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Sabbatical Lessons: Living with Uncertainty

By October 24, 2013 One Comment

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my sabbatical last year. I’ve been taking time to mine the deeper lessons of a year dedicated to reading, research, and rest, which turned into year of loss and significant vocational change. Two weeks ago, I wrote about learning to accept impermanence—the transitoriness of our work and accomplishments—and the call to enjoy whatever God has given us to do in the moment. Today I turn to a close companion of impermanence: uncertainty.

Uncertainty became the order of the day, so to speak, in the unfolding financial crisis at my institution. Questions abounded for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. (Let me be clear: the question was never, “Will the school survive?” But rather, “How will it weather this storm? What changes will be made? What will the school look like in a year, five years, ten years? How will leaders tend the ongoing anxiety, grief, and loss in the system?”) For me, the questions had to do with whether or how substantial portions of my work would continue; whether or not I was being called to a new teaching post; how a geographical move away from family and a beloved neighborhood would impact my life; etc. I have lived with these and similar questions, some with greater existential import, for the past ten months. It’s often felt a lot like wandering in the dark.

It’s interesting that uncertainty’s questions (like the ones I just mentioned) are oriented toward the future. They emerge when the future we imagined (including the very near future, as in the next day) dissipates before our eyes like a mirage in the desert. Uncertainty elicits vulnerability and insecurity, which we often seek to escape through endless analysis of future possibilities and possible action steps. In other words, we try to see what we cannot see; we try to control what we cannot control.

In the midst of getting caught up in uncertainty’s questions, a wise person in my life repeatedly and gently encouraged me to live in the moment, to focus on today, to make decisions related to the needs of the present. This is what Interpersonal Neurobiology (cf. Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind) refers to as “temporal integration”—one of nine dimensions of integration fundamental to human wellbeing. Without getting too technical, temporal integration enables us to acknowledge our longings for certainty and permanence while accepting the realities of human finitude, specifically uncertainty, impermanence, ambiguity, and death. Temporal integration enables us to live fully and receptively, with openness and hope. We accept our finitude without drowning in anxiety or being driven by the illusion of control.

Of course, scripture knows something of living with uncertainty, too. Moses and the Israelites lived with uncertainty and (unlike many of us who are privileged in so many ways) the threat of physical death and destruction on a daily basis, from leaving Egypt to wandering in the desert to facing new perils in a promised land. Part of what they struggled to learn was living day-by-day, trusting God for their provision in the present moment. Manna could not be stored up one day to the next. They didn’t know about Elim, an oasis with springs of water and palm trees, until they arrived there. Moses climbed the mountain in thick darkness, placing one foot in front of him at a time.

We live with uncertainty by finding security in God, moment by moment, in the midst of the unknown; by remembering God’s promises in the midst of feeling disoriented, lost, and frightened; by breathing deeply and practicing centering prayer and meditation in the midst of unfolding events; by dwelling in what is certain, God’s love for us; and even by becoming open and curious, adopting a posture of patient waiting in the midst of tumult. Of course, this is easier said than done, but by God’s grace and the accompaniment of wise friends and mentors, we can learn to live with uncertainty and therefore peace.

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