Living in uncertainty

I’ve been thinking about uncertainty. And I suppose there is nothing very surprising about that, in one of the most uncertain periods of recent memory. As I speak with those around me, almost everyone is struggling with the uncertainty that has been ushered in by the COVID pandemic.

One is uncertain whether she will still have a job in a month. Another is uncertain whether she will be able to return to her country of origin before her dad passes away. Almost everyone is wondering what life will look like next month, next quarter, next year.

I started this year with two main training courses in view. In both cases, I had leadership responsibilities that were new for me. Even in a normal year, this would mean exercising a good amount of imagination, creativity and organisation. As it happened, there were many months when imagination was put on hold because we simply didn’t know what would be possible. Eventually, the 6-week residential training was shelved in favour of a 2-week online alternative. And the 1-week residency intended to launch the first of 2 years of training for spiritual directors has evolved into a 2-week online version that we will run twice.

But what about that feeling in the middle? Before the alternative is considered as a possibility, when it feels like everything is on hold? Does anyone else find that waiting and lack of certainty just a bit disempowering? ‘What can I do?’ we ask ourselves. And the answer is, ‘nothing.’ Nothing but wait.

Well, not quite nothing. Perhaps there are in fact some things we can do in seasons of uncertainty in order to remain engaged, oriented towards hope, and attentive to the leading of the Spirit.

1. Do the things you did before.

These uncertain times are exactly what we have been preparing for. Sure, we didn’t know it, but the habits we create in more straightforward seasons are what hold us steady when we need it most. It’s not easy for us to create habits when we are experiencing tension. Far easier to keep doing things that have become familiar over periods of relative steadiness. That familiarity can become a safe container for our disrupted lives.

Over recent weeks, I have started my morning time of reading and reflection by playing a song. The same song every morning. While it might sound repetitive and boring, in fact the words of this song, old-fashioned as it is, remind me daily that I am held in the loving presence of a good God. The words return to my mind when I am in need of remembering: I am grounded in the stability of God, shielded by his goodness, held in his love.

Similarly, I came across an app by John Eldredge, of Wild at Heart fame. He offers short meditations of spoken scripture and prayer. The theme is letting go of that over which we have no control, in order to trust in the care of God. For who knows how many weeks, I have closed my time in the morning by listening to the 5 minute version of that meditation. Predictably, during the day the words come back to me: ‘Jesus, I give everything and everyone to you. I give everything and everyone to you, Lord.’ Good words for uncertain times.

What are your habitual practices these days? What grounds you, attunes you to the presence of God, offers opportunity to become settled on the inside? Uncertain days require us to lean into that which is certain, the faithful and committed love of God.

2. Stay in touch with nature

To be in nature is to be reminded that seasons come and seasons go, as later this season of uncertainty will give way to something new. Nature reminds us that life is long and that formation takes place over the long duration of life’s entire journey. It reminds us too that beautiful new growth can come from loss, indeed, life can emerge from what looks almost dead.

I am writing this from a village in the Alpujarra region of the Sierra Nevada. The ridge of mountains outside my window looks the same as it has every time I have been here. Solid, majestic, formed over eons by the pressures acting upon it. The trees in the valley bottom, by contrast, look different in each season. Last time I was here, the almond trees had been pruned back to dead-looking stumps. Now there are branches shooting skyward, covered in new green growth that by January will be laden with blossom. 

Racing through nature at breakneck speed does little to our state of heart. But when we slow down, when we choose to take notice, when we allow our breathing to match the natural world around us by becoming slow and deep, under these conditions we can receive a wonderful gift. Nature soothes and stills us, offering us a perspective that sustains hope when much about our lives is in flux.

Where can you go that offers you this space to connect with trees or rock? Whether you have access to wilderness areas or to a nearby park, what would it look like for you to slow down and take notice of the natural world?

3. Be in community

One friend expressed recently that the pandemic has brought about a community connection that feels deeper and more trusting than before. Someone else described the way an online youth group has offered support to her daughter that has been qualitatively better from previous in-person experiences.

At times of uncertainty, we are all more in touch with our need for interdependent relationships. Into the place created by our awareness of our needs and others’, grows a compassion and a willingness to join hands that strengthens us to face uncertainty. There is something about recognising our common needs that can open up an invitation for greater connection. 

Every day, out of my kitchen window, I see the neighbour on my right side emerge from her door with a plate of food for the neighbour two doors down on the left. Although the two women may not be too distant in age, one has been widowed and lives alone while the other has husband at home and family nearby. From the sense of shared vulnerability and compassion, created by age and COVID, has blossomed a beautiful experience of neighbourliness and community. Knowing that we are ‘in this together’ causes mutual support and sustaining relationships to be forged. 

What are the relationships you are leaning into in this season? How are you giving and receiving compassion, or joining hands and hearts with those closest to you? 

I am sure there are other things to which we can turn for the stabilising our souls need. I think of the books I am reading, the music I am listening to, the poetry I find comforting. I think of the way it grounds me to turn aside from my online connections and social media in order to do simple, embodied things like cooking or hiking. In this distinctly shaky and uncertain epoch, may you and I know what it is to find and create stability, for ourselves and those around us.