeful actions create or continue our ‘stories’ in the face of ambiguous situations. These stories aren’t bound or fixed. Nor are they ever truly finished. They’re always being written. And they’re always seeking new meaning. Our meaning-making stories represent the crux of finding wisdom in ambiguity. Not so much around the ultimate endings of the stories. But, rather, the unfolding narratives of the stories themselves. I’ll admit that this is quite counter-intuitive. For we’re taught to focus on endings. Endings of books, movies, events, projects, or situations. But the journey of getting there is far more important that the ending itself. That’s because the journey fuels our continued vitality and growth. As such, we’re wise to keep writing meaningful ‘stories’ in the face of life’s ambiguities. To keep refining these stories every day. Keep conjuring up new, meaningful ideas that transcend ourselves and our limited, moribund definitions of ‘life’. In order to do these things, we must infuse ambiguity with our intrinsic, but often underutilized and stifled, senses of patience, curiosity and creativity. We must invoke multiple possible endings to our stories, not just one. Or simply leave our story’s conclusion unfinished for now— then remain open to the many exciting possibilities the future might provide.

We can never eliminate life’s many inherent ambiguities. Doing so is unrealistic. Instead, we must grow bigger around uncertain spaces. Growing bigger and stronger feels like hard work, to be sure. But here’s the good news: we don’t need total certainty or closure to live richly and joyfully. A good life simply requires that we keep creating and refining our stories, especially when things get foggy, unsettled, uncertain, or in-between. Our respective ‘story journeys’ help make sense of an inherently mysterious and open-ended Universe. These journeys empower us to embrace questions that won’t ever be fully clarified on this side of eternity. They strengthen us in finding life’s meaning by continuously seeking new meaning. The act of ‘seeking’ is, in and of itself, ‘finding’ in important ways. In seeking, we won’t always find the answers or the closure we think we want. But happily, we don’t have to. We can discover hope instead. An abundant, lasting hope grounded in greater wisdom… no matter how uncertain the moment may seem. And there’s nothing ambiguous in that!

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