Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Irresolution. Superposition. These are my mental nemeses, by whatever name I call them. I could choose to embrace them, to live comfortably with the uncertainty life offers much of the time, but too often I struggle against them. I don’t like sitting in the middle, the decision not made, the status not clarified, the unnamed still, well unnamed.
It’s like the cat. Schrödinger’s Cat. You know, the theoretical cat in the box with a vial of poison that will be triggered to open depending on a random event. So either the vial opens or not. If it opens, the cat dies. If it doesn’t, the cat lives. Before the box is opened the cat is both alive and dead (at least to those of us outside the box). Only once the box is opened, does the cat become alive or dead those of us outside the box. Designed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 as a thought experiment and reworked by Einstein, it was designed to illustrate ideas about quantum physics and superposition. (Here’s the video, complete with stick figure cats.)
(Quantum physicists or those who play one on the internet may want to stop reading now. Metaphor ahead.)
I’m surrounded by boxes of cats in a state of superposition. They’re scattered around my house yet follow me wherever I go. Some boxes are larger than others. Most don’t really bother me much. Alive or dead? Whatever. I’ll know when the time comes to know. But a handful really drive me crazy, to the point of spending way too much time staring at the box looking for clues (Was that a slight tremor? Is the tremor the vial breaking or the cat stretching?). These boxes aren’t able to be opened by me, at least not now. They’re in the hands of others or simple require time and will open by themselves when ready.
Insert scream of agony here.
With a mix of understanding and exasperation, a good friend recently told me I was binary. Not referring to my moods and modalities (I’m more rheostat than light switch on most fronts), she was responding to my desire for clarity and definition in the parts of my life that, for now, defy that. She’s right. I like precision, and much of life is imprecise.
Most of our lives are filled with such ambiguity, whether we’re waiting to see if that mortgage gets approved, if our test results are off, or if we got the job. Once the paperwork is complete, the blood taken, and the interview completed, we’re generally left to wait. The cat is both alive or dead until the letter arrives or the phone call comes. The Buddhists have a healthy way of handling this status, emphasizing being in the moment that is, not the ones that have been or might be. Those with belief in an intervening God and providence may find their comfort in their belief that God will handle it, revealing what comes next in divine time. When I work at it, mindfulness helps, but too often, I just don’t work at it.
I just want to rip the damn lid off with a crowbar and KNOW NOW!
It’s about the knowing. If the cat is dead, just let me know. Let me clean up the mess, mourn, and move on. If the cat is alive, let’s get on with that living and enjoy it together. Yes, there’s generally an outcome I’d prefer, but it’s living with the ambiguity that bothers me far more than accepting the outcome. Yes or no. In or out. On or off. Binary. Concrete. Certain. Known.
My adrenaline fires madly with uncertainty. There are ways to quiet it. The simplest is to remove the box from sight. Put the uncertainty out of view, or at least stop walking into the room to stare at it and become exasperated and sweaty all over again (anxiety literally stinks). The box will open when it will open, unless perhaps it never opens, which may be an answer in itself. That watched pot never boils adage? It works for boxes with both live and dead cats, too.
The more mindful solution is to look at the box and recognize my anxiety in the face of ambiguity. Name it, refuse to poke, prod, and otherwise encourage it, and emotionally move along. Sure, the anxiety may rise again the next time I pass the box in body or mind, but that’s just another opportunity to repeat the exercise. Feelings, after all, always change. And the angst I feel when faced with the uncertain is no different.
Let’s just say I’m better at that some days than others.
Sometimes the uncertainty is in my hands, but for whatever reason, I don’t move toward certainty. (I could try to pull the cat into this, but I doubt I’d pull it off, so let’s leave him in superposition for a bit.) When overwhelmed, I tend toward uncertainty. I can’t pick the date to travel or start a project whose outcome I am uncertain. There’s a certainty to that inaction — I can’t fail the project I never began. I can’t botch the schedule or risk bothering someone else I don’t make a concrete plan. Yes, I recognize that my own uncertainty probably causes other to want to take a crowbar to boxes of cats (found a place for the cat) and possibly take one to me. I’m certain it does.
<sigh> The boxes remain. One or two are mine to open now. Most will reveal their contents in their own time. A few could likely be nudged to open sooner, although as with Schrödinger’s cat, this action would collapse the options into one, and in the more human case, it’s likely letting that box open on its own is better. So here they sit, closed and quiet, not in my hands, not to be opened by force. They are to be admired for their mystery and duality, or perhaps just patiently stacked on the shelf. And so I wait.