How To Be Here: Finding Agency as You Weather Uncertainty

About nine years ago I did a hike with two of my closest friends up to Joe Lake. Cradled in the heart of the Cascades Mountains near Snoqualmie Pass lies Joe Lake.  It’s a gem of an alpine lake, but you’ve got to work for it. This was my first hike after falling off a roof and crushing my ankle almost a year earlier. I was feeling apprehensive as I hadn’t pushed my body much since my injury.

The first five miles were pleasant, even easy. I remember thinking, this isn’t so bad. I can do this. But I had read the trail report before we left and knew what was ahead.

At about five miles in, and for the next two, the trail started to get narrow and rough. We hacked our way through a hot tangled mess of brush so thick we barely managed to keep on the trail. Big rocks and roots were hiding beneath the brush, making it the perfect spot to roll an ankle. I managed to get through it though with just a few scratches….and then things got really hard.  

The last mile to Joe Lake goes straight up. Quickly, I began feeling how out of shape I was. My lungs burned as I pulled in each breath, and my ankle was screaming along with rest of my body.  My pack felt like a refrigerator, the straps digging into my shoulders.  And then these unsettling thoughts began to intensify.  

I don’t think I can do this. 
What if I can’t?  What then?!  

Do I turn back and go down alone? 
I’m not going to make it.  Damn it!
Why the hell did they pick this hike?!  

What were they thinking!?

Why didn’t I see this coming?

The Grip of Uncertainty

Uncertainty had a grip on me, and I was looking for a quick out.  When you feel uncertainty, watch out for blame.  It has one goal: to get you stuck.  Unchecked blame prevents you from seeing a bigger and more accurate perspective on your circumstances.  It is so easy to do, especially when things feel shaky and outside your control.  But blame is nothing more than a weak attempt to gain back some semblance of the control you thought you had, and to settle the uncertainty you feel in your body.  Right now, because of intense uncertainty on our planet, there are unsettled bodies everywhere.  All of us feel anxious and fearful as we look out ahead.  But ultimately, blame will never soothe or help us align with what we need most during uncertainty.  What we need most to get through and find a good way forward is clear eyes with open minds.

Unchecked blame narrows our perspective on reality, and with it our options.  For me that day on the mountain I saw one story with one outcome: walking down the mountain alone, angry at my friends and myself.  Not exactly a story anyone would want to choose for themselves.  Nobody wakes up and thinks, I’m gonna ruin what could be a good day by being pissed-off, anxious or afraid.  And yet, that is what people choose in the face of uncertainty.  All.  The. Time.

After about a 1/4 mile of misery, I collapsed frustrated and defeated, ready to turn back.   

That is when my friend Joel, moving 20 yards ahead up the mountain with the stamina and agility of a mountain goat, stopped, turned around and came back to me.  He came to a rest a few feet from me, hiking poles in hand.  I looked up at him as he asked, “Hey, how’s it going?”  Though clearly obvious, his tone and face were kind. 

Still wheezing, something in me began to relax and my tears felt close as I spoke.  “Not good. I’m struggling. I don’t think I can do this.” It felt vulnerable to say what I knew was true.  I was beginning to accept and feel that my body could not do what I was asking of it, and that I was not okay with this.  I was being invited to see if this moment had something to give me.    

Moving Through Uncertainty

Life’s greatest trials rarely have easy answers.  You know this at a gut level.  And a quick survey of your life provides ample evidence.  There are no shortcuts through the wilderness.  No chairlift to the top. The only way out is through.  But maybe today you are feeling like I was in the story.  Waking up to another day of disquieting news and more troubles sounds unbearable.  You are weary from 2020 and the thought of taking one more step sounds brutal.  

What can relax the hold uncertainty has on our bodies and our perspectives?  

Uncertainty loosens by changing your relationship with it.  It is not a toxin to rid yourself of.  All uncertainty – no matter the circumstance that produced it– has something to give you that is ultimately for your good.  If you learn to listen to it, uncertainty will offer a chance to learn and grow.  Every time.  Without question, doing this work is uncomfortable.  But if you don’t, a story will be written, but not with your hand holding the pen.  It will look more reactive than anything.  Learn to be in relationship with your uncertainty.  This is critical if you are to become a more conscious and alive human being.  

Remember that uncertainty lives inside you.  It’s not out there.  Uncertainty is this tangled mess of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations throughout your body.  It’s best to start by paying attention to your body, emotions and thought patterns as collectively they guide your response.  Begin with an honest assessment with where you are at.  Your job is to tease this out, not abolish it.  

BREATHE, NOW SEE THIS

Below is a simple reflection that you can use to help untangle uncertainty that I call Breathe, Now See This.  If reflection is new for you, I’d recommend writing.  Writing helps to focus your attention and with repetition, build greater capacity (kind of like working out a muscle) to eventually do this more easily “in the moment” with your uncertainty.

