For most people, uncertainty holds a negative connotation. It can make us look unprepared, unintelligent, and amateurish. And yet, according to Estelle Frankel, the author of The Wisdom Of Not Knowing: Discovering A Life Of Wonder By Embracing Uncertainty, uncertainty doesn’t just lie at the seat of our faith, it holds space in everything we do — from how we learn to how we love.
Frankel, a licensed marriage and family therapist, pastor and spiritual guide draws on insights from poetry, Tantric wisdom, psychoanalytic theory, Buddhism and ancient myth to demonstrate that through embracing uncertainty — as opposed to avoiding it — our lives become richer, often in ways we might not have predicted.
Frankel quotes the philosopher Martin Buber:
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
According to Frankel, entering this unknown is where transformation happens.
She offers the story of Joan, a psychotherapy client who had been feeling stuck in life despite being gainfully employed and happily married. By listening to her inner voice, Joan was able to connect with her past love of singing and began to blossom, eventually singing publicly several times a month.
Stories like Joan’s involve a venturing into the unknown – one that Frankel states is aided by the use of imagination.
“When we use our imagination in the service of our faith in the unknown, our lives and our consciousness expand,” writes Frankel.
One helpful exercise from the book, which is called, “Get Out Of The Box,” asks readers to imagine all of their unfulfilled dreams – the things they have dreamed of doing but have been afraid to pursue – and then list concrete steps that can be taken toward those dreams.
An important part of learning to tolerate uncertainty, Frankel says, is reclaiming curiosity and cultivating a “beginner’s mind.” When we are endlessly curious and unafraid to reveal our ignorance, just as children often are, we come to see the world as full of possibilities and miraculous things.
One way we can do this is by asking questions.
“It isn’t just a matter of learning more (Torah), but rather, a way of learning that is transformative, where the nigleh, or ‘known dimension’ of Torah opens up a window to the nistar, or ‘hidden dimension,'” writes Frankel.
It is in this balance between what we know and what we don’t know that we also encounter a powerful paradox: That it is only when we confront our very human impulse to seek security by clinging to the known and the certain that we can truly set ourselves free.
Frankel offers the example of Serena, who engaged in constant power struggles with her husband, and then again after divorce with her new boyfriend. Finally, she realized that it was her need to maintain control that prevented her from letting go enough to truly love.
And yet love, Frankel tells us, is balanced by two opposing energies – to both feel secure, and to experience novelty and surprise.
“In a sense we are walking contradictions. At the same time that we yearn for emotional intimacy and closeness, we also need space in order to fulfill our erotic desires,” she writes.
A helpful start to finding this balance is through letting go of the judgements and assumptions we make about others, instead honoring the unknown mystery that lies within them by allowing it to unfold as we come to know them.
While it is a powerful catalyst for learning and love, perhaps uncertainty’s greatest power is in how it helps us connect with our intuition.
Intuition – which Frankel describes as a “direct and holistic way of knowing that bypasses ordinary thought” – happens when we suspend rational thought, analysis, and even reasoning. Instead, we often have no idea how we came to know what we know.
To help connect with our intuition, Frankel offers the advice of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion:
“When you have a particularly dark spot, turn onto it a shaft of piercing darkness. Rid yourself of your analytic theories. Rid yourself of what you picked up about the patient; get rid of it. But bring onto this dark spot a shaft of piercing darkness.”
The courage it takes to suspend ourselves in uncertainty – even to bring a shaft of piercing darkness upon it – Frankel tells us, is rooted in daily practice.
“Courage is a muscle we build through all the small daily risks we take when we speak our truth, take an unpopular moral position, stand up to injustice, or face difficult emotions,” she writes.
Telling the story of Dr. Laura Stachel – an OB-GYN who was forced to give up her work delivering babies due to a degenerative condition that affected her mobility, and later founded a nonprofit organization called We Care Solar which became her passion – Frankel offers Stachel’s sage advice:
“Don’t underestimate yourself, don’t let anxiety stop you, be open to an unpredictable future, be willing to be a consummate learner, and be persistent.”
Uncertainty, while typically a stopping point, can also be an open door, a door through which our deepest transformations can occur; from fear to courage, from mistrust to love, and from worry to freedom. With powerful stories, rich philosophical insight, and timeless wisdom, The Wisdom of Not Knowing shows us how to step through that door.
The Wisdom Of Not Knowing: Discovering A Life Of Wonder By Embracing Uncertainty
Shambhala Publications (2017)