When I sit down to write an article for Raptitude, I always try to pick a topic that I can resonate with at that particular time. I’ve got a folder full of great ideas for posts. At any given time, I’m only in the right headspace to write something decent about maybe ten percent of them. The topic has to match how I feel or else it’s just talk.
I’m in a difficult place at the moment, and so most of my thoughts are about a particular type of difficulty. My lease is up at the end of this month so I have to be out, and I’m having trouble finding a new place to live. I can’t sign a new lease because I’ll be gone traveling this fall. I’m scrambling to find a decent home within my budget in a decent neighborhood. I don’t know what will happen, where I will go, only that I can’t remain where I am.
Things will work out I’m sure, but there is an ever-present sense of uncertainty, all night and all day.
I’ve often complained about the place I live in now. The scummy, stapled-on vinyl baseboards, the nicotine-stained linoleum floor and the worn-out carpet have often had me aching for something better.
But as I’m sitting here now, it’s looking more and more beautiful and welcoming.
It’s full of my things, just the way I like them. My music is playing, my coffee is brewing.
This is my home.
And in three weeks some strange girl will be living in it, stocking my cupboards with her foreign groceries and inviting her weird friends into my living room. She’ll be flicking on lightbulbs I replaced, and drawing the blinds hung by my now-deceased father.
It is an unsettling feeling to know that she has every right to do that, because in a very cold and businesslike moment last month, I signed and handed in a form that willingly terminated my tenancy. This tiny act was a scheduled part of my plan to unhook my standing commitments and leave for New Zealand unfettered. It had to be done.
But I did not realize until now that in that simple transaction, I had unceremoniously surrendered my home, as if it were just another item on my to-do list to be crossed off and put behind me.
Now that I’ve signed it away, I’m starting to realize how lucky I really was. A safe and comfortable home. A luxury bed, a fridgeful of food, air conditioning, furniture that actually matches, running water, flushing toilet — a roachless and rodentless haven. Many people, locally and abroad, struggle for just a chance at such a stable and secure home. Some people have never had one.
To have 500 square feet of secured space, dedicated to one’s own personal comforts and pursuits, protected by dependable locks and laws, is an incredible luxury that most of history’s human beings would have done anything for.
Tonight, after a nervewracking day of unreturned calls and dying leads, I’m finally beginning to appreciate how wonderful it is to be sitting in here tonight. I’m warm, dry and safe. If there is anything worth remembering it’s this: as long as you’re warm, dry and safe, things can’t be too bad.
Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in grasping at the upper stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that we lose sight of the fact that most of what we modern human beings fret over is just the icing on the cake. It’s too easy to take food, water and shelter for granted, because most of us have seldom been without them for long. But when the source of one of them is threatened, and you don’t even have that sturdy bottom layer to stand on anymore, then it’s all you can think about.
Uncertainty is not allowed
to sit with me these days.
I shoo him from the table,
but then I hear him
pacing in the hallway.
-D. Cain, c. 2008
It’s tempting to want to eliminate the stress of need by settling on something, even of it’s only tolerable or temporary. This week I almost settled on a living situation that I knew wasn’t right for me, just to kill the feeling of uncertainty that invariably comes with not knowing where one’s home will be next month. Settling like that has always been a weakness of mine, and I’ve done it in so many ways, from taking the first job I get offered, to going out with the first girl who asks me, to picking the first ice cream flavor I don’t hate so that nobody is tapping their foot waiting for me.
During junior high, I began to opt out of any form of competition, in sports and academics, because I noticed I felt very little stress when I already knew the reward wasn’t coming my way. I left scholarships uncontested, even if I had a better shot than anyone. I just always wanted to obliterate uncertainty as soon as possible. When faced with a tough decision, I’d rather settle for something with predictable consequences and start dealing with them immediately, than choose something unknown and continue to worry about what the consequences could be.
This time around, I’ve surprised myself with my ability to stay level headed, even as I advance further towards my deadline. I’m starting to see this ordeal as a lesson in one of the greatest life skills of all: how to get comfortable not knowing.
The sensation of urgency, like I’ve been feeling this last few weeks, seems to tell the mind and body that something is just plain wrong, and it is not okay to relax until it’s resolved. It feels like you’re sinking, and it’s positively imperative to scramble to the next patch of firm ground, whatever direction it may be in. Once you get there, you can let yourself breathe. Ahh. And life is good again.
There are two clear problems with this.
The first is that no ground is firm for long. No lease lasts forever, no set of conditions stays the same forever. By the very nature of the universe, one’s situation cannot not change. Stability and security are ultimately illusions; to ‘reach’ either one is only to achieve that temporary high of relief, but you can never actually capture and own ‘relief.’ It’s just a passing feeling. You don’t have to be a Buddhist master to understand that permanence doesn’t exist on this earth, and to depend on any form of it is to invite suffering into your life.
The second problem is this: when you’re constantly moving towards some kind of firm ground — whether it’s the nearest tolerable apartment, the nearest tolerable job, or the nearest tolerable significant other — you don’t know what direction it’s going be in. The most visible or accessible patch of safe ground could be off to the side or even behind you. If it happens to be in the direction you wanted to go anyway, that’s only a coincidence. A lifetime of this strategy results in a path that only goes in aimless circles or spirals.
I used to navigate life primarily by that compass: where is the closest safe spot? I would hold my breath until I got there, and often it was unbearable until I did. And then I’d just be somewhere else — more comfortable than where I was, but not necessarily anywhere better.
In fact, it’s quite disturbing to take a mental inventory of where that ‘settling reflex’ has steered my life. It’s the reason I spent three years and ten thousand dollars learning computer programming when I didn’t really want to do it for a living. It’s the reason behind every single day I’ve spent working in careers that don’t inspire me. It’s the reason I spent untold thousands of hours watching TV shows and conquering video games, rather than investing that time in something that would have paid off. It’s the reason I’m only getting my proverbial sh*t together now, and not ten years ago.
Sitting Down With Uncertainty
I’m discovering that it is possible to sit with uncertainty. It’s a skill like anything else: to let that feeling of incompleteness just be there and do its thing, without scrambling towards a remedy. It’s no different than just letting the raindrops hit you and cool you without giving in to the urge to run for cover.
Uncertainty seems to only manifest itself as two things: recurring worrisome thoughts, and a certain tension in the abdomen. Certainly it’s not a preferable state, but that doesn’t make it unbearable. Uncertainty really doesn’t have any reality other than those two things, and if you can let both of them just happen without sounding the alarm bells, you might see that there’s no emergency at all.
Remind yourself that the issue in question is going to pop up in your head on a regular basis, and that will probably cause some tightness in the solar plexus. No big deal. This is all just the way the human machine works. There’s no need to force a stop to it. To panic and grasp at the nearest identifiable antidote is only going to crank up the urgency level and cause you to settle for an incomplete or inappropriate solution. Worrisome thoughts can snowball like nobody’s business if you let them. Calm, deliberate action will put an end to uncertainty in good time, without compromising your options or your mood.
So next time you make a decision, interrogate yourself to make sure that you are doing it because it is indeed a better choice for you, and not just because it’s the nearest patch of safe ground. Is your career honestly a good fit for you, or is it merely comfortable enough not to spur you into action? Is your relationship honestly headed somewhere you want to be, or is it just scary to think about moving on? Is there anything you think you should bring up with your boss, your kids, or your spouse that you feel safer avoiding?
If your choice leads you through a period where you just don’t know what will happen, see if you can politely let uncertainty sit down with you. Despite its bad reputation, you never know what it might bring to the table.