Living comfortably with uncertainity

'For me, the most important spaces to be are the spaces in between… like in airports or lobbies of hotels… when you’re leaving one space and you arrive to another space. Before you start to make new habits you’re really open to destiny… you’re more perceptive… you see things.'
– Marina Abramovic

I’ve never been very comfortable occupying the spaces in between. Afraid of having nothing to do, I’ve long crowded my time with hobbies, too many commitments, and juggling full time work with side projects or study. I'm obsessed with drafting each day’s tasks the night before, even if it's an intentional 'do nothing' day.

But along with having recently quit my day job, I have found myself stripped of the busyness that comes with fitting everything in around a fixed schedule. Instead, I’m left with an endless expanse of time and space to fill.

What is an exciting prospect on paper has quickly become slightly terrifying because there is no instruction manual, no clear trajectory. For the first time, my days are my own to construct. There is no start or finish time to abide, no boss or team to be accountable to. No deadlines. No colleagues. No concrete plans or outline of what I’ll be doing in a week, a month, or a year from now.

With any change comes uncertainty. As human beings, we are hardwired for comfort and so not knowing what comes next perturbes our nervous system. What if you are not good enough to navigate the treacherous seas and find your own way? It’s particularly difficult when you’re not quite sure where it is you hope to end up. I have the company of ideas and a few to-do lists, but nothing is fixed or guaranteed – I’m on my own, figuring it out.

There is also this expectation that when someone makes the brave leap into uncertain waters, that they will find greatness. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a lot of days stringed together not quite knowing where to start and what to approach first. Even without quitting your day job, a culture of busyness can have you feeling restless during any slice of time you haven't filled. 

When you are no longer defined by external commitments, you become vulnerable to the whims of jealousy and self-doubt. For any artist, writer, or freelancer, your identity is no longer locked into a job title or cushioned by how busy you are. There is no safeguard between your work, your feelings of uncertainty,  or your comparison of others. 

We can easily fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with our expectations of ourselves and being disappointing in the proess. Distilling Nietzsche, Alain de Botton writes

'In the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.'

In this bout of uncertainty, I am up close and personal with my own insecurities and imperfections. As W. I. B. Beveridge puts it in The Art of Scientific Investigation:

‘Many people will not tolerate a state of doubt, either because they will not endure the mental discomfort of it or because they regard it as evidence of inferiority.’

But what happens when we do endure doubt and uncertainty? The ever-wise Spencer Harrison recently explained to me that when you follow your own path it really becomes a battle against yourself, but you slowly get stronger. The spaces in between feel uncomfortable, but it’s where we finally have a chance to stop, discover things, and build ourselves and our work.

I’m not sure anyone has taken the plunge and not experienced feelings of inadequacy, anxiety or fear, so I take comfort in knowing that it’s okay to feel a little confused and vulnerable when you’re not quite sure what the next week will bring, or how long you will be in the waiting room. After all, none of us really know what we’re doing. 

It’s only through enduring uncertainty do we ever really learn or see something new within ourselves, so I’m trying to mould the fear into curiosity and breathe excitement into the heaviness and worry in my chest.

I want to not only endure, but enjoy. As scary and confusing as uncertainty can be, it's important to remember that you are privileged to have the opportunity to chose it and to find your way to living comfortably in uncertainty.

Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart:

‘Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.'

Resist the urge to fill the uncertainty with busyness, your questions with answers, and your calendar with commitments. Instead look around the waiting room and let the spaces in between be as important as the places you’re going to.

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Routine tip:

Practice saying no to something you’d normally do just to keep busy. Don’t try to fill that space, sit with the uncertainty and note how it makes you feel.
What else are you filling your days with to distract yourself from uncertainty?

Madeleine Dore