BREATHE. 

Study after study shows that just the act of focusing only on our breathing helps to calm the body.  Before you begin following a thought and writing it out in the steps below, I want you to just breathe.  Quietly for two minutes, train your attention only on your breathing.  You may find it helpful to close your eyes or fix your gaze on an object like a plant or picture.  As you do, notice the cooler temperature of the air coming in through your nose and warmer air going out on the exhale.  Expect your thoughts to walk all over in distraction.  That is normal and okay.  Just bring your attention back to your breathing.   

NOW.

There are two parts to this step, both designed to help you focus on your personal experience of one area in your life that you feel uncertainty.  

The first part of NOW is to briefly describe something in your life that feels wobbly, an area you are losing some (or all) control of. 

As best you can, be specific with the details.  Better details will help you locate what is at the source of your uncertainty.  For example, don’t stop with, I feel shaky in my parenting during Covid.  Go further: I don’t know how to help my child with the mental and emotional strain he is under.  I think a lot of it is due to how the school year is going with online learning.  Each day he struggles to keep it together sitting there at his desk building up anxiety in his body until he loses it with lots of tears and anger.  

As is typically the case for most of us, one uncertain area will wrap its tentacles around many others.  Relationships, money, careers, family, sleep, eating habits, friendships, faith, unwanted habits – they all easily become part of the mangled mess.  Uncertainty loves to do this, making you more confused and unsettled.  For the purposes of this exercise, try to train your attention on just the one thing – your kids or family, your work, finances, the election, a key relationship, etc.  The goal with this reflection is not efficient problem solving or to catalogue everything that’s wrong.  The goal is clear eyes and an open mind to enable good choices as you face what is ahead.  

The second part of NOW is to pay attention – without judgement – to your body, emotions, and thought patterns connected to this area of uncertainty.  

When moving through uncertainty, the physical sensations in your body, as well as your emotions and thoughts, are trustworthy allies.  If you approach all three with a posture of curiosity and not as threats to place judgement over, you will be led closer to what needs further attention and care.  Engaging at this level helps you be present with the current reality, which, though perhaps an obvious point, is the best place for you to be.  Of course, you want to be on the other side of all this.  That starts by learning to be here, with your uncertainty.  

Below are a few examples to help get you going with describing all three with greater specificity.  

How do you experience this area of uncertainty right now…


…in your body?
…in your emotions? …in your thoughts?
e.g. tightening in my chest, heart racing, butterflies, exhaustion, breathing irregularities (shallow or holding breathe) mind “spinning”, brain “fog”, numbness, restless, “on edge”, etc. e.g. anger, despair, afraid, worry, parent guilt, focused, determined, rage, resentment, critical, calloused, confused, indecisive, tense, rigid, irritable, etc. e.g. I can’t do this!  I hate this!  It’s always going to feel this way.  It’s all up to me to figure it out.  Why can’t I pull myself together? I’m just fed up with all of this.

As you reflect on all three areas, you may notice feeling more grounded, more in your body.  That is why listening at this level matters so much.  You are becoming more connected to the only real thing you can control in all this: you.        

SEE. 

Now ask yourself, what has been illuminated over the loss of certainty I once had (or fear losing further) in this area of life?

What uncertainty often obscures is an ache tied to a big change.  Another word for change is loss.  When we name and feel that loss, what gets illuminated are parts of the old story that we are clinging to that need to be fully let go.  Grief softens and soothes an unsettled body and mind, giving us the chance to unclench our grip on what was, and eventually, open ourselves to what could be possible out ahead.  I’m learning that the body wants to do this naturally.  We just need a safe and caring space to do so.

Before I move to the final step of this reflection, let me pick up the story where I left off.  After sharing with Joel how much I was struggling, he said, “Yea, this is brutal.”  He did not say anything else for a few minutes while we just silently breathed and drank some water.  Then he spoke, “See that rock up ahead about 10 yards? Let’s get there. We can do that.” 

I looked beyond him at the rock.  I then lifted my weary body, caught my balance, and took each step with eyes focused only on that rock.  Reaching the rock, I immediately crumpled.  After catching my breath again, a minute or so later he said, “See that tree with the big roots? Let’s get there.” Same thing happened.  I got up.  We walked a few more steps, stopped, hands on my knees, bent over breathing hard.  It strangely started to get easier from there though.  After another spot or two, I started picking them.  For the next 30 minutes, spot after spot we moved together until finally we reached the top and laid eyes on Joe Lake for the first time.

Often, untangling uncertainty requires a witness, especially when grief is present.  Grieving heals and uncertainty releases best when we share with others our experience.  A spouse, a friend, mentor, or counselor – pick anyone who feels safe and wants good things for you.  Be sure that they have the fortitude to wait with you and hear what you are saying.  They should be capable of not forcing things along with “helpful advice” or a pep talk.  Show them what you have untangled so far.  And do this often as you move though the days, weeks and months of uncertainty.  

