Updated: Aug 26, 2020
A few short months ago, I used to think that uncertainty was one of the most unpleasant feelings. Of course I did. My brain – via my fingertips -– had become accustomed to the immediate gratification of answers. Answers about what weather to expect for the week. Answers about what to make for dinner with the seemingly unmarriable ingredients left in my fridge.
Answers for more profound or intellectual questions, too, I swear.
Endless online information had cushioned me so that I conflated having a lot of answers with certainty and security. Add to that, there weren’t a lot of life events that had ruptured my bubble in the domain of uncertainty until…
March 2020. The Global Pandemic comes to town.
You know. You were there. We all got hit. You’re probably tired of reading about it. There are still so many unknowns. Such an onslaught of information, advice, protocol changes, and unanswered questions. Everyone’s lives and futures have been affected in some way or another. But while Covid-19 was giving us all a crash course in Uncertainty 101, life events fast-tracked me to an expert level before I was ready.
What are my credentials?
I earned a PhD in Uncertainty in April, 2020 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and then went through the battery of subsequent testing to try to figure out if it had spread. Alas, after an agonizing month, two scans confirmed the very high likelihood that the cancer has metastasized to my lungs, and thus I am considered Stage IV.
I’m now in the middle of my Postdoc in Uncertainty, having recently completed 3 months of chemo. While I write this, I have an MRI tonight and a PET scan in 3 days. These tests will tell me whether I’m on the luckier end of the still-incurable-disease spectrum, or on the side with bleaker odds. I also just found out that I'm booked for a mastectomy in 9 days. There was no other information than the booking itself – a surgery that won’t happen if the results of my scans come back a certain way. I am very cognizant that surgery or not, with an incurable disease, there’s absolutely nothing certain about my future.
So when friends ask me how I’m coping with the anticipation of test results and possible surgery, I feel oddly accomplished when I tell them I’m pretty unfazed. Before cancer, this much uncertainty would have paralyzed me. I’d have outsourced the kids to someone so I could pull the curtains and hold my breath under my covers all day. But today was like any other day. I played with the kids, went for walks, and did some laundry, all without thinking too hard about next week. In fact, when I think about the scans, I think about getting out of the house by myself, for an MRI “spa day”: the rare luxury of someone telling a mom of two under 4: “You need to try to lie here, perfectly still for about 45 minutes.”
Are you serious?... Yes please?
I’m losing patience with being fearful. My tolerance for my own anxiety is waning. I’m over needing answers now. It appears I can’t have them. Haven’t been able to for months now. So I’ve learned, out of mental necessity, how to sit tranquilly on the other side of a question mark. It’s not quite as easy as Que Sera Sera – It’s not like I’ve given up hope or that the scan results, if bad, won’t profoundly affect me and my family. But I have somehow found a new and unexpected mellow and gained insights, so new and liberating to me that I’ve been more perturbed by not writing them down and sharing them than by the prospect of bleak test results.
Perhaps this is just a phase and I will be a hot mess by the weekend, weeping into my keyboard as I write an article entitled “THERE’S NO HOPE” and undermining all the cancer sagacity I’ve built up here.
Always a possibility.
But hear me out.
I’m coming to understand that living with uncertainty is not about learning coping mechanisms, as I thought would be the case when I was first diagnosed. Adages like “Don’t think too far ahead,” and “Live for today” only served to demoralize me as I stared into a pit of platitudes that I never thought would apply to me.
No. I needed to hang on to something more universally applicable – something that made me feel like I’m still one of you, and not in that margin of diseased people (no offense to my comrades) learning strategies to cope with doom and gloom.
That universal reality, simply put, is that certainty is an illusion. I haven’t lost my future with Stage IV cancer; I’ve only realized I never had nearly as much control over it as I’d previously thought. Nothing about any of our lives is certain. It never was and it never will be. Not yours. Not mine. I might be the one wearing the scarlet C with my bald, chemo-affected head, but this uncertainty I live with is actually no different from yours, with your full head of lustrous hair.
Your beautiful, long eyelashes.
Certainty doesn’t exist. Here, I’m not talking about mathematical or scientific, valid and reliable, evidence-based facts. I’m not even coming after your religious or faith-based beliefs. I’m specifically referring to the false sense of assuredness we have about our lives. You know the death bed fantasy:
You’re hundreds of years old, surrounded by family, lying on a shrine-like bed fit for royalty, agreeably taking your last breath and totally satisfied that you’ve fulfilled every obligation and lived every moment.
But you don’t know your tomorrow, just like I don’t know my next year. We’re either pretending we know, or forgetting we don’t know as we get wrapped up in the mundane routines of our daily lives. Either way, certainty is a type of complacency that leads us to take things for granted. Those who have lost people in a flash know this. Uncertainty wakes us up to a different kind of day – a day that puts the emphasis on the fact that we get to wake up at all. It has put me back in my place, reminding me that I’m not entitled to anything in this life. Not even being part of my kids' futures.
