STANDING IN AMBIGUITY
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that the willingness to stand still in the middle of uncertainty without giving in to despair allows for new opportunities to show up and gives you the space you need to notice them. [If you focus on fears and doubts, there really is no room in your head for paying attention when a new door opens.]
Apple founder Steve Jobs had an interesting take on how to deal with the uncertainty of life. He suggested using the ultimate uncertainty, death, to get past the fears and doubts you are likely to encounter during times of change.
Jobs has been quoted as saying,
“All external expectations, all fear of embarrassment and failure – all these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.“
This is, I think, a profound thought, and it is probably the best (and the most difficult) way I know of dealing with “standing in ambiguity” – the whole uncertainty of just living your life, making plans and executing them, having goals and realizing them, and so forth and so on.
WHAT IT IS AND WHY DO IT?
“Standing in ambiguity” equates, I think, with poet John Keats’ “negative capability,” which he describes as “when a person is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason….”
Wise guys through the ages have tried to get us to just sit with the uncertainty, feel the feelings, understand why they are welling up in us, and then step away from those feelings and look at where we can make our next move.
After that we can take the next step, then the next one, and so on until we get to a new place that feels more comfortable for us. But, uncertainty and ambiguity is never an easy space to be in.
So then there’s this question: If it makes us so uncomfortable, why would we even go there?
One answer is that it is in this space that Creativity happens. All that discomfort produces new ways of looking at things, change-making moves, and products never seen before.
(It also produces a lot of crazy people…but that’s another story.)
Here’s a short YouTube video, “Embrace Ambiguity,” by IDEO.org, an organization that works with nonprofits, social enterprises and foundations to design solutions for social impact around the world.
It explains some of the benefits of standing in ambiguity that creative people can use.
CULTURAL AMBIGUITY TOLERANCE
How much ambiguity you can tolerate is a personal thing. Each person has his or her own level of tolerance. The same is true for different cultures.
This YouTube video by Mary Rowland explains about the “ambiguity tolerance” of different cultures and what it means to you in practical, nuts-and-bolts fashion.
(I’m not sure who Mary Rowland is. I couldn’t find anything about her on Google and her other YouTube offerings are not particularly helpful. Still, this video is a lovely schmooze about an important topic. Thanks, Mary Rowland…whoever you are.)
If your own ambiguity tolerance doesn’t match that of your culture, it’s quite likely that there will be friction.
If your own high ambiguity tolerance clashes with your culture’s lack of tolerance for ambiguity, you’ll have to deal with being labeled as a troublemaker or a ne’er-do-well.
If your ambiguity tolerance is low and you’re in a culture with a high tolerance for ambiguity, then you might be labeled as a ‘fraidy-cat, a worry-wort, or even a coward.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out how to work with your culture’s level of tolerance for ambiguity as well as your own. If the mismatch is too great, then perhaps you will need to go find a more supportive environment for yourself. This, of course, will add to all the uncertainty.
JUST DO IT
Another take on how to deal with the uncertainty of life is in this YouTube video by Bob Miglani who exhorts, “Dealing With Uncertainty? Stop Waiting. Move Forward and Embrace the Chaos.”
Bob Miglani is the author of EMBRACE THE CHAOS: How India Taught Me To Stop Overthinking and Start Living. In 2012, it was a Washington Post bestseller.
In it Miglani addresses how to deal with facing major uncertainty and stop doing the deer-in-the-headlights freeze.
He tells you that you have to let go of trying to control the chaos all around you and focus, instead, on what you can control — your own actions and your words and thoughts.
An interesting read.
The irony in all of this is that standing in ambiguity is…well…ambiguous and also very personal.
There are no final answers, no right or wrong way to do it. There is only you and what you feel you can or must do.
About a year after my husband died, this poem came. It was a signal to me that I was ready again to turn around and face future. After Fred died and the world I knew changed, I was very lost.
One of the first steps was getting through the grieving intact and through the acceptance and letting go. And then there was the learning how to stand up strong in the middle of a heck of a lot of ambiguity.
When you’re already naked and the illusions in which you used to dress the world have all melted and dribbled away, when you no longer have anything obscuring your look into the Void, it does tend to free you up to do lots of other things.
I went and did a lot of other things. Many of them turned out pretty okay.
I CAN TELL YOU GOODBYE
I can tell you goodbye now
And mean it, in my heart of hearts.
Your passing nearly killed me,
The pain squeezing me into
An otherness that whimpered
Helplessly against the loss
Of you and of the world
I thought I knew.
What is it somebody said?
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional….”
Something like that.
I decided not to suffer.
I don’t know what I’m doing
And no ultimate answer rises up,
No banner or signpost
To show me where to go.
I am lost in ambiguity,
Lost in the illusions that keep swirling
Through this shadow-play.
And I cannot find my way
Back to the surety I once knew.
You were the one who was sure.
I thought you knew the way.
I only had to follow you.
Then you left me standing
Lost on this mist-covered mountain
And the world has changed
And changed and changed.
No visible landmarks –
All gone, along with you
And your assurance that all of this is real.
You lied to me.
