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Embracing Ambiguity

Human suffering happens under two main conditions: when things are bad, and when things might be bad. The first condition is straightforward. The second, not so much. We suffer even when the possible catastrophe is only a possibility! Not only when we get dumped, but when we think we might get dumped. Not only when our parent dies, but when we think about this inevitable loss. How did we get this way?

Imagine there are two hominids out on the savanna, and in the distance they see a vague shape they cannot quite make out. The first hominid thinks it may be a blueberry bush. The second hominid says, “Wait, it could be a bear.” The first hominid ignores the warning and runs over to the shape, while the second heads back to the cave. Sure enough, the first guy was right! It was a blueberry bush and he returned to the cave blissful and purple faced. The second guy goes to sleep disappointed and hungry. This scenario plays out several more times, until one day, the first guy doesn’t return to the cave. That day the vague shape turned out to be a bear. So the second hominid learns it’s better to miss lunch than to be lunch.

Over time natural selection has passed along the cautious hominid’s genes, who learned that what’s bad is bad, and what is ambiguous is also bad, and anything bad ought to be avoided. Today we’re not so much worried about bears, but our brains are wired to avoid any kind of pain. So emotional pain is treated the same way. And not only emotional pain, but the possibility of emotional pain. The college student who worries about rejection so he stays in his dorm to avoid not fitting in. The neglected wife who stays in a loveless marriage because she is afraid of being lonely.

Are things really as certain as we would like them to be? If you stacked up all the things you were certain about and put them up against all the things you were uncertain about, which pile would be taller? And if each pile represented the scope of your vitality, which would you prefer to live in? But it turns out, many of us prefer the limited scope. Even if the abundant life is rife with possibilities for adventure, passion, and love, many will give that up for some good old certainty.  Living in those predictable walls keeps the threat of danger at bay, but it can end up being a prison of our own making.

Kelly Wilson, in his book Mindfulness for Two, states, “Most of the things in life we truly care about are very ambiguous, and if we can’t tolerate ambiguity, we are doomed to act in the service of its elimination.” So what’s the alternative? What if we learned to love ambiguity? To open up to it and appreciate it. To see what it has to offer that certainty does not. What more might you experience if you weren’t consumed with efforts to escape the unknown?

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