Hold It Lightly

The happenings that remind us of the uncertainty of life are usually big and often unwelcome. I had the good fortune to experience a simple one over the past couple of weeks—being on call for jury duty for a court that was three hours away.

I had to check in one day to see whether I needed to serve the next, but if I was called, I would be sleeping in a hotel that night and possibly for the rest of the week. All the activities on my calendar would be cancelled, and no work would get done.

My approach the first week was to not plan or prepare. I didn’t buy groceries because I might not be home to eat them. I neither made new plans with friends nor cancelled existing ones.

The second week I made tiny plans, such as if I’m called, I’ll try to get together with friends in L.A.; if not, I’ll cook a pot of beans. And then for perhaps the first time in my life, I held the outcome lightly. I didn’t expect either the visit or the beans to happen, didn’t develop a preference for staying home or traveling to L.A.

A friend often recommends holding whatever we’re aiming toward lightly, but until last week I had no understanding of how to put that idea into practice. In losing my ability to pretend I knew what the next day would hold, I could see that my knowing was an illusion to begin with.

Every day our lives could be profoundly different when we wake up in the morning, but we live as if we know exactly what we’re going to do the next day. To some extent, this is necessary. We need to buy groceries after all, but there’s an openness that comes with remaining conscious of the uncertain nature of our existence.

It reminds me of how one would hold a small, injured bird—gently, with an open hand so as not to hurt or scare it. You might take the bird home and put it in a box. Perhaps it will recover, perhaps it will die. Or, as you’re carrying it, it might shake itself and fly right out of your hand, surprising you both.

Pausing Between

California provided four astonishingly gorgeous days in a row last week—those sunnier-than-Disney fall days that have all the crispness of a good apple. On the fourth day, I felt sad about something I cannot now recall. Sadness can take the shine off a day, but this time it coexisted with the beauty, neither overcoming the other.

A few days later, a friend reminded me of another pair of oppositions most of us have to deal with: being happy where you are while simultaneously being ambitious. Life offers these inconsistencies over and over, but I usually rush past them rather than spend any time in the middle.

As usual, the idea of sitting between items in tension—sadness and beauty, contentment and ambition—without choosing isn’t new. Keats probably didn’t invent it, though his negative capability captures it well: “The ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.” (This is a definition I just happen to like from the Keats’ Kingdom website; it’s not a direct quote of the poet.)

Between contradictions is generally not a comfortable place to live. I usually want to throw my weight into one corner or the other and force one side to come out on top, make one right and the other wrong. If life would fess up and let me know how it really is, surely I’d feel happier, more peaceful, more confident. But when I try to prematurely choose between whatever is creating tension, I succeed only in making myself frantic.

There’s a prayer I’ve always sort of hated that says, “Let all things be exactly as they are.” Have you checked on how things are? Because they’re not that great. Maybe I’ve misunderstood, though; maybe the prayer points to what Keats argued in favor of: “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Perhaps we are most in tune when we sit with all the competing pieces of our lives without seeking resolution.

William Stafford once again said it better than I can in the last two lines of his poem “Representing Far Places”:

It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.