Embracing Uncertainty In Life

For as long as we have conscious thought, we will have uncertainty about at least one thing in our lives. Whether that uncertainty is about something as big and life altering as ‘will I make it through today’ or something as simple and small as ‘will Calzona be reunited on Grey’s Anatomy this season,’ uncertainty is a part of daily life.

Sometimes this uncertainty is good – it can be used to channel positive energy. It can create suspense or curiosity and can keep us interested and invested in something. It can motivate you to study harder for a class. It can drive you further into research or a book or life itself.

Sometimes that same uncertainty will spin you into a whirlwind of chaos that makes you see stars and black holes simultaneously.

I’ve always disliked uncertainty about major life plans or occurrences because it makes me feel wildly out of control, which is not an easy feeling for me to grasp. And the past several months of my life have been full of this very feeling. Through various circumstances, some of my own doing and some created by external forces, I spent a few months wrapped up in uncertainty about what direction my life would take after college.

I was waiting on a European grad program’s acceptance/rejection date, which was scheduled for late-July, and couldn’t plan much of my post-grad life until I knew my status and the path I would be on – grad school or entry-level job.

As the acceptance/rejection date was so late in the year compared to most US colleges, which is where most of my friends had applied, I felt ‘behind’ in life. It didn’t help that I had no answer ready whenever anyone asked the inevitable “what’s next?” I masked it with jokes about “getting groceries!” or “dinner with a friend, maybe a movie” but my anxiety level was rising.

I was talking to a friend about the anxiety from the uncertainty that I kept feeling, and instead of sharing my frustration or telling me that things would work out, as everyone else had done up until that point, they sent me a message that surprised me. I screenshot it, and reread it countless times in the following days. I share it here with their kind permission:

“I’m excited for you to be here. To have this period of time that is so different for you. For you, who has done so many things and been so many places and experienced so much, to be pushed out of your comfort zone by having to sit and wait.”

At first I was admittedly a bit annoyed – what good does sitting and waiting do? I wanted to be doing something. I wanted to be planning, preparing for… something, anything. By that point, mid-summer, I told myself that I didn’t care whether it would be a grad program or a job, I just wanted to be getting ready for something (that was a lie though, I did care, very much).

My feelings quickly turned to confusion. I got distracted from my annoyance by trying to figure out exactly what they had meant by that. Why would someone be happy that I have to do such a frustrating thing while so much of my future is outside of my control? How could they not realize that everything was spinning around me and I couldn’t get a grasp on it? I soon realized they were right, though. It was uncomfortable, especially because I had grown so unaccustomed to it.

I had been planning my life in advance for a while – I knew what classes I would be taking next before even finishing the exams for my current classes, I knew what flights I would be on months in advance with a window seat already picked out, and I rarely, if ever, made last minute plans to hang out with friends. Here I was, though, swung along a whirlwind of uncertainty about things outside of my control. A countdown that was creeping along at a glacial pace and decisions that couldn’t be made until that countdown got to 0.

So I stopped, and breathed, and slowed, and enjoyed my time.

The countdown kept ticking. Until it didn’t. Not because it reached the end of those relentless seconds, minutes, days, weeks – it stopped ticking because a wrench got thrown into it. And I was thrown into a new whirlwind of uncertainty.

The program I had applied to, and (possibly foolishly) had already internally planned on attending was cancelled. Out of nowhere we were sent an email saying that the program would “not be activated,” sending all of my careful patience and attempted-planning to waste. I had spent my senior year researching the program and preparing for it, and I had spent the summer after my senior year practicing a thing called ‘patience’ in the face of uncertainty, and it all felt useless at that moment.

I thought back, with some slight annoyance, at the words my friend had sent me weeks earlier. I muttered angrily about sitting and waiting doing absolutely no good. “If only I had made plans-” And that’s when it hit me.

If I had made plans – flight tickets, accommodations, events to go to – I would have to undo them all. Whether that meant cancelling tickets, returning items bought but no longer needed, or even just resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be attending an event I had looked forward to for months, I would have to undo it all and that would make the situation I was facing much more difficult and stressful for me.

By staying in uncertainty, for once, I had left myself open to other plans. I hadn’t locked myself into a future, even short-term, that seemed impossible to tear myself away from or that required too much energy and time to be able to effectively change it. So, while the few weeks after finding out my program was canceled were definitely stressful and upsetting, they weren’t nearly as stressful as they would have been if I hadn’t settled into uncertainty a little.

In the end, the program being cancelled worked out for the best, but more on that in a later post. For now, I’m just grateful that I was able to handle it as well as possible, and that I learned from it.

I don’t think that I could live with uncertainty in every area of my life permanently. I have goals that require sticking to plans for them to happen, some things in life need back up plans in case they fall through, and I wouldn’t get anything done if I was unable to ever make any major decision ever due to uncertainty.

However, I do think that I learned a lot from a summer of uncertainty, and that there’s beauty in not having every aspect of my life planned out in minute detail for the next 6 months.

So maybe I haven’t fully embraced uncertainty… But I’ve definitely learned to like it a whole lot more.


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