For about three weeks or so, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty. Actually, though, it’s a topic and an idea that permeate my thinking and being, always. Even as a kid, I thought a lot about things like the end of the world or how life could change overnight or that circumstances could change in a split second.
As a child, this thinking left up me at night. I was a worrier, despite having a stable-yet-divorced family, plenty of food, and lots of love. And it didn’t mean I was an unhappy child. As an adult, it took a long time to let go of that worry and to realize that many of my decisions, or even non-decisions, were a result of that worry. Again, even with the worry, I never considered myself unhappy. Through some therapy, lots of reading, and plenty of meditation, I have come to grips with worry and uncertainty in my own life and in the larger world. I wouldn’t say I’ve reached the Zen stage, but I’m surprisingly free of worry and have been so for quite a while. It took several years to get to this point. Telling someone to stop worrying doesn’t work. For me, it took lots of spiritual work to finally find that place of unattachment and letting go, and it’s a point that I continually work to maintain. It’s not about sitting high on a mountain top away from all, it’s about being fully engaged in life and being in community with people and the world.
I do think that my preoccupation with uncertainty dictated my choice for study in college and my career path, majoring in environmental studies and then finding my niche as an environmental educator. I remember visiting classrooms and being concerned that I would only inflict my worry on children about the state of the world. I found my currency and my teaching engagement in hope. I always found the way to focus on what kids could do, regardless of their home life or school situation. Finding the hope in what sometimes feels hopeless is where I begin and act and live. It’s what I do in my own life: what is it that I can do, regardless of what else is going on? Yes, I believe that it takes more than individuals, and we need community, but I still focus on what I can do. Many teachers whose classrooms I visited told me that they appreciated my approach. I told them that I could easily remember what it felt like to be those kids with the weight of the world on their shoulders, even if reality proved to be different.
Within the last three weeks, and even a bit longer, the world seems to have unraveled in uncertainty with the pandemic and the fallout: infection and mortality rates, the impact of social isolation and social distancing, the economic haves and have nots, record unemployment, sketchy access to healthcare and food. Uncertainty has also been reflected in our faith or lack of faith in leaders and the decisions they have made. Again, I find my currency in hope in what feels to be a hopeless time.
I realize, though, that uncertainty is really what is certain. Even in times where things seem stable, we learn that life is precarious. In the blip of human time, we try to make sense of things and we create routines and relationships and our lives then feel more certain. It’s usually when we face the big changes: a health scare, a job loss, divorce, death, or something else, that we acknowledge the uncertainty. If we can find the hope, or maybe even provide the hope, then all of a sudden uncertainty isn’t so scary. We can even find beauty and meaning and love in all of that uncertainty.
I realize it’s easy to type about uncertainty from the comfort of my grey couch while I’m looking out my patio window, a quilt my grandmother made for me wrapped around my legs. Yes, I’m facing uncertainty, I lost my job three weeks ago. However, I have a fully stocked pantry, a brimming refrigerator and freezer, and a tiny cushion due to the social safety net and some savings. I am cautiously optimistic about a couple of things for my own personal set of circumstances. All around me, though, things are falling away. It’s hard to predict or see what will happen on the other side of this. For me, the economic shutdown and the resulting high unemployment and all the effects from that feel scarier than the disease, if that’s possible. Again, I come back to hope.
What’s good to remember, in all of this, is that uncertainty and change are what are constant. The timelines and certainty that I construct based on my work life, or previously based on school enrollment are just that, constructs. I recently renewed my lease for a year, and based some goals and plans on the timeline of that year. Again, nothing was certain before, but it felt certain with that artificial timeline. My time used to be structured around the certainty of a forty-hour work schedule, with my other parts of life framed around that week. Now, though, there is all this time and it’s hard to even remember what day it is. Hours unfold into days and now time is more about when the sun rises and sets. What do I do now in this reality?
I am not just sitting back. I am finding hope and helping where I can. I’m taking this new time to help friends and even a couple of strangers to enroll in unemployment and to navigate some other assistance options. I have shared some food from my full pantry. I have found a couple of ways to volunteer online and hope to start that quickly, as soon as some bureaucracy clears. I just signed up to donate blood, since there is a shortage and I can help that way. I am not saying this to boast, just to share what I can do.
I’m also spending some extra time on self-care for my own sake and taking time to pursue things that I love like writing and cooking and running and drinking tea on the patio and keeping in touch with friends and family. I am taking advantage of some learning opportunities. I am taking time and effort for some creative endeavors. I am also taking time to just be still.
What we do have in uncertainty is love and community. What we do have is hope. How can we help each other, help our families, help our communities? How can we help ourselves? How can we be the hope? How can we find hope?
As I ponder and act on those questions, I come to my favorite quote by my favorite president. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
We find hope in love and each other. We find hope in community and reaching out. We find hope right where my beloved Teddy tells us to, right where we are.