On Wisdom and Uncertainty

A week ago I spoke at a conference where I anticipated running into some employees of my former organization — employees who used to report to me.  I was nervous about this, because I hadn’t been allowed to say goodbye to them properly before I left, and I didn’t know what they might have been told.  I figured some of them might be angry with me — some perhaps justified, others not.  I fear people being angry with me.

I went prepared to be professional and stay in the moment for whatever showed up.  I was pleasantly surprised that two of them ran up to me during the informal breakfast meeting to say hello.  One of these was no surprise, but the other…?  I had no reason to believe she lacked affection or respect for me, but she certainly wasn’t one I imagined would run up to me during a breakfast meeting to say hi!  I accompanied them to the large, round table where the rest of my former staff sat.  I was relaxed and met their kind, energetic gazes with the same.  I felt genuinely happy to see their bright faces, and hear them doing well.  I spent a moment with each one, reconnecting, complimenting and catching up.  I’d almost gotten to the end of the table when the last two got up and excused themselves.

Frankly, that wasn’t entirely a surprise, not from those two.  They were both excellent at their work, but had had some conflicts with others and with me.  Employee A had been aggressive with her coworkers, conniving, occasionally inappropriate, and an outright liar.  I had worked hard on our relationship, exerted effort to constantly question my interpretations of her behavior, and strove to openly dialogue with her, actively problem solve with her, and get her to consider other points of view.  I thought we’d made headway.  Employee C had been very cool and inaccessible at first, but after a few months seemed to warm up and trust me.  She was even friendly at times, and once brought a situation to my attention that painted her in an unflattering light.  She owned a mistake and allowed herself to be vulnerable with me when she could have easily chosen not to.

Seeing the way these two literally walked away from any contact with me hurt my feelings to an extent that it bothered me.  This caused me to wonder — Why did it bother me so?  Why was I angry?  What was I holding onto, or feeling insecure about?

I realized I felt like a fool.  I had given these ladies the benefit of the doubt, listened to them, shown willingness to question myself and consider other possibilities, engage with them, meet with them where they were, and treat them with respect and dignity.  They had not done the same.  I felt like a fool for trusting them, and for believing they could be different.

I felt like I’d known the truth from the get-go and didn’t listen.  Instinctually I’d suspected Employee A was bad news — dishonest, inauthentic, and backstabbing.  I suspected Employee C was possibly manipulative and a holder of grudges.  I was angry — with myself — for doubting my intuition and initial impressions.  Even though I will never know for sure how these two women really “are”, what they really think or feel about me, or whether their behavior has anything to do with me at all — I was angry at myself for being proven “right” about them in the end, and wasting all that time and energy trying to engage them.  My virtuous self-doubt had not been rewarded!

In my work, I believe — and teach others — that “instinct” and “intuition” are often constructed from falsehoods and impressions that say more about us than anything else.  However, as I get older, I think I’m learning what wisdom means, and I think instinct and intuition play a role.  Wisdom is a knowing that comes from experience.  It’s also a knowing that lives in the body and heart, not the mind.  The insights and sensations I experienced when my mother died suddenly, and when my beloved “baby” sister got married, went beyond any prior intellectual understanding of those events.

Throught the experience of events like death and rites of passage, wisdom can connect us in a new way with the broader experience of humanity — or a large segment of humanity like other women, in my case.  But I believe wisdom can also bestow us with a form of precognition.  We see the beginning of a story and already know how it’s going to end.

A dear friend once described it to me this way:

There is a hole in the sidewalk.  First, you don’t see the hole, you fall in, react with fear and bewilderment and frustration, you finally climb out.  Second, you’re walking down the same street, you don’t see the hole, you fall in, react with fear, etc., but get out faster.  Third, you go down same street, you don’t see the hole, you fall in, then say, hey, I’ve been here before, there’s no fear, bewilderment, or frustration, you just quickly get out.  Fourth, going down same street, you see the hole, you fall in anyway, but you get out right away.  Fifth, you see the hole and go around it.  Sixth, you completely avoid the hole by crossing to the other side of the street.  Seventh, you go down a different street.

This wisdom can be very useful. For me it’s most honed in my ability to determine whether or not a man is a good match for me.  This story has started and ended so many times in my life over the last 30 years that my clarity itself can be intimidating to menfolk! 🙂  But this wisdom allows me to be more efficient, more effective, more authentic, more fulfilled, saner, and safer when it comes to dating and romantic relationships.  Wisdom helps me eliminate doubts that used to drive me crazy or lead to injury.  Now I simply avoid the hole or go down an entirely different street.

