It’s an early, overcast mid-October morning. I’m about to go for a walk around the neighbourhood. Before I leave home, I stand on the porch for a minute to feel the air and see how cold it is. It feels quite cold, so I put on a couple of layers of jackets.
About 10 minutes into the walk, I realize that I’m overdressed. It’s not as cold as I thought it might be. I see people jogging in shorts and wearing sunglasses, portending a warm, sunny day coming up.
I didn’t know what the weather was going to be like today. I stopped looking at weather forecasts three months ago. Prior to that, checking the daily weather forecast was one of the first things I used to do on the phone in the morning.
I’d plan the day, as much as possible, keeping the weather in mind: If it was overcast, but the clouds were forecasted to be clearing up in an hour, I would wear a single layer of jacket. If it was going to rain, I’d put on a fleece jacket with a raincoat. If it was going to be sunny, I’d have on shorts. If it was going to be raining in the afternoon, I’d do the outdoor yard work prior to that. Rain tomorrow and a meetup planned with friends? I’d text them asking if they can meet today.
Not anymore. My weather forecast app, now, is how cold my body feels on the front porch. Is it going to rain? I don’t know. I look out the window to see if it’s raining now. Do the leaves look wet? Are the clouds dark grey, or lighter-hued? If it’s not raining but seems like it might, I put on a raincoat. It might start raining in the middle of the walk and I’d feel grateful for having the raincoat. It might clear up and be sunny, and I’d feel annoyed at being overly warm. It might start off sunny and I wouldn’t have the raincoat on, and then, unexpectedly, it’d start pouring and I’d be cursing and wishing I had checked the forecast.
Either way, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
Uncertainty: An unwelcome houseguest
Uncertainty is a guest that I’ve seldom wanted to let in the home, let alone spend time with. I’d always make sure the windows were closed, the front door was locked and the backyard door was closed. Yet, I don’t know how, but it often managed to sneak in and make itself at home.
“Leave me alone! I have enough to cope with anyway,” I’d plead.
“You don’t have a choice,” it’d reply, as it settled on the couch.
I wanted to know as much as possible about as many things as possible, in advance, and having uncertainty in the home was akin to it being dark outside and all the lights being turned off.
Sure, sometimes we do need to know things in advance, practical tips that can make our lives more ‘efficient.’ Knowing what the weather’s going to be like over the coming weekend would help me plan where to go for a hike, since driving two hours to get to a trailhead in the wilderness when it’s raining and windy may not be pleasant or safe, and perhaps it might be better to postpone the hike to a later weekend.
Knowing that there’s a traffic jam on the way downtown would make me postpone my visit for a few hours, and instead, I’d rather clean my home than be stuck in traffic.
And of course, there’s the element of safety: The fact that there’s a thunderstorm coming up is a good thing to know in advance if you’re planning on backpacking in slot canyons.
Spontaneity getting lost and ignored
But there’s an element of spontaneity, of being grounded in the present moment, of foregoing the present for the future, that gets lost or ignored when I try to distance myself from uncertainty and put on the mask of wanting to know as much as possible about the future.
I remember those early autumn afternoons from last year, when the weather was forecasted to be sunny and warm for the next several days. After wrapping up work, instead of relaxing in the backyard and enjoying the waning days of warmth and sun, I’d choose to do other stuff on the computer or do indoor house tasks. After all, it was going to be sunny tomorrow, so I would do the relaxing then.
But tomorrow would be the same: It’d be sunny the day after, so I’d just keep postponing it. And before I knew it, it was mid-October, and sunshine was as sparse as the leaves on the maple trees.
I could look back years into my life and find numerous instances when I sacrificed the present because the future seemed to promise something better, or just as good as the present. Yet, things didn’t always turn out the way it was promised, and in hindsight, I often harboured regrets for selling the present moment to a bidder whom I perhaps shouldn’t have trusted as much as I did.
I’ve been having chest and abdominal pain for the past three months, for seemingly no apparent reason. Over the course of these months, I’ve had several doctor visits and various types of lab tests, including a CT scan. I got the results from the CT scan, but it was going to be a while before I could review them with the doctor.
So there I was, sitting in my car parked outside the imaging place, reading the scan results and trying to interpret what they might mean. The radiologist’s notes said that I had a rare form of hernia that may or may not be the cause of the problem. They also mentioned the possibility of hyperthyroidism, but they didn’t say what role it might play in the symptoms. None of these were things I was familiar with, and so, of course, since I couldn’t yet talk to the real doctor, I started Googling stuff.
A few tense minutes later, I put the phone away and just closed my eyes. Uncertainty was now sitting on top of me—not just next to me or in the backseat, but right on top of me: What treatment options should I pursue? When will I get an appointment with the doctor to review it? What other doctors should I consult? How can I confirm if this is indeed what’s causing the problem? How long does it take to recover from this type of thing?
It was raining outside, so I was glad to be inside my car. Even though it was water, I felt like it was uncertainty and fear dripping from the sky. Of course, my immediate reaction was to do whatever I could to shove the drops away—Googling symptoms, calling the doctor’s office to see if I could get an earlier appointment—but I realized I had no control over how long the clouds would linger and how much uncertainty they carried within them. All I could do, in that moment, was just sit in the car with the uncertainty and let the clouds do what they were going to do.
The poet Mary Oliver’s instructions
There’s also the aspect of following Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life: pay attention and be astonished.
I could look at the forecast—cloudy with a slight chance of rain—and make decisions based on that. Had I done that, though, I likely wouldn’t have noticed the small patch of hardwood floor in the corner of the bedroom that was a tad more yellowish than the rest of the floor: It was the sun meekly peeking out through the clouds.
I wouldn’t have noticed that there was a little odd guy up there in the sky, a misfit: a tiny, transient patch of blue amid all the greyness, hinting that it might be a sunny day. Or not. I could be wrong; either way, it was beautiful to just be present with that quiet moment.
Not knowing what the weather’s going to be like forces me to pay attention to what’s around me. I may not always be astonished, but just the act of forcing myself to find alternative ways to communicate with my environment builds a stronger connection with the present moment—a connection that I never would have initiated, had I looked at the weather on my phone and decided to stay in/go out.
After all, there’s a unique kind of joy in unexpectedly watching the clouds clear up and the sun shine through the October skies, transforming what was a seemingly blah autumn morning into a rejuvenating, bright, warm day.
There’s a quiet sanctity in watching the multi-coloured autumn leaves blowing wildly in the wind and then suddenly stopping, as if the conductor wrapped up the orchestra, and then deciding that it’s OK to go outside for a walk because it likely won’t be windy anymore. And if the wind does return, well, that’s life, and I need to get comfortable with the discomfort of change.
Living with my unrelenting friend
Choosing not to look at the weather forecast and instead, attempting to live in the present moment—whether it’s sunny and warm or windy and rainy—is the first step I want to take in the direction of being comfortable with uncertainty sitting so close to me. It’s not easy, nor is it always pleasant. But besides embracing it, what options do I have with a stubborn, unrelenting friend like uncertainty?
As a bonus, paying attention to the present moment might give me an unexpected gift of astonishment. The clouds could clear up and the sun might shine through. Or, it may not, and it may start raining.
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