Living with uncertainty

Earlier this week I went to my doctor to have my moles checked out. It had been three years since a doctor looked at them. I explained to the doc that I am at high-risk for melanoma cancer because:

1) I lived in Florida during my teenage years and got so burned that my face looked like it had been microwaved,

2) I was on immunosuppressant medicines for 13 years, and

3) My maternal grandparents both had moles that became cancerous, though the moles were removed early (level 1 or 2).

My doctor looked at my back and then asked me to wait as he wanted to consult with a colleague. Some 15 minutes later (good thing I brought a book) she came in and looked at the moles then asked me how long I had had a particularly  large one.

“Många år” (many years) I said in Swedish. She assured me it was fine then. My doctor said that he couldn’t remove all the moles that all of his patients had. We just have to live with some uncertainty. I told him I knew lots about living with uncertainty.

I’ve lived with uncertainty for so long that coping with a long-standing sense of uncertainty has become a part of my way of life. In the five or so years after I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (1998) I tried to control everything that I could to maintain some semblance of security. I did not want to get sick again so I washed dishes twice or washed my hands many, many times. I don’t like labels, but you could say it was probably some version of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

It took many years of mindfulness practice, therapy and self-awareness to loosen some of the habit patterns that I developed during the years that my illness was most severe (see the article I wrote: Is Your Need for Control Out of Control?). The illness almost killed me and triggered an enormous amount of suffering and I never wanted to go through that again. Strangely enough, I handled acute episodes of illness quite well, even when I was hospitalized and not allowed to eat for weeks at a time.

In my dissertation research I read many studies on people with chronic illness and pain and I interviewed women with chronic pain. Living with uncertainty is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of living with chronic illness (including mental illness) and chronic pain. Why? There may be a number of reasons. In my experience, the illness was a threat to my existence and my unconscious mind prepared me to fight that threat.

Illness and pain often trigger a sense of loss. When the illness was severe and long-standing, everything that I knew was thrown up in the air. Dreams, plans, identity — all of this seemed so firmly established before the illness — and then WHOOSH! Everything was different. I was not who I thought I was. The plans I made were up in the air and I could not plan more than a few days in advance when the illness was most severe. My dreams were just reminders of what I had once longed for (I developed new dreams, however). It was difficult to let go of everything I had associated with “me.”

One of the most insightful talks I have listened to about uncertainty was, oddly enough, from Tony Robbins, the motivational guru. The talk was on TED: Tony Robbins asks why we do what we do (you can also read the transcript on the right).

Robbins said that two of six basic human needs are “certainty” and “uncertainty.” It sounds paradoxical, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

“Everyone needs certainty that they can avoid pain and at least be comfortable,” Robbins said. But he pointed out that if we had complete certainty and knew exactly when everything would happen in our lives, we would be “bored out of our minds.”

We need uncertainty because we crave stimulation. Robbins asked the audience if they loved surprises. They said they did and Robbins responded, “Bullshit, you like the surprises you want. The ones you don’t want you call problems.” Yep!

Unconsciously, I think we seek a balance between certainty and uncertainty. We want to feel safe and yet we also want to be challenged. Can we ever really assure complete and total safety? No. There are absolutely no guarantees and I’m sorry to say but beliefs in positive thinking (for example, in The Secret) are simply not going to keep threats away. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray or have beliefs about the power of positive thinking, but rather that you might be setting yourself up for disappointment if you think such beliefs/prayers can help you stop all of life’s challenges from coming your way.)

All humans are prone to getting sick, getting old and dying. We can run, but we can’t hide from these inescapable facts of life.

Can we embrace uncertainty as a fact of life? It can feel like it is hard as hell some days. I let myself feel the fear fully on those days until it burns off a bit. And then I remind myself that I would not have grown and developed my compassion without the challenges that illness and pain brought me.

A sense of uncertainty is unbearable at times, and yet it can help us to see our shadows better and to appreciate crises as opportunities to develop compassion, love and wisdom.

There is an old Zen story called “The Farmer’s Luck.” You can find it in the book Zen Shorts by Jon Muth. In this story, a farmer’s son breaks his leg and the neighbors say that it was “bad luck.” The farmer is not so sure and the next day the military officials come by and do not recruit the son due to his broken leg. The neighbors think the broken leg was “good luck.” The farmer says, “Maybe.”

We are constantly judging our experience as “good” or “bad.” As people living with illness/pain, it is easy to start seeing every sign of recovery as “good” and every symptom as “bad.” But we don’t know for sure what is really good or bad. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:

“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…”

Who would you be if you had not experienced any of the challenges that you have had in your life?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mary
    Jun 04, 2011 @ 14:30:15

    Nice Article Erica. Kind of what I need to hear right now. Thank you for sharing it.


  2. Andy
    Jun 04, 2011 @ 15:30:40

    Lovely writing, as ever, Erica. You have certainly had to deal with more than your fair share of uncertainty. I often wonder how people with an aneurysm deal with the fact it could burst at any moment or heart attack survivors that it could happen again at any time. I am noticing that most of my practice at the moment involves sitting with the uncertainty that underlies my reactive patterns and not just related to illness. That said, my mother has had two unclear bowel screens recently and that uncertainty is far less easy to sit with.

    I agree with what Tom Robbins says about surprises. Some time ago I realised that people don’t go to psychics and Tarot readers to know their future – they just want to be told that everything is going to be okay.


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