(Or maybe it was only to yourself.)
You were so sure that I believed you.
I followed your lead because
I thought I had no guidelines of my own.
And now I have to make them up,
All by myself, all over again.
Every day I make it all up.
It’s been good, you know.
I like it just fine now.
I have to thank you
Even though you brought
So much pain and confusion in your wake.
You taught me about a world
I had not known and made me
Play to its many faces.
Now I’m going back to what I used to know,
Richer for having known you.
I loved you the best I could.
You loved me too, I know.
Good-bye, ei nei,
It was all good.
by Netta Kanoho
Picture credit: Sunrise by blese via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
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18 thoughts on “STANDING IN AMBIGUITY”
Thank you for writing such a beautiful and helpful article! This comes at a very good time for me as I am navigating a lot of changes and new territories.
Sometimes I find that I am so overwhelmed and caught up in worry thoughts, I lose my sense of grounding and trust in the process. Whenever I reflect on what specifically is stressing me out, I realize that ultimately, at the core, my fears are rooted in an existential issue with death.
It’s so interesting that it always circles back to this. And that we are here in this waking life on earth to make peace with the unknown and the mystery of death. Learning to let go and embrace at the same time 🙂
Hey Audrey: Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I so appreciate it. Please do come again….
Very interesting read! I do agree, you can wallow in uncertainty, stress and fear – or you can acknowledge the feels, embrace uncertainty and move on with your life/make the best decisions.
Positivity is always key, to so many things in life. You can turn the tables on negativity and uncertainty/fear and make every situation a lesson for your future…
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What a wonderful topic you’re discussing, you’re definitely right, and I like the idea that Steve Jobs uses when he was in moments of uncertainty.
The philosophic view of thinking that you’re going to die definitely helps you to understand that there is nothing to lose here in life. So why not go all in, and do your very best?
Thanks for sharing, it’s a good article. Good luck on your journey.
Hey Victor: Thanks for your visit and your comments. I like your thinking! Please do come again.
I can see you really like to play on and with words. And words are perceived differently by different kinds of people Whether extrovert or introvert.
It must be really nice to spend the time to write as the sun goes down in Maui. Reflections run deep.
Writing is so therapeutic don’t you think? It let’s your soul go on a journey.
I was wondering – when is your book of poems coming out? It would be good to have a copy in my library…
Thanks Netta, for sharing.
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I do appreciate it.
You are right. Writing is a great vehicle for soaring and for going deep as well. And I am working on a book…not sure whether it’ll be just poetry or a collection of essays inspired by them. Thanks for asking.
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This is a beautiful way to look at the challenges and opportunities that life presents. I recently heard that anxiety is just a prayer for something that you don’t want to happen… seems so true.
Growth requires a bit of uncertainty and discomfort as you push past previous boundaries, no matter the venture. Thanks for sharing.
Aly, thank you for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I like the concept that anxiety is a prayer for something you don’t want to happen. It really does seem to hold. (You get what you focus on.) .
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I have to admit that this is one thing that most of us have and do not even know the name of the condition or situation we are in. From this article I have gained the knowledge of it and I’m glad I did.
Lots of people find themselves in such situation and now that I know it’s called standing in ambiguity I would be pleased to teach my kids what it is.
Thanks for your visit, ReeceMicheal. I am glad you found the post helpful.
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I don’t know if I would be so sure of that to be honest with you. Many years ago, i came up against the face of death. It wasn’t like many portray it. In fact, it wasn’t really until afterward that I realised just how close to death I had been.
However, it certainly did give me a new outlook on life for a while. But as far as many fears and inhibitions, etc. go, it didn’t really affect anything at all.
That’s just me though.
Thanks for your visit and for sharing some of your story. I understand, I think, what you are saying.
Very often, when you’re in the middle of walking through the shadows it’s hard to get a handle on where you are on your journey. It seems to me that no matter what you go through, you are still “just you” with all of the same fears and inhibitions and worries and such that you’ve carried around for as long as you can remember.
As for myself, when my husband died, I had to deliberately choose life again and I had to keep on choosing it over and over again. I think I’m glad I did, but, still, I remain always aware that every day I do have to choose life.
For me, choosing life is an act of defiance, but then, that is just me.
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Being able to feel comfortable with ambiguity can make the difference between a problem solver and one that is drawn by problems. We need to be able to explore possibilities. Embrace them when they pop up in our head. And trace where they lead us before taking a decision. Our decisions will always be richer..
Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Paolo. I agree with you that being able to stand in ambiguity helps keep you from being drawn into the assorted vortices and brain-sucks that problems can generate.
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Ambiguity is often found in relationships we have with one another. Finding ways to make sense of it can drive a person insane at times.
Yes, you felt the pain of his loss. For truly it was a loss, you no longer had that friend to talk to, the person who made you laugh and cry. The one person who understood exactly what you meant when you only said a few words.
Your poem to him was also for you. You had found a way to make sense of the loss you felt and by doing so had empowered yourself to go forward and live your life to your best potential at this time. You will continue to grow and to be happy for all you have learned.
Jerry, thank you. I am so pleased that my poem touched you.
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