The human ego loves certainty: that the sun always rises and sets; that the seasons change, that the person we love loves us back; that the barista at our favourite coffee shop knows just how frothy we like our morning cup. We even love certainty that we don’t love all that much: that the job that drives us crazy is still ours to stay in or leave; that the grumpy bus driver who takes us to work still rolls their eyes at us when we run to catch a ride and, perhaps more surprisingly, that the pain that we’re familiar with stays the same.
The fact is, human beings hate change and uncertainty because it reminds us of something we’d really rather not be reminded of: we’re not in control.
We don’t like anything that reminds us that rather than being masters of the universe, we’re actually fragile liquid-filled bags of flesh careering around in a sharp, pointy world where any number of things could go wrong – and often do. That we too will die one day but we don’t know which day. That all our plans and dreams are as nought against the massive uncertainty of what it means to be alive.
The pandemic which began in 2020 has been a big shock to humanity’s ego and has brought many of us face to face with uncertainty in a way that our forbears would recognise.
Our ancestors conjured up capricious deities to help them make sense of the randomness of life, but what do we have to reassure us that our suffering somehow has meaning if we situate it within a large enough framework? Civilization? Science? Progress? Democracy? All have been a looking a little shaky recently…
And it’s on such shaky ground that conspiracy theories take root because, so hungry are we for answers that even a secret cabal of cannibals is more digestible to some than the intense vulnerability of being human – and it’s no coincidence that striking echoes of QAnon’s lurid accusations have arisen repeatedly across recorded human history during times of intense social instability.
So maybe it’s not so hard to see why things staying the same, even when those things make us unhappy, helps our ego to maintain the illusion that we’re safe. And why we love routine, even if we think we’re not a ‘routine’ sort of person. And why letting go of certainty is such very big ask.
Pema Chodron, a very wise Buddhist nun said that “Life is a continual process of the having the rug pulled out from beneath your feet.”
I was mad as hell when I first heard this because I didn’t want it to be true. And this was despite the fact that by this time my own personal ‘rug’ was moving so fast it’d become a magic carpet blur as my health, marriage, motherhood-dreams, home, career and friendships accelerated away from me in the rear view mirror of midlife.
Unfortunately I was still holding on to a rather childish and privileged belief that if I worked hard, bit my lip, paid my taxes, flossed my teeth, looked three times before crossing the road, turned the other cheek, ate healthily and always made my bed things would work out. I mean they had to, right? That’s how the world works? You get out what you put in.
Turns out, not so much.
Because being human is to be a part of nature (not apart from it) and nature is unfair, random, chaotic and not nearly as much under our control as my culture had taught me. And that actually, all things considered, I’d already been granted more privileges in my lifetime than many could dream of. And that happiness wasn’t as straightforward as getting what I wanted, even though everyone else seemed to be getting it – even those who, in my opinion, didn’t deserve it! But it turns out that nature’s amoral and what any of us ‘deserve’ is irrelevant. I began to see why even a vengeful and incomprehensive god might seem a bit more palatable…
For me, coming to terms with my unchosen childlessness, as well as the social censure that accompanies it, has been all about surrendering my power over a life I didn’t choose and over the opinions of others. It’s involved a deep maturation of my attitude so that, to paraphrase Viktor Frankl I now focus more on what life expects from me, rather than what I expect from it. Or, as I wrote in my book, Living the Life Unexpected, about learning to accept life “on its terms, not mine”.
I don’t like uncertainty any more than the next fragile human ego. I’m no Buddhist nun nor a sage concentration camp survivor. I like my ducks in a row, my coffee done just so.
But what I have learned is that uncertainly, ambiguity and change have been my biggest teachers. The grief of childlessness tore me apart and with it my belief system that the world was fair. In that dark night of the soul I was brought face to face with my own powerlessness over fertility, other people, aging and death – and that changed me.
I discovered that grief, far from being a punishment for having got things wrong was actually the dark engine of life.
Think of the Greek Goddess Persephone, abducted from the earth and forced into marriage with Lord Hades himself for half of each year as the price of her release; or the Sumerian Goddess Inanna descending to the underworld to challenge the might of her elder sister, the Queen of the Night, Erishkigal. Both went into the depths and came back powerfully changed and both paid a life-altering price for it. Sometimes it turns out that you have to go to hell and back again to get a little perspective on things.
