03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Living With Certainty, Being Here Now

The terrible events of the last decade have shaken our naive American delusion of safety and exemption from many of the harsher realities of life. We have been forced to face the fact that nothing in the world is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is ever really completely safe. There is no such thing as security. Anything, anything at all, can happen at any moment. And in that moment, we are changed forever, as well.

How the hell can we cope with such uncertain times? (And all times are uncertain.) Life is a dangerous proposition all the way around. Nobody makes it out alive, after all. We never know, from day to day, from minute to minute, when a crisis will arrive unannounced on our doorstep. We never know when or how we will be called upon to rise to a critical, pivotal occasion. Yet we would like to think that we would be ready, willing and able to handle whatever may come our way. Like any good scout, we aim to be prepared.

But being prepared in the way of the Scouts can get you only so far. Sure, it is always a good idea to have a well-stocked pantry, tool box and first aid kit, just in case. It behooves one to be smart, to be alert, aware, vigilant, careful and calm. But there is simply no way -- given the infinite variety of diabolically creative forms that death and destruction can take -- to be prepared for any conceivable contingency.

How can we predict and plan for every possible danger when we are confronted with scenarios that no sane person could ever invent? Who, save for Hollywood's most obscene illusionists, could possibly have conjured the unthinkable traumas that we have been exposed to -- if not personally, vicariously, and certainly psychically? Let alone prepare for them?

Two well-heeled, well-coiffed Japanese tourists in London were struck and killed by lightning striking literally out of the blue as they strolled through Hyde Park. The wire, it would seem, on their under-wire brassieres had attracted the deadly bolt. How could we ever anticipate anything so bizarre?

A few years ago, a woman I once knew was walking with her husband and two adolescent sons along Boston harbor one sunny Sunday afternoon. They were eating ice cream and looking at the ships when a freak wind came along and knocked one of the boys into the water, never to be seen again. Imagine. Life is so fragile that an errant wind could literally blow you away forever.

The only way that we can truly prepare ourselves for unanticipated emergencies is to center ourselves in the present moment. To pay attention. To really be here now. To be ever mindful. If we can focus on the immediate, rather than obsess over the past or try to anticipate the future, we will have the presence of mind to assess each situation as it arises. And we will be able to be flexible in our response to it.

I have a friend who tends toward panic. The woman craves security. Just watching the dizzy ups and downs of my ever-precarious economic circumstances over the years drives her to distraction. When the vagaries of my life make her especially nervous, she will demand, "What, exactly, are you going to do?"

Exactly? "Well, I will do such and such," I brazenly reply, not because I know that to be true, but because I feel compelled to come up with an answer to ease her concern and worry on my behalf. Of course, the correct and honest answer always has to be, "I don't know. It depends. I have to see. I have to think. I have to feel. I have to meditate. I have to consult the cards. I have to do what seems right at the moment." This is not being irresponsible. It is the ultimate response-ability.

Eventually, I came to understand that she was asking the wrong question in the first place. It is not so important to know what we will do in any given situation. The crucial thing is to know that we will be able to do something. To have confidence in our ability to think on our feet. To have faith in our own assessments, instincts and intuition. To be able to figure it out as we go along. To believe in our good intentions and our courage to do whatever is called for.

I remember so vividly the last cogent conversation that I had with my dear friend Jimmy a few days before he died. I asked him what lessons he had learned having had to deal with a mortal disease for so many years. What did all that pain and suffering come to in a spiritual sense? He replied that he had learned that he had inside of himself the resources that he needed in order to do what he had to do. He had never known that before, he told me.

What a valuable lesson. It seems to me that the secret to successful preparation is mindful presence. To live the life that we have, while we can, as best as we can, and to appreciate every single minute of it. L' chaim!, the Yiddish toast, "To life!" recognizes, embraces and salutes life in the full range of its scope and complexity. It celebrates all of it -- the good, the bad, the ugly, the indifferent -- for tomorrow we die.