Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Edge of Uncertainty

I’ve been a “Lilies of the Field” kind of guy most of my life and it’s no surprise. I’ve spent a lot of time living on the edge of uncertainty and, at least up until now (it could change tomorrow) the world has rewarded me with its benevolence. Uncertainty is the topic of my next Men’s Group meeting and it’s a good one, because beyond Death and Taxes, it’s the world we all live in. How we respond to it, whether we lean toward escape or protection or safety or repression or whether we stride straight into the storm or run toward the roar or sit firmly counting breaths in the midst of the frenetic chaos, makes all the difference in who we become and how we live.


I’ve had at least three practices that helped me make peace with uncertainty, walk by its side, accept its company, seek out its companionship. As follows:


1. Hitchhiking. Did a lot of it in my early 20’s and it was the perfect vehicle for both the pain and pleasure of uncertainty. You just throw yourself at the mercy of the kindness of strangers and roll with whoever stops to pick you up. You can’t make plans, can’t depend on schedules, you learn that there’s nowhere else you have to be or need to be or even want to be (while still aiming to get somewhere) than right here, right now.


2. Teaching Children: Children are the embodiment of uncertainty, as my recent intense time with the grandchildren re-taught me. You never know just how they will respond to a situation and either do they, often caught up in the storm of their own explosive and unpredictable impulses. One of my favorite stories that teachers in my workshops LOVE to hear was when I had my preschool kids skipping, jumping, galloping and running in my music class—and one of them decided to run out the door. With all the rest following. And me chasing them down the hall shouting, “Stop! Come back!” Past the office of the school head who had just hired me a couple of months earlier. I learned A LOT about dealing with uncertainty from experiences like that! (Like remembering to lock the door after the kids came in!)


3. Jazz: The jazz musician starts out in a solo with no idea of precisely how he/she will travel through the chord changes and end up with some sense that the trip is done. All is spontaneous, in-the-moment attention to which note should follow the one just played, how to respond to the fellow musicians, and so on. Quite different from playing the notes that Bach set before you. 


Of course, we’re all somewhat uncomfortable with uncertainty and we all work hard to master the technique, the thinking, the structures that help reduce its size. Our urge toward mastery—in any field— is not a vain attempt to eradicate uncertainty, but to contain it and give us some measure of control. But if there’s no room for at least a slice of uncertainty, if we try to beat it into submission and make it follow our every command, we will have lost the great pleasure of serendipity and surprise. Driving my car with the perfect route given by Waze, with estimated time of arrival and reservations at the lunch spot has its place, but at the end, there are no stories to tell the grandchildren about the 9 hours spent in the hot Nevada sun waiting for a ride and what happened when I finally got one. Teaching without space for children’s unpredictability to come into the class with them would make things smoother, but I would miss the quirky insight or spontaneous dance or remarkable xylophone solo. And jazz without uncertainty? Well, it just wouldn’t be jazz.


Finally, amidst all our efforts to reduce risks, play it safe, put on seat belts, wear bike helmets, go out with our masks, life by its very definition is uncertain. Naturally we go to bed each night “as if” we will wake up the next morning, cross the street “as if” we won’t be hit by the bus, start a relationship “as if” that person will forever love us— it would be intolerable to live in the constant knowledge of how fragile our lives really are. But equally intolerable to hide and shrink from it all.


And so a good topic for our time, when that uncertainty always just below the surface is more palpable in the form of the corona virus, climate change and its fires, hurricanes and more, schools and businesses closed or crippled with no idea of when they can re-open, musicians and athletes alone in their rooms where once there were cheering crowds, the upcoming election. It’s in our face big time. And so a good time to reflect on what it means and how we deal with it. We have turned toward September and the Fall is before us.


Whatever your strategy, do take time to marvel at the lilies of the field. Or the dahlia garden like the one I passed today. Amidst it all, the flowers still bloom.


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