The Third Third

Uncertainty Run Amok

Just when I’d convinced myself that I was cultivating a bit of wisdom with my new, age-related tolerance for ambiguity, Uncertainty ran amok! I mean, really. What’s driving the stock markets into free-fall? Uncertainty. What’s making people save for the first time in their consumer-driven lives when economists would, for a change, prefer that they spend profligately? Uncertainty. What’s putting retirement plans on hold? Uncertainty. What’s clogging the credit markets and stalling new investment? Uncertainty. The whole world is gray. I’ve spent a few weeks kicking myself for not being smart or savvy enough to even know how to attack the problem of what to do about this financial “situation” – mine, yours, the country’s, the world’s, my bank’s, my broker’s, my kids’. My usual M.O. would be to read and study rather than fret or worry, and then decide. I’ve read volumes. And all the information I’ve gleaned from books and newspapers and magazines and television news and talk shows drove me to a new stage of uncertainty: anxiety and indecision, make that paralysis. Because – not only do I not know what to do; it is terrifyingly apparent most of the people I give credit (now there’s a novel concept) for being smarter than I don’t know either. That’s Big Time Uncertainty. I really hate to do this, but I blame myself and our peers in the Baby Boomer cohort for this. All of us. Not because we were, in the lamentable last President’s words, the “Deciders” who single-handedly caused the breakdown of consumer intercourse as we had known and loved it (though, certainly, many among us were contributors). No, our role has been more insidious. It is our very coming-of-age, our developmentally appropriate ability to tolerate increasing ambiguity in our lives, that, given our numbers and our self-absorption, has thrown everything off balance. Like hormones in teenagers, Uncertainty sweats out of our pores these days, polluting entire environments. Now I’m not certain of this. (I’m not certain of anything anymore, and sometimes I feel pretty smug about that; I have been known, however, to wish for a return to my bullheaded righteousness.) But I have learned that I am no longer entirely comfortable in cultures of certainty. Momentarily envious, to be sure, and very, very curious, but not convinced. Three times in recent weeks I have been with folks who exude certainty, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a bit like visiting another planet. Seriously. First I attended a baby shower for my 25 year-old niece and about 40 of her young, pregnant or carrying infants in arms, poor as church mice, Fundamentalist Christian friends. They were universally happy, confident, loved and loving, and without angst. It was palpable. I have kids this age; they know angst and indecision and what-if; these young women did not. The next event was a traditional Jewish baby-naming, which is an absolutely lovely ritual that literally wraps the infant in its heritage of family and faith. What struck me was that all the participants seemed wholly certain the path they prayed for on behalf of the child was the right one, ordained and chosen. It felt rich and solid, but eerie. Finally, I went to a Baptist funeral for the father of a friend of mine, where once again, certainty reigned; the man was in heaven enjoying the fruits of his earthbound labors and there was no doubt whatsoever about that. What could I say to any of this but “Amen,” “So be it.” But I really wanted to know was, “How are you all so sure?” These three example are, obviously, faith-based. I totally respect these several beliefs. But I have faith, too. My faith, however, answers my doubts with Hope, not certainty. It’s more interesting, but it’s certainly not secure, no matter how hard I pray or what I give up for Lent (which is, this year, nothing because I couldn’t make up my mind what might matter to me, or to God). Which brings me back to the Uncertainty running amok in our lives and our world. While it may, indeed, be a sign of emotional maturity to deal more productively with ambiguity in one’s life, I would like to suggest we as a generation may have overdosed on it. It may be time now – because of the fix we’re in – to make the tough choices, to reclaim core values, to seek common ground and common purpose, and to act more responsibly rather than wallowing in this Uncertainty. I may change my mind tomorrow, but for now. . . .
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