Life

To Live is To Be Uncertain

When everything is going your way, it’s easy to feel good. To feel like you’re in control, right where you want to be, completely satisfied with your life. To feel able to help others, to feel able to help yourself, to feel comfortable and certain about things. And so it’s really attractive for us to think that the solution to eternal happiness and well-being lies in continually and eternally having things go our way.

And to the extent you can do that, do. It’d be foolish to be able to make things go as you’d like them to and intentionally choose against that. To intentionally choose the less-certain, less-clear, less-happy path. It’d be almost masochistic, a form of intentional self-harm.

But there is another thing: sometimes you don’t really get a choice. Sometimes the wills of others, or forces completely beyond human control, will overwhelm you. Sometimes a hurricane will be bearing down on the city you’ve called home for 40 years. Sometimes a militia will have gathered size and force outside your village with clear intent to do you and your village harm. Sometimes an out-of-control vehicle will crash into you or the people you love. Sometimes you’ll just get sick. Or laid off. Or see your parents die from old age.

That is all to say: sometimes things will change on you. Unexpectedly. Sometimes things will be different than you want them to be. And you can no more change that than cheat death.  The real measure of your outlook is how it changes when things turn against you. Does a cloud arriving in a previously cloudless sky ruin your day? Week? Life?

It’s not easy to get comfortable with uncertainty. I wouldn’t claim to be. It’s unnerving to know that things may break against you. To know that you’re less secure in your world than you used to be. But it is the ultimate goal. The highest development. To be a mature adult is to be comfortable and patient with uncertainty. To accept the many shades of grey, and to keep working despite them. To remain in control when things seems to have gone a bit out of control.

It’s really the ultimate measure of life. How do we deal with the fact that it can never be perfect? Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods”, saying it better than I feel able to, ends:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

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Communication

Talking About the Weather to Gain Trust

When I think back on the things that I believed as a self-assured young twenty-something, one of the more glaringly dumb ideas that comes to mind was my distaste for “small talk.” I even wrote an essay on this site pretty clearly (and aggressively) elaborating my reasons. Surely, there was some merit to it — even today I can find constant discussion of the weather, sporting events, or other recent news, kind of dull — but it was blind to a whole other facet of reality.

When I most enjoy a conversation, it’s when we’ve moved beyond the superficial and safe topics. It’s when we’re talking deeply about some topic that people don’t talk about much for fear that it exposes too much of themselves. Some of my most cherished conversations were ones about dealing with overwhelm, fear, or other traditionally protected topics.

Where my 21-year-old self was woefully stupid is that I thought it was either possible or desirable to just drop into a conversation with a stranger and expect to talk about something as deep as their spirituality or their highest aspirations for their time on Earth.

Most people are, understandably, protected and a bit apprehensive to dive in deeply very quickly. Time has taught them that they can’t and shouldn’t just trust every stranger with their deepest hopes and fears. This is a rational and understandable protection strategy. And even as I frequently pined for a world free of small-talk, I engaged in this very protection strategy. I just didn’t understand this logic of protection.

To disclose their deepest secrets to someone, anyone with a self-preservation instinct will want some assurance of safety. And for most people, trust that they understand a person, their drives, and motives is that assurance. And without some history of interacting with someone and having good outcomes result, people are unlikely to touch any topic that has a reasonable probability of leading to a bad outcome.

You disagree with someone about the weather and you laugh. You disagree with someone about politics, or the existence of God, or the fundamental purpose of life, and you may well want to strap in your seatbelt for an explosion. That — not stupidity, nor malice, nor vanity — is why many conversations are constrained to safe and dull topics.

Now I get that. And I’m getting better at, “Hello, stranger. Nice day isn’t it?”

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