My friend P and I had one of our wandery skype chats the other day, minds and hearts twisting together like fireflies. She’s in Chicago living her full, ripe life, and I’m where I am, and we don’t talk enough, but when we do, ideas burst.
She was giving me her reflections about what she takes from some of the things I write, mostly here, as I worked to pull out what it is that runs across, what I’m trying to say as I muse and wander the world.
“You have this ability to be present in a context doing meaning making without locking down the meaning making,” she said. “You can have a lively, curious experience but without trying to find an immutable truth in the context.”
That felt like an immense compliment, and I pondered it for a while. It’s something to do with a striving in my life, a working practice, aiming toward holding more things lightly, observing and deeply noticing without immediately drawing inference. Allowing for not knowing some of the answers.
Going to a place like Myanmar was the perfect place to practice living into this. Being alone and the limits of language meant that I rarely was able to have my questions answered — they were always too removed from the immediate situation.
I saw this, for example, when I was in a boat with a man who only had about 10 words of English.
I got closer.
These people (mostly men) were everywhere in Inle Lake, mysteriously whacking their paddles into the water.
This is not the kind of scene that’s easy to parse without explanation. My boat driver just… drove. I got to the point with him where I could persuade him to slow down when I wanted to take a photo (though usually after we’d passed the thing I wanted to shoot), and he arrived on time, and jumped into the water when our keel ground into the bottom in the low water levels, but that was the extent of our co-ordination. Functional, certainly, and I felt well cared for and safe, but not much shared meaning there.
I tried asking the hotel employee who took me out on a smaller, flat bottomed boat into the shallow wetlands behind the hotel to look at the breeding egrets. “In the lake? On boats? When they do this ? What is that for?” There were about a dozen variations on this question, thin threads of language bridging past immediacy to the abstract images I had seen, assuming he would know. “Hitting fish!” he finally said, happily.
I watched for the next couple of days, but “hitting fish” didn’t feel right. Were there giant sturgeon in Inle Lake, and one whack would fell them? If so, why didn’t I see boats full of huge bruised fish? I was frustrated.
When I went hiking, my guide had more English, and we had 18 miles of possible talk. I was patient with my set up, making sure he understood I was talking about boats on the lake, what I saw people doing, my curiosity about what it was. He was very good. “They put the net and it goes wide. They do this to scare the fish. The fish run into the net. .”
I was satisfied with the answer (both the content and the animation), and I reflected for a bit on what it had taken to reach it. I’d had to sit in uncertainty for a few days, and reframe my way of asking, who I’d asked. I’d kept watching and noticing, but no amount of observing had added to my initial interpretation: they are fishing in some way, and they are whacking the water. I’d had to hold my curiosity without attempting to have it met inappropriately.
This was a pretty innocuous moment of uncertainty — idle curiosity, really, about a novel cultural practice. But I was thinking about how this kind of not-knowing plays out in work, in life. When I came back we worked with a large group of leaders in an organization that is going through a lot of uncertainty, and I was noting the close grasping for certainty and answers that the group had, the anger when the answers weren’t forthcoming. “Comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity” is considered a necessary capability when leading in complexity, and I know that well, but when I spoke about it a little, my thoughts were spontaneous and ill-formed, and I think, not too helpful.
And then there’s life, and love, and wanting certainty and sure answers, when really, there are none. I have a close friend going through a significant transition right now, and his partner has kept grabbing for certainty. “I need to know that this transition won’t change us in x, y, z ways. I need to know we will survive together.”
We can’t know those things, of course. And I’ve spent far too much of my life grabbing for those answers, grabbing for that certainty, wanting partners to reassure me that all will be well, all will be well, all will be well. I think the last decade of my life has been about learning to live in the tension between believing all will be well, and knowing that all will be unexpected, and that not knowing this… is life.