When I was first diagnosed, and when the extent of my diagnosis became more dire, I felt like I was being banished, in a way, to that unknown territory of society relegated to sick people who spend their time trying not to die. This insensitive imagery comes, no doubt, from the years I had been feeling invincible in my good health; cancer was so far off my radar that I couldn’t begin to comprehend it. But since my diagnosis, in talking to others who’ve been afflicted by cancer or other unimaginable things, I’ve realized that even with Stage IV cancer, I am still living the same uncertain fate as everyone else– that nothing is certain- not even a statistical death sentence. That there are no certainties – for anyone - is reassuring for me because it weaves me back into the fabric of the shared human experience, and it helps me feel connected again to a world I might have otherwise felt is moving on without me.
Before you think I’m just the misery-loves-company type, let me try to sell you “Uncertainty for the non-cancerous Everyman.”
Imagine if certainty were stigmatized for its seductive effect, and in its stead, uncertainty became more broadly accepted – embraced even? – as the default perspective. Imagine if we adopted uncertainty as the lens through which we viewed our lives. Imagine if it were the lens through which we viewed the lives of others.
The first step to normalizing, if not embracing, uncertainty would be to dismantle the idea that it’s so bad. Why does uncertainty come with so much baggage? Maybe for the same reasons “I don’t know” can sometimes feel disappointing, uncomfortable or embarrassing. In our information age, we’re expected to know, to have meticulous plans, and to be on a specific path. But someone who starts to view their life – the gift of their every breath - as uncertain, might change those plans into intentions, and find more satisfaction in spaces between their goals. Our egos and anxieties so often get enmeshed with who we’ll become, and uncertainty brings the focus back to who we are now. This can’t be such a bad thing. Finally, uncertainty is good pals with humility, and we all love humble people. Not knowing forces people to let go of the reins and seek answers or ask for help. There’s a respectful quietude to this. There’s honour and integrity that comes with humility and thus uncertainty.
The Uncertainty Lens When Looking at Our Own Lives
If we celebrate uncertainty as a perspective, then we don’t need tools to cope with it. The dreaded platitudes I mentioned earlier are actually valid maxims, and they stem from an uncertain vantage point. By its very nature, admitting uncertainty will humble us, make us more appreciative, more scrupulous, more discerning with our time, energy and priorities, more values-driven and less promotion driven. More present. A daily dose of “nothing is certain in this life” begets a grateful attitude and a relish for the day, a means and not an ends lifestyle.
Uncertainty characterizes all of us. All the time. I’ve also learned that what haunts me isn’t necessarily the not knowing part; like many, what haunts me is not meeting expectations I’d had for my life when things didn’t go as planned. Uncertainty might have prevented that disappointment in the first place, had I acknowledged that nothing is a given when I’d set those expectations. Uncertainty shifts the focus from those plans to the quality of living between those plans, or scans, or surgeries. In my own life, I don’t know if I will make my children’s kindergarten or college graduation, neither or both. The expectations of the time I have with them will not be about their accomplishments, or mine; it will be about the quality of our time together. I wonder if the quality would have been such a focus without uncertainty.
The Uncertainty Lens When Interacting With Others
With Covid, wars, climate change, and divisive partisan politics, the vice grip is tightening on our social interactions. If we adopt uncertainty as a way to interact with others, we ask questions instead of shout opinions. We step forward with empathy. We become humbled by the vast experiences, unreplicable circumstances, untold intricacies and infinite complexities that make up one human being and his or her identity. And we become kinder, more tolerant, more educated people. Imagine what we could each bring to the table if we approached each other with utter humility and a total lack of certainty about someone’s entire life. Imagine the respect we’d be shown if other people consistently acknowledged the breadth, but made no assumptions about the full gamut, of our own identities. How many stereotypes and how much prejudice would people continue to suffer if no one felt certain about others’ motives, intentions, choices, morals, upbringing, culture, etc. Uncertainty in meeting someone is: “I don’t presume to know anything about you, but I acknowledge that your identity is a confluence of millions of factors that one interaction will never shed light on.”
More and more I believe that both true wisdom, and true empathy for others are found in the humility of uncertainty – of leaving room for there to be more. Of constantly reminding ourselves how uncertain we are and how much we don't know. Uncertainty begs questions and honours time. It is not timid, but graceful. It’s like that person we all know who doesn’t say much but whose words, when uttered, quiet a room.
A daily “We’re all living with uncertainty,” might sound ominous, but repeated enough over time, it could very well rewire one’s thinking to value the integrity of the statement over the delusion of its counterpart lie. Ultimately, uncertainty can make better humans of us.
I share a few insights here, hopefully non-patronizingly, from a place of compassion, with no presumption about what my readers may already know or not know about uncertainty. I share what I’m in the midst of learning as a humble offering, with the caveat that I have only just found my voice and my pen because with Stage IV cancer, I now understand that my pipe dream of writing and authorship “one day” needs to start right now. I’m motivated by uncertainty. Finally, what I share here is incomplete. It’s a tiny piece of The Whole. I’m wholly uncertain, and whether I die in 2 years or in 70 years, there’s always more to learn.