“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Sitting in the auditorium during orientation, I listened to various deans, distinguished alumni, and student leaders drone on about the rigors of earning a law degree.
There were obligatory mentions of not everyone making it to graduation (or even the end of the first week) and of the intense strain on personal relationships.
But the message I remembered most clearly was about uncertainty.
“You better get comfortable with gray areas. And fast. Because the legal field is not a place where black and white distinctions often exist. If you’re a person who thrives on certainty and absolutes, you will be an extremely frustrated attorney.”
Being a comparative religion and psychology double major, I dealt with ambiguity and the unknown a fair amount. But I wouldn’t say I was comfortable with them.
I mean, is anyone really comfortable with uncertainty?
And with that superficial examination of my tolerance for uncertainty, I trudged onward to lawyerhood.
Unfortunately, I was decidedly uncomfortable with uncertainty.
Although I always wanted to become an attorney, it was a relatively uninformed desire. But it gave me a goal to work toward—a path to freedom and financial independence beyond high school and college.
Or so I thought.
I dreaded going to class. I even contemplated dropping out. A lot.
I worried that I’d lost my academic edge.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t always have the answers when questioned by professors. I wasn’t engaged by the subject matter either. So I procrastinated, which made everything worse.
Looking back, it’s clear I was in denial.
I couldn’t even entertain the idea that law school wasn’t for me, let alone accept that I may be better suited to a different career. You know, admit that I had made a hugely expensive mistake, cut my losses and start over from scratch.
So I did what any self-respecting high-achiever would do: I threw myself into my studies and made damn sure I landed a job after graduation.
In other words, I did whatever I could to avoid the appearance of failure.
Which meant I was a complete and utter control freak. And by control freak, I mean high-strung hypercritical crabby pants.
(I’m sure I was an absolute delight to behold.)
It seems crazy to me now that it took three agonizing years of law school, seven miserable years as an attorney, a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, and a two-year battle with infertility to get me to realize that uncertainty is the only true certainty in life.
Did I really need all that time and heartache to accept this universal truth?
Apparently, I did. The religion scholar in me shakes her head.
And even though I was finally able to acknowledge the omnipresence of uncertainty, I wasn’t immediately able to embrace it.
It took a lot of yoga, meditation, acupuncture, psychiatry, and life coaching for me to see that I hadn’t ever escaped the discomfort of uncertainty. Despite my best efforts.
I busted my butt in law school and landed a job offer before graduation, which was rescinded when the organization lost funding for my position.
I planned out future pregnancies assuming I was a fertile myrtle like all the other women in my family, who didn’t have the rare birth defects I had.
I slogged through my legal career thinking after “paying my dues” and earning six figures I’d finally enjoy my profession, only to feel more and more hopeless every day.
And those are just some ways uncertainty bested me over the last decade.
But thanks to the luxury of hindsight, I grew to embrace the inevitability of uncertainty, and the fruitlessness of trying to elude it.
Yes, I had the rug pulled out from under me when my first job offer fell through. But I found a higher paying job within weeks of graduation, where I met my mentor and some of my dearest friends.
Yes, I endured the agony of infertility for two years. But after corrective surgeries (that also improved my overall health), I became pregnant with a baby girl who has brought exponentially more sleep-deprivation joy into my life than all the despair caused by those years of infertility.
And, yes, my childhood “dream” of becoming an attorney turned out to be a nightmare. But like a bad dream, I finally woke up and realized it wasn’t my future.
Although my current career didn’t exist when I was a kid, I have a feeling that even if it did I wouldn’t have found it by following a structured path.
Because uncertainty is not only inevitable, it’s necessary.
If we really were able to control every outcome in our lives, we’d most likely never experience failure. Or be forced outside our comfort zone. Or discover something previously unknown to us (or the world!) by way of happy accidents.
We’d never truly grow.
So now when I feel the urge to control all the things, I do what sounds incredibly simple to most, but has always been difficult for me.
I realize “breathing” isn’t what most people want to hear. But learning to slow down and focus on my breath has been life changing.
Plus, it’s science.
I catch myself holding my breath all the time. When I feel the need to check in with my breath, odds are it’s because my body is tense from oxygen deficit.
Our brains need oxygen to think clearly. And without sufficient oxygen, the brain goes into fight or flight mode. All too often my battlefield is the supermarket or a blog post—situations in which breath is preferable to adrenaline.
And while I am an advocate for mindful breathing in times of uncertainty, I’m not saying it’s a cure-all for everyone in every situation. But you know what is?
Again, it’s science. Studies show that regularly expressing gratitude increases feelings of happiness and well-being.
I admit I was skeptical when I first learned about gratitude practice as a way to boost happiness. Especially since it advocates keeping a gratitude journal.
I am such a resistant journaler. Which is strange because I’ve gained some incredible insights into my psyche through journaling. (Okay, maybe it’s not so much strange, as it is the very reason I resist journaling. Note to self: Work through fear of journaling…through journaling.)
Luckily, keeping a gratitude journal is nothing like the feelings poured onto page upon page that I imagined. At least, it doesn’t have to be.
My only rule is that I need to write down at least five things for which I’m grateful each day. Some days it takes me ten seconds, others it’s more like ten minutes.
But that’s the point.
Those days when feeling thankful isn’t easy are the days you need gratitude the most.
Someday you’ll probably be grateful for the struggle you’re in right now. But until then, maintaining a gratitude practice will ease the discomfort uncertainty brings.
Even if it does involve a journal.
I sometimes wonder how my life would be different today if someone at my law school orientation had outlined some practical ways of coping with uncertainty—like basic mindfulness—instead of characterizing an aversion to uncertainty as a personality flaw.
Maybe I would have embraced the certainty of uncertainty sooner, possibly avoiding countless hours of heartache and anxiety. Perhaps I would’ve had the guts to drop out of law school and avoid a mountain of debt.
Or maybe everything would have unfolded in exactly the same way.
And you know what?
I’m okay with that.
This post was first featured on the Tiny Buddha blog.