I have never been fond of uncertainty. In fact, my personality type is such that I really like to have my life well planned ahead of time and then I follow the plan. Deviations from the plan are expected, of course, but the structure of having a plan is part of the secure ground that I stand on. This skill served me well in parish ministry where I was continually looking ahead, laying out the course, getting things ready so that we could engage in ministry together.
Big surprises always catch me up short. And I don’t always respond well to them. Sometimes even lashing out at the messenger or the event. It wasn’t until I’d been married several years that I learned another way of being – more open, more spontaneous, more flexible with the various changes in life, so that my responses began to moderate somewhat. The need for control of my life has been an ongoing edge and opportunity for spiritual growth.
There are some circumstances where you simply have no control whatsoever. They are the dramatic ones: diagnosis of serious disease, the death of a loved one, an accident that has life consequences, a child born with serious problems, to name a few. In those circumstances, we strive to gain some control by exercising the choices that are before us. Such control over life is ultimately an illusion, of course, but we don’t really want to face that in those moments. Our current global pandemic is another case all together.
We were left for our winter vacation (to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands) just as the first case of COVID-19 was arriving in the US, in the Seattle area, no less. We were concerned and careful as we traveled on a plane for 15 hours, but our eyes were primarily on China and what was happening there. As we boarded our cruise ship in Sydney, we were all screened for where we had been in the previous two weeks. People who came from China or other affected areas were not allowed to board. Two weeks later, in Auckland, there were even more stringent guidelines. We protected ourselves on board by much hand washing, use of sanitizers, and careful attention to what we were touching. So far, so good. We were managing pretty well. No one on board got symptoms of the virus.
Then things really spun out of our control. Ports started to deny admission. The islands wanted nothing to do with us, regarding us as dangers coming into their populations. Some folks who were to get off and fly home part way across the Pacific were unable to do so. Others of us felt very much “at sea”. While the captain and staff worked feverishly with the central office of Holland America, the rest of us had no idea what would become of us. Would we be like Charlie who got stuck on the MTA? (“Oh did he ever return, no he never returned, and his fate is still unknown. He will ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston. He’s the man who never returned.”) This level of uncertainty was new to me, anxiety-producing and very stressful. My usual coping mechanisms had little effect (meditation, walking, exercise). Suddenly nothing was in my control.
And then, one morning, as I was sitting looking out at the great expanse of the sea, no land in sight, but just our ship and the rolling water, the Gift of Uncertainty became apparent. What I could control was my response, my level of Being and my Presence to the circumstances and those around me. It was like I walked up to the edge and kept going. Not a jump, really, just the creation of a new path for me, a kind of moving beyond the need to have the answers or be in control of life. In fact, what I realized in that moment is that this life is not truly mine. It belongs to the Cosmos (which I certainly can’t control) and the Love which creates and sustains it. Control is an illusion, a playing with my immediate environment and circumstances which is a crutch that I no longer needed. I was/am free, free to accept whatever comes, when it comes in whatever guise. In fact, I can welcome that which comes, knowing deep in my bones that I am connected and a part of the life which is all around me.
This new arising in me does not mean I will stop planning and/or controlling what lies ahead. But, if I can re-member and re-call this Truth of life, then I will be able to befriend my planning and controlling and hold them lightly and flexibly in my actions and re-actions in the days ahead. I truly believe that this time on the planet is teaching all of us new truths about ourselves and the ways we have been living. Will we look for those new learnings and listen to them? Will we become new people?