At the same time, there is an important body of knowledge, including in my own professional work, suggesting that doubt is an important ingredient in boosting self-confidence, opening minds, experiencing intimacy, enriching spirituality, and even having breakthroughs in business.  Jonathan Fields talks at length in his book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance about how uncertainty is not only normal, it’s necessary for creativity and following your passion (and Lord knows we need more of both!).  He offers concrete ways to face and harness the Terror of the Unknown (my words and emphasis) to transport us to completely new realms of possibility and success.

In the July/August edition of the very cool Ode Magazine, Diana Rico authored an excellent piece called “Sure Enough”, which examines doubt — including its dark side and some of the brain science behind it.   She cites research demonstrating that when we hear statements that contradict our ethical beliefs, we react (to any doubts) within .25 seconds, and almost instantly stop listening.  She describes a study by Gal & Rucker (2010) which found that individuals who were injected with doubt became even fiercer advocates for their beliefs “as if they now had to try to convince themselves as well as others.”

To me this is an excellent reminder that much of the intense and polarized political rhetoric going on in our media, our various governing bodies, and our homes is a good sign.  It’s a mere backlash against the inexorable movement of history forward into greater equality, freedom, justice and higher evolution.  It’s the violent death throes of the ancient paradigms of “me first” and “you are not me” and “power over.”  If r/evolutionaries were not experiencing vehement opposition, it would mean real change was not taking place.  The loud, angry voices are just roadblocks erected by the fearful, trying to resist the tidal movement of a shift in consciousness.

Rico also talks about the light side of doubt — its benefits.  She cites the number of incarecerated people — disproportionately people of color and the young  — who have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted, due to new DNA testing methods (and yet police and prosecutors insist they were right anyway!).  She examines the role that doubting what we think we can or cannot do or endure can lead us to tremendous breakthroughs and bursts of self-confidence.

Undoubtedly then 🙂 , injecting doubt into our lives and thoughts can lead to positive breakthroughs, realizations and achievements.  It can lead to truth and justice.  But it also triggers deep fears and defenses.  I think I understand better now why this is.

I’ve spent most of my life doubting.  I’ve made it a practice to constantly question.  “But how does the communion wafer turn into Jesus’s body in my mouth?” “How is rape only about power if it involves sex and penises?” “Do these pro-Affirmative Action people have an idea I should take seriously that is also fair?”  I’ve made it a practice to also give people the benefit of the — er — doubt: “Maybe he didn’t mean to hurt me, and is just damaged and doesn’t know better.”  “Maybe this time it will be different and she’ll do what she says.” “Maybe if I hang in there at this job people will change and things will get better.”

But doubt is exhausting.  It’s mentally and emotionally draining, especially for someone whose personality needs some degree or order, clarity, and an eventual decision.  Living in the ambiguity of a question is a limbo few of us can tolerate for long.  Besides, doubting and questions can lead to answers that can rock our entire worlds — the very foundation of our identities and lives!  Here are some of the ones I’m dealing with right now: “What do I do for exercise and meditation if I can no longer run (like I have for the last 30 years)?” “Who am I if my real purpose is not to be a world problem-solver and people-fixer?” “What can I do for work that doesn’t spring from the need to heal my own wounding?”

You know, little questions like those! 🙂

I feel empowered by my new wisdom — by the fact that often times I can see clearly into the future, a situation, or a person without spending hours mulling or months gathering data.  I think after 42 years of experience I have earned the right.  And yet I must hold this “wisdom” lightly.  As with most things, balance is the key.  For if I retreat into complete “knowingness” about everything, not only do I choke off invisible possibilities and opportunities for miracles, I constrict my life — and that of those around me.

So my recipe for today is:

  1. doubt in manageable doses, and
  2. wisdom with a grain of salt

What’s yours?

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

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2 responses to “On Wisdom and Uncertainty

  1. Thanks for the shoutout re: my Ode piece on doubt. Lovely blog post, much wisdom. And an excellent recipe for all of us!

    • Wow Diana, I am flattered! You’re welcome and thank you. Do tell how you found my piece? I’m trying to get better at SEO and I’m hoping my tags worked! 🙂

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