The courage of not knowing

Not knowing. It’s a painful place to be, especially as we age. Not knowing whether to retire. To move. The cause of an illness. Whether we will have enough money to survive. What to do with the rest of the days we are given.uncertainty

The space of “not knowing” is uncomfortable. We want certainty, ground under our feet, a neon sign pointing the way, a burning bush.

So what do we do? Here is a story.

A friend of mine in her late 70s worked with the poor and hungry in South America for years until she became ill. She loved her work. But suddenly she started to feel dizzy, tired and not well. She came back to the States where doctors could not find the cause of her illness. Perhaps she had contracted some type of virus or bacteria while working with the indigent and sick.

When I asked her how she was coping with all this, she looked at me with characteristic gentleness and said, “This time is a gift.”

I asked her how this could be. After all, the rug had been pulled out from under her feet. Mission work had been her life and her passion. How could she call this loss a gift?

“Don’t misunderstand,” she said. “Of course, this is hard, not knowing what is causing this. But my time with this illness is teaching me more about myself, about patience and being more loving. It is helping me to be compassionate and I am learning to let go and to trust.”

I was humbled. And I also understood the core of the lesson in “not knowing.” It was about trust. We had to trust that somehow the “not knowing” eventually would yield what we had to know. And we had to trust in the process of “doing nothing” for in truth sometimes there was nothing we could do.

The teaching was about letting go into this sacred space like a free fall and knowing that at some point we would land on our feet. And in our hearts. Safe. No matter what.sister-diving-into-the-unknown

It was about trusting our Higher Power, the Divine and our inner resources to always guide us to the place we most needed to be and to what we most needed to know – if we accepted and trusted.

If I am honest, I still struggle with uncertainty. But the times I can gently invite the “not knowing” to show me its gifts in moments of stillness, a peace settles on my spirit. By removing the rigidity and blinders, I can then see an infinite range of possibilities. And then I can be curious about them and accept them simply as they are.

I am reminded of Joseph Campbell who said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” For many of us, this will be painful. But that pain can open up our souls, as it did my missionary friend’s, to deeper compassion. To deeper trust and love.

The “not knowing” then becomes a gift. We can relax, knowing as God told English mystic Julian of Norwich that “All shall be well and all shall be well.” And it is.

 

Chrysalis

Here is another story. A few years ago, I was in a sad place. I went to the ocean to find peace and stillness — and answers for my life. But no clarity came. Rarely do I receive a burning bush. What I did find, however, was an assurance that in the midst of sorrow, some divine presence was always at work, always pushing past the pain and sorrows of life to offer hope. The words of Juliana of Norwich, a mystic from the Middle Ages, seemed to whisper that while I was mired in the smaller details of “what next” and planning my life, a loving energy was viewing the bigger picture and comforting, “All is well and all manner of things shall be well.” Here is the story I wrote about that experience.

*****

butterflyI walk to the dunes by tall reeds, taking in the expanse of ocean before me. The beach is bereft in autumn except for a lone fisherman on one of the stone jetties. I inhale, the smell of salt air and fish stinging my lungs.

I breathe again realizing how staccato and shallow this process has been for me lately, how I’ve not been taking life in. A butterfly snags the edge of my vision. Then I see another and another. They flit in and out of the thickets of reeds as if stitching them together.

Removing my shoes, I slide my feet into the cool sand. Late afternoon shadows bruise the sky as I walk along the shoreline laced with foam. I huddle against the chill. The seagulls, too, brace against the wind. They step on tentative legs toward the waves, waiting for a meal.

They are patient. I am not and have never been good at waiting, yet that seems to be what I have been doing all my life. Waiting for someone to share my life’s journey, for my writing career to find a home, for a calling that gives me meaning and financial support.

Beyond the externals, though, what is it I really seek? This is the question that reverberates in my mind in the early hours of morning, that chants like a litany through the still of the night. What truly is of worth in life?

A friend tells me that I am in “bifurcation.” The word literally means “a fork in the road,” a point in one’s life where an old life is ending and a new one is beginning. It is the scientific process of the caterpillar — of chrysalis.

I take a few more steps when a movement ahead distracts me. On the bleached sand sits a dab of brown and yellow. It is a butterfly, stranded on its side and dangerously close to the waves. It is injured, lifting one wing, then dropping it.

I move it to safety, up toward the dunes. The butterfly is hurt and needs to be still. Somehow it knows instinctively what needs to happen for it to heal. I sit and watch it struggling, a sob catching in my throat. I begin to weep for its pain and for all the suffering in the world.

I finally stand and with one foot I draw a circle in the sand around the butterfly. I want it to be protected, whether it ever flies again or not. Before I leave, I whisper a prayer for its healing and for all the brokenness on the earth.

I walk a few steps and then stop to look back. The circle is empty. Somewhere in the wind, my heart is soaring.

 

 

Welcome!

Everyone loves a good story. In the beginning. Once upon a time. They lived happily ever after. Life is about stories. I write them, whether they’re in magazines or books. I hope to bring stories to life, give them flesh, meaning and depth. So thanks for visiting my blog, where I hope to touch the heart of all stories. Welcome. I’m so glad you stopped in.