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Living in the 'I Don't Know'

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This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. from a bad dream. I was on my way to a job interview somewhere in midtown Manhattan and I ended up in Canada. Lost. No offense to Canada, but I felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety and dread. I was too embarrassed in the dream to call the person I was meeting, so I just quickly woke up and tried to shake off the feeling that the dream left me with.

In some ways, I do feel lost. And sometimes I feel sad and sometimes I feel depressed and sometimes life feels too hard.

Someone I actually love, my ex-husband, is on his fifth week of chemo for Stage 4 lung cancer. It is challenging and both my daughter and I are 3,000 miles away from him. I call and speak to him occasionally, but we had a difficult divorce just a few years ago, so I try to respect our boundaries and I'm grateful that he always answers the phone when I call. His prognosis is hopeful, he will never be completely cured, but he has a good chance to live many years on a low dose of chemo. He is learning to live in the "I don't know."

This morning after I woke up at 5 a.m. feeling so much dread, I did what I do every morning. I make myself a cup of coffee (a cup of joy!) and then I read something spiritually uplifting, then I write for a few minutes in my journal, or work on something I am in the process of writing, and then I meditate for a few minutes and go for a long walk. If I have a job and I have to go out of town, the only part of that ritual I get to do is have a cup of coffee -- but I am so happy to be working, that it doesn't bother me at all. Not working -- that is tougher for me. I love to work. I love the work that I do -- coaching public speaking and storytelling -- and writing plays, and writing articles.

I never know for sure when the next idea is going to come to me, or the next job, or the next play. I live in the "I don't know." I've learned that the times I feel most depressed is when I try to figure everything out. When I try to make too many things happen and I feel like I'm dancing as fast as I can and not really getting anywhere.

For many years my main role was as a caregiver. I had work that I cared about, but I was consumed with raising my daughter and taking care of my dying mother (who hung on for eight years). I loved my mother deeply, but the constant emergency room visits, hospital stays and two hospice stays (all her organs shut down and then she had pneumonia) wore me down. I had notepads full of notes about her illnesses, her symptoms, the treatments, her medications. My mother managed to live to 96. I felt like I was living underwater, it was so stressful.

And then it got worse, my marriage ended, my daughter moved away, my mother finally died, and my job ended. It was the most emotionally challenging and powerful time in my life. I learned lessons that I never could have imagined I would learn. I meditated and cried and read and grieved. I learned more about the human condition in that year and a half than I had learned in 50-plus years of living.

"Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that's all that's happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness -- life's painful aspect -- softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody's eyes because you feel you haven't got anything to lose -- you're just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We'd be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn't have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together."

Pema Chodron: Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

I learned about empathy and compassion. I learned about feeling emotions that sometimes were overwhelming, but I let myself feel them. I didn't eat, or shop, or drink, or try to push them away. I felt more alive than I ever have in my life and I was grateful to know that I could survive. I felt a connection to something bigger than myself -- with a certainty I never knew before and haven't known since.

There were days I didn't have the energy to eat an apple and there were glorious moments of joy. I had two wonderful dogs, Lucy and Lola, who got me through my mood swings and I have lost both of them in the past two years. I miss them deeply, but I am so grateful that I had them both in my life. They brought so much of the joy, just by their unconditional love and their unique personalities.

I just got off the phone with a friend who has been dealing with throat cancer for the past 12 years. She is the most courageous person I know. And she was feeling blue. "Have I always been this negative?" she asked me and I was amazed. She is my hero. She lives with "I don't know" every single day of her life and manages to find laughter and be an inspiration for everyone around her. And she's funny. Just talking on the phone together lifted us both up.

We are not alone. Life is "I don't know" for many people. The economy sucks. People are going through life threatening illnesses, caregiving, grief, job loss. The other day I heard about a five month old who has cancer--honestly, five months old--not evenly fully aware of the world and already its wretchedness has visited this little one and her parents.

Life is wretched and life is glorious. It is designed that way, I think, to keep us humble. Anyone who thinks they have all the answers probably doesn't know the questions.

"I don't know" is a good place to be. It isn't always fun or easy, but it is real.

It is real life.

For more by Robin Amos Kahn, click here.

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