field notes on uncertainty and acceptance

It’s been just about a year since I started this endeavor of writing more expressively and sharing it with the world. The space for me to do so opened up after I graduated from university. Five years and two degrees after embarking on the journey of higher education, I finally had the time to think less academically and write less technically.

I did not anticipate many of the other changes that came with leaving the university setting. While I began filling pages with my whole heart, I started living more wholeheartedly.

My life in school had a great deal of structure. Life was split into ten-week quarters with a rhythm that quickly became familiar. I almost always knew the next step that was required of me. There were clear guidelines for how I could advance.

Success became formulaic: work very, very hard and make sure you always have an eye on the road ahead. Stay focused on the next test, the next class, the next fellowship, the next hurdle on the path you’ve carefully laid out for yourself.

And for the most part, the academic system rewarded my unrelenting efforts and perpetual concerns about the future.

It was in this way I learned a falsehood: armed with discipline and meticulous planning, I could always control my environment. If things were not going as I had envisioned, I just needed to try harder and plan further.

This year – the year after school, the year I spent in Jordan – quickly forced me to unlearn this mindset. I had lots of grand ideas about how my life would go and what I would accomplish.

I’ll spare you the details and give you the big picture of what actually happened this year:

Almost none of the things I had so carefully planned turned out as I had anticipated. And some of the best things that happened were completely unexpected. I simply could not have imagined some of the deeply meaningful opportunities, friendships, and experiences that have defined my time in Jordan. And I could never have predicted how much I would change in these encounters.

I began to embrace uncertainty. Well, maybe embrace is too strong of a word. I tried my best to ward away uncertainly when it imposed itself into my world. I suffered doubt and sometimes even shame when I could not squelch uncertainty with planning and hard work. It took me a while to learn that this new world I was living in, the world outside my alma mater, was much less malleable to my schemes and intentions. It took me even longer to accept that this world will probably change me much more than I can ever manage to change it.

I did not stop believing in the importance of hard work, intentionality, and human agency. I still make to-do lists just about every week, and sketch out plans for the next few years. I still care deeply about pursuing work that is meaningful and will leave a positive impact. My desk is still often covered in sticky notes enumerating groceries to purchase, errands to run, tasks to complete.

So what has changed?

I’ve stopped treating my orientation toward the future as gospel. The documents that document my future intentions are not sacred. The five-year plan, the to-do list that seems to always automatically replenish itself: they are not necessarily everlasting. They are not infallibly stable.

Sometimes the world does not care about our plans. And sometimes, after gaining experience and perspective, we learn that we don’t really care about the plans we once made for ourselves.

Possibilities and desires can change with time.

Some degree of uncertainty will always be present in our lives, and at times there will be much more of it than we are comfortable with.

Resisting uncertainty is an uphill battle not worth fighting. I am putting my weapons down and slowly learning to become friends with uncertainty.

I am learning to appreciate the gifts that uncertainty occasionally offers: the joy of more spontaneity, the excitement of not necessarily knowing what comes next, the satisfaction of eventually working through a puzzle that truly took time and patience to complete.

Acceptance is not weakness. It is wisdom. It is the ability to identify the things that are within our control, the things we can merely only influence, and the things that are out of our hands. It is knowing oneself enough to let go when we are holding onto things that no longer align with our values and desires enough to justify the tremendous effort.

When we practice acceptance, we are able to prioritize those things that are most important. We remain calm, savvy problem-solvers when our plans do not perfectly materialize. And in this way, I am coming to believe, we actually increase our capacity to live meaningfully and leave a mark on this world.