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Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains

Living With Uncertainty

Posted by Naomi Litrownik, LICSW

It was a late, sunny, summer Sunday afternoon in 1965, when the phone rang. Being home alone, I picked it up and heard the familiar voice on the other end of the line. “Naomi, Joan died suddenly this afternoon. Please tell your mother when she gets home.”

Joan, a young mother of three, my mother’s best friend, was gone; and I had to break the news to my mother. I went outside, sat on the front steps and gazed out at my neighborhood. The neighbors were sitting, talking, and laughing together. Children were on bikes, or rollerskates. Life seemed to be going along just fine, as usual. I thought, “How could this be? How could they just go on as if nothing had happened? Don’t they know everything has changed?”

Several decades later, I think back to that time when I thought that life had a certain predictability. Days, weeks and years passed by without too much changing other than I was growing older, passing from fifth grade to sixth to seventh. This was life as I knew it. Much later, I became aware of how fortunate I was to not have that surety about life explode until I was eleven or twelve.

Something had altered for me that day when I picked up the phone. And it was “Everything can change in a flash”. This was my first lesson of living with uncertainty.

What I have come to appreciate, to learn about and to teach over the past several decades is how to manage this uncertainty. I have been so grateful to my informal and formal teachers over the years: the elderly patients I have counseled who have awed me with their resilience in the face of many losses; the younger patients whose grit prevail when all else fails; the folks who get up over and over again and rebuild their lives when they’ve been knocked down by natural disasters, traumas and crises. This continuous and lifelong learning has served me well as I, myself, have had to manage the many uncertainties of my own life, as well as the life of my family, friends, and community. We all know about how life sometimes, as my late mother would say, “throws us a curve ball”, which may be something far outside our reach, something we did not ask to be thrown to us, and/or something we are frightened of catching.

As I have navigated these many decades of uncertainty, Mindfulness and Mindfulness Meditation have been key to this learning. Being in the moment without judgment and with compassion, the definition of Mindfulness, allows one to be awake to what is, rather than to jump forward to “what if” and backwards to “if only”. It allows one to notice how tightly we grasp on to what is, and how afraid we are to let go. It allows one to notice how fervently we often wish thngs would change. Uncertainty is a fact of life; everything is changing inside and outside of each of us in every moment. This cannot be stopped, not matter how much we resist change. No matter how hard we try to stop change, no matter how hard we hold on to what seems permanent, no matter how much we need to control the situation, every-thing and every-body does change.

Here are steps to Living with Uncertainty:

  1. Being aware of how frightening it is to acknowledge the limits of your control

  2. Allowing yourself to recognize when that fear takes the shape of anger, disappointment, frustration or despair.

  3. Bringing compassion to yourself for having these intense thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.

  4. Understanding that the Energy of this intensity can be transformed into the energy of healing.

  5. Bringing the breath, the balance of inhalation and exhalation, the natural flow of your breath, to your awareness. Breathing in and out slowly, mindfully, lovingly. Saying statements of compassion and loving kindness to yourself.

  6. Letting go of whatever does not serve you.

Pema Chodron, meditation master and teacher, wrote the following in her book, “When Things Fall Apart”: “The spiritual journey involves going beyond hope and fear, stepping into unknown territory, continually moving forward…. (into) the path of compassion—the path of cultivating human bravery and kindheartedness.”

As a youngster, I was rocked by the loss of my mother’s best friend. When my mother returned home, I told her the news and waited with uncertainty for what would happen next. She cried, made dinner and life went on. But I was changed forever. I had begun my journey of living with uncertainty.