So what has grief got to do with coping with uncertainty?
Grief is sorely misunderstood in our culture. We think it’s something that ‘happens’ to people that have lost a loved one and that, in time, it passes and then everything’s okay again. We see grief as an ‘event’ but it’s not – it’s an physiological, psychological and spiritual process that takes us deep into our personal underworld where we come face to face with our own darkness and are transformed by it. But this is not some kind of pretty motivational-quote kind of transformation but rather the blood-curdling dark night of the soul that the myths of Persephone and Inanna speak to.
This is not a path any human would choose, so we don’t.
Instead, we feel that familiar hollow tug in the chest as we tumble downwards into the pit of grief to discover that the way forward is unclear, the collateral damage obscene and, as you re-emerge, blinking, back into a world that carries on blithely as if nothing has happened, you realise that the price you’ve paid for whatever wisdom you may have gleaned was way too high. And no one believes you anyway.
Grief and love are at the core of what it means to be human and they are each as vital as each other. Love transforms us in ways that we can never undo, and never predict; grief does the same.
It heals our wounds by taking us deep into the underbelly of our longings, to the very core of who we are and then pulls from that furnace the essence of our being to refresh our souls and gird our loins ready to rejoin life again. We are never the same again once we’ve danced in the dark with grief, something that it takes time for our life, and those around us, to adjust to. Not everyone is prepared to be around the fierce truth-telling of grief and the way it cleaves away insincerity.
Shit just got real.
And this is how grief teaches us to ride the winds of change, of uncertainty. By showing us that we’ve done this before and came through it in ways we could never have predicted and which were entirely beyond our ego’s control or comfort.
Grief and love humble the ego and in doing so set the human spirit free in ways that are unique to each of our paths.
A few years ago I left my known life in the city and moved to a rural location, in a different country, with my relatively new partner. I’d been single and childless for many years after the breakdown of my marriage and, from the ashes of my former life, had gradually built myself a good enough new one that was going okay. A dear friend of mine came to visit me at my partner’s place a few months before I packed-up for good and she was incredulous at the risk I was taking with my life. “But what will you do if it doesn’t work out?” she said, and my response stunned me, because I replied that it wasn’t that I trusted that things were guaranteed to work out, but that that rather whatever happened, I trusted myself to handle it.
And that, dear readers, is the gift of coming through the fire of grief. Resilience.
It doesn’t mean that I want difficult stuff to happen. I just know that it will, eventually. And that when the day comes that the rug gets pulled out from underneath my feet yet again, I’ll rage and spit and stamp my feet for a bit – I’m only human. But then I’ll remember that I’ve been here before; that we’ve all been here before. That the ten thousand generations of ancestors that line up behind me have all been here before. And that they have my back; I wouldn’t be here otherwise.
The human spirit was forged by the same energies that created this unstable world we live in. We were built by this. We were built for this.
Grief is a hard teacher, it’s not one anyone would choose or that I would wish on anyone. One of the gifts of being an HSP (and I know it can feel like a poisoned chalice sometimes), is that we often get to feel things more intensely than others. And because we don’t get to run or hide from our emotions, and hopefully have developed the capacity to sit with our deep feeling, we’re also able to feel all the nuances of those emotions. It’s like we get access the subtleties and subtexts of emotions rather than just the headlines. Perhaps this is why I’ve been able to build a relationship with my grief over the years until I have arrived at a place of deep gratitude for it.
I understand that my grief is not the bad fairy at the christening but a wise ancestral teacher who arrives when I have to face change – whether I’ve chosen that change or not.
So, when the shit hits the fan, gather those around you that have been there before and lived to tell the tale. They all live within you, they are part of what Jung called your “two million-year old self.” Trust the wisdom of your forebears and the call of your archaic self and know that whatever happens has happened before.
Resilience to change and uncertainly doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle or that it’s not hard. But rather than you know that struggle and hardship are part of the human story and you don’t take it quite so personally.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the day I stopped railing against the universe with my cries of ‘Why me?!’ and switched instead to ‘Why not me?’ a calm space opened up inside me that allowed me to look for creative ways to endure and transcend my circumstances. That is the gift of being human. That is the gift of change and uncertainty.
To be alive is to be living on the edge of catastrophe every moment.
And you got this.
 Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”
 Viktor Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
 Jody Day, “Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children”
Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel – Unsplash