Sharing is one of the most powerful antidotes to counteract becoming truly stuck.  To be stuck is to see a very narrow slice of reality that for me sounded like, “I’m struggling here! I can’t do this anymore!” And it’s the sharing with others that lifts our eyes to see something we missed or need to be reminded of. The act of sharing openly makes it possible to receive some necessary care and move forward with a clearer mindset of grace. 

If you are thinking, yeah, but no one likes a complainer.  I don’t want to just sit there and moan about my problems.  Good.  That’s not what this is.  Complaining is similar to blame; it pushes away grief and lets us be the victim of uncertainty.  Complaint wants us to bypass our agency and courage.  You are moving toward a new belief in all of this: that your uncertainty has something for you; it is not set against you.  When you make this shift in your relationship with uncertainty it will alter forever the way you view major life transitions.

THIS. 

The final step of this reflection is to ask yourself, in this moment, what are my next most immediate steps forward if kindness and love were my goal?  And, what help do I need to take this step?

“Just take one step at a time.” Such a bland truism, but worth its weight in gold when stumbling through uncertain times.  THIS is about doing what is right in front of you.  THIS is about action, taking the next real steps, being as fully here as you can.  You are choosing to deal with what you’re responsible for, what you can control, but in as kind and loving a way as you can.   You are NOT trying to be with tomorrow’s problems.   You’ll do that then.  What you can decide is how you want to be present in an hour with your child when remote learning begins, or with your team members in the meeting you have 15 minutes from now, or your partner who is about to get home, or simply yourself this next hour.  Maybe your THIS is stopping what you are doing right now – with all its hurry and flurry – to rest, eat something good, or take a walk.  

Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  When kindness and love become the goal of this space, your next set of choices become clearer and your capacity grows with it to choose a better story.  Keep in mind, “better” during these uncertain times starts with your perspective and flows out from there.  It will be quite a long time before Covid-19 goes away, racial unrest heals, or financial insecurity stabilizes.  For now, you get better at being here with yourself.  And my hope is that this begins to feel like freedom for you.

To the Mountain Goats Among Us

Before I wrap this rather long blog up, I want to speak to those of you who are doing well during these challenging times.  Maybe right now you are Joel in the story. Your goat legs are strong and steady.  Enjoy this moment.  Give thanks for it.  And I would ask, who in your life is struggling that you can come alongside and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” And then, “See that rock?  Let’s get there together.”  If you don’t see anyone, do some backtracking and consider who you left behind.  You have capacity, resources, and care to offer.  Why wouldn’t you use this moment to help, like really roll up your sleeves and get in there?  Helping isn’t primarily for their benefit: this is for the sake of your freedom and growth, too.  Prolonged comfort and security have a similar blinding affect as chronic uncertainty, except instead of blinding you to seeing things like personal grief you become blind to seeing your neighbor.  Grief and love have a similar effect: they open our eyes to a bigger story.  There will come a moment, I would bet good money in the next year or two, where you will be that guy sucking wind on the trail.  Suffering will be part of your story.  This moment for you may be an invitation to do for others what you would hope someone would do for you.

The most sacred work in our lives happens during times of the greatest uncertainty.  This is when we get to see the truth of ourselves and this world more clearly, and hopefully choose a kinder path forward to a better story.  Why wouldn’t we all want to look for opportunities to join that work? And who knows – maybe through caring for others and offering what you have, you will also be given fresh eyes to see like you’ve never seen uncertain times before.

Of course, over a lifetime, we need to be both – the experienced climber who comes alongside others to help, and the guy near cardiac arrest crying out for help. Both experiences are part of being human and part of learning to be here. Wherever you find yourself today and whatever condition you may be in, it’s okay to be right where you are in this uncertain wilderness and to be open and honest about it.  

Conclusion

When we reached the top, I dropped my pack, stripped down to my underwear and walked right into Joe Lake. To this day, I’ve never felt refreshed and enlivened by an alpine lake quite like that.  We would spend hours that night talking, gorging on gummy bears, sharing life, saying things during a quiet lull like, “Man, that last mile was brutal!”  Laughing and marveling at the stars and the Perseid meteor shower.  I felt so alive and grateful.  

And the best gift that day happened back on the trail.

My friends, remember, uncertain times eventually come to an end. We will not be here forever. Do not lose sight of what uncertainty illuminates for us all: we are each authors of the life we’ve been given, and this moment is for us to write.  As this difficult chapter continues, hold the pen with grace and kindness, and with the help of others, take bold steps forward, one rock, one root, one step at a time. There is a better story ahead.  Ask for help to see it. Be the help for someone who needs to see it.  

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