06/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Promise of Uncertainty

There was once a philosophy professor who opened each class by reminding his students that the test of any truth is whether it is paradoxical. In other words, it must be internally self-contradictory in order to be true. This is a difficult concept to grasp, so one of his students approached a math professor and asked if he could explain this puzzling teaching. The math professor came to the next class, and as the philosophy professor was about to begin, stood and asked, "Sir, do you really believe that all truth is based on paradox?" The philosophy professor scratched his head and thoughtfully answered, "Well, yes... and no." I'd like to offer such a paradoxical statement by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

There is nothing permanent except change.

We clearly live in times of enormous change. Many of us may wish that things could stay put, or return to some version we have of "better times". We may feel a desire for solid, familiar ground, and out of a sense of uncertainly we may be feeling fearful and insecure. In this fearful state of mind, though, it is very difficult to act positively and to find wisdom, because when fear arises our self-created defenses go up, dampening our deeper knowing, and unseating our sense of confidence and connection. In this way, we may tend to reject change and its accompanying feeling of uncertainty.

But we can view uncertainty in a different way. Uncertainty can be a great gift, causing us to re-think our established, fixed way of seeing things, and opening the way for transformation - from stagnation to movement; from limitation to expansion. In this light, uncertainty is the calling card of change and growth, and is a cause for optimism, not fear. This is the essential process of evolution. Periodic -- often dramatic and unpredictable -- changes occur, leading to the creation of new, more advanced species that further the process of awareness and diversity. Without change there is no life, because without change there is no growth. Without change our mind, body, emotions, and spirit begin to atrophy, solidify, and decay. Charles Darwin himself noted this succinctly:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

In order to be responsive to change, we must have the confidence to look at our situation as honestly as possible, assess where previously held beliefs and actions are keeping us from growing, and muster the strength to implement a new course of action. This requires that we become conscious of our internal mental dialogue, and challenge fear-based assumptions against reality. If different action is needed, we will then respond based on information, not reactionary fear. In essence, these external changes result in our own internal change, and are the catalysts for personal and communal growth.

We all know people (and we may be one ourselves), who faced an unexpected change that felt completely unwelcome when it occurred, but who now look back on that event as a key positive turning point in their lives. Through addressing this change, and accepting the uncertainty that followed, that person (you?) experienced growth that would not have happened otherwise. Uncertainty and change are the agents in our lives that propel us, often against our will at the moment, to growth; exposing the hidden defenses that we've created to protect us from revealing our insecurities. Once exposed, these defenses begin to weaken, and we allow something new and positive to enter. This is what is meant by the famous, often quoted truism:

As a door closes, a window opens.

By going through that window -- though it may be a tight fit -- we can discover a landscape of possibilities that we may never had known existed if the same old door that we've been walking through for all of our lives had not suddenly been closed. From this perspective, uncertainty and change are great gifts of grace that present great opportunities for growth.

The Talmud, the compilation of Jewish thought, in addressing one who is struggling with the difficult feelings of uncertainty and uninvited change, says,

...let him be sure that these are the chastening of love.

Like a parent who, out of love, insists that her child turn off the TV (or log off of Facebook), put down the candy bar, and stop hitting his sister, in order to exercise, study, get restful sleep, make peace with his sibling, and eat good food, we are often forced to change, from an Infinite Love that desperately desires our healthy development. The child may resist -- and perhaps resent -- these changes, unwilling to acknowledge that these are ultimately for his own good. Accepting uncertainty and change requires faith -- the knowledge that we are watched, guided, and protected, and that our lives are purposeful and meaningful. Although we may not often understand why events are unfolding, faith gives us the peace to face these events with confidence.

Uncertainty is the calling card of change and growth, and is a cause for optimism, not fear. So, instead of feeling fearful, or hoping that things will somehow return to their old familiar patterns, we can embrace our current situation of uncertainty and change with great optimism, knowing that we are heading toward an individual and collective future that will be better, more prosperous, more compassionate, and more wondrous than we can yet imagine. Then, if we are willing, we can walk through a new door that opens to the untold, unimaginable potential that is our birthright as human beings.