Experiments With Uncertainty
Since the religious task must include reference
to some form of joy, some idea of delight - indeed must be enlightened
and informed by joy - what kind of joy should we be seeking today and
how can we find it?
C S Lewis probably meant something very different, wholly tangible,
when he discovered his "joy". It is difficult to be Surprised by Joy
in the middle of an English February as I sit and write this.
However, if I am to be true to the title and true to myself, I must
try. And if I can do it in the heartbreak country of February then
perhaps the task itself becomes more valid.
The joy I am trying to discover is the joy of uncertainty.
It is not an easy delight but a severe one, demanding an abandonment
of certainties and involving more than a smidgen of courage. I claim
uncertainty as a right of the latter part of the twentieth century.
The Enlightenment is over and uncertainty becomes our responsibility
as well as our right. It is the only condition we can live in after the
monolithic certainties of Auschwitz, and amidst the fundamentalisms of
our own age. Living in the face of a universe without God is another
aspect of this uncertainty and one which must be made part of the quest
Gutsy though we have to be in facing these uncertainties I would like
to think it is an ennobling prospect rather than a scary one. My
overwhelming conviction is that we cannot be fully human - and
experience authentic joyfulness - until we confront the uncertainties.
And that includes taking leave of God.
So, what are the practical implications of this? How are we to find
Well, I am not saying that we have to, or indeed should, embrace
life with a philosophical grandeur equivalent to the free climber's
assault on the rock face (ultimate risk is, perhaps, an ultimate
metaphor of uncertainty). This would catapult the possibility of joy
into the hands of the elite few.
Uncertainty is all about risk, but only a few of us will become free
rock climbers, and so allowances must be made. Most of us are quite
feeble at heart. This is not to say that should we attain the dizzy
heights of the pinnacle - and hopefully most of us will get a least a
glimpse of it - we shouldn't take absolute delight in our achievement.
However, in the School of Uncertainty, most of us (and I'm a real wimp)
will spend most of our time on the rich pastures of the foot hills
trying to find the courage to go up a little further.
I have recently discovered a book called Sophie's World by the
Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. Gaarder has written a philosophical
novel in which fourteen year old Sophie is encouraged to engage in
philosophy. For Gaarder philosophy happens because of our sense of
wonder at the universe.
He uses the analogy of our world being a white rabbit pulled from a
magician's hat. We are all born on the fine tips of the rabbit's hairs,
but it is only philosophers who try to climb up the fine hairs to stare
into the magician's eyes. The rest of us spend our lives climbing deeper
and deeper into the cosiness of the rabbit's fur.
My analogy is similar. The fine hairs are the pinnacle and the cosy
fur the rich pastures.
So how do I apply the demands of uncertainty to the day-to-day
realities of my everyday life? How do I reach the rock face and become
surprised by joy?
My experience of uncertainty has been one of finding metaphors of
what it might be like to live entirely in a world of uncertainties. To
use one such metaphor, I feel like a scientist undertaking experiments
with uncertainty. My relationship with uncertainty is like the scientist
doing an experiment. There is a distance between the scientist and the
experiment, but we are at the same time inextricably linked.
In the same way, my mountain is the sheer delight of the experience
of living in that state of uncertainty even if only for a while - just
as the scientist might take delight in her successful experiment.
Keeping that distance between myself and uncertainty is about as far
as I can go. Uncertainty is a two-sided coin. It is unsettling as well
as thrilling and because I am a coward I only experiment. That is, I
apply uncertainty only to certain areas of my life.
And there's the rub - I can only face uncertainty when I feel
certain and secure. Perhaps security is the destination we must reach
before taking off for uncertainty.
My metaphor for living in a world governed by uncertainty is my
bicycle. In a sense my bicycle is the interface-world where joy might be
encountered. It is through my bike that I plan unburdened journeys of
discovery. And although many of these are voyages of the imagination,
now and again - when I feel good enough about myself to break into the
arena of risk - I put my head into the wind and enjoy being for once
unfettered and feckless.
Last August I rode my bike from Edinburgh in Scotland south to
Carlisle in England - in a day I hasten to add. I was on a cycling and
friend-seeing holiday in Scotland and could easily have taken the train
back down to England.
I remember the anguish of that decision. The certainties of British
Rail attracted - the fixed times for departure and arrival, the price of
the sandwiches, the leaf-tea. Everything was laid out, secure and
certain. If I cycled, I didn't even know my way out of Edinburgh.
It was with a real wrench that I pulled myself away from certainty -
but an anticipatory sense of risky delight made it worth while.
My decision was motivated by the sheer joy of uncertainty. I became
suddenly and spontaneously free from the certainties of life's burdens
and responsibilities, albeit for a day. I had no idea of a route until I
saw the next sign post (my map reading skills have never been that
I cycled through solid grey lowland towns, rolling hills, bright
sunshine and showers and finally into the flat plain of Carlisle. Food
stops were wherever I could get some tea and a bun. My night stop was,
for most of the day, a mystery.
There is a thin line between the joy of this uncertainty and
irresponsibility. For a lone cyclist with very low level skills of basic
bicycle maintenance, a puncture 15 miles from anywhere may well have
spoilt the day. But again, it might not have. It might just have made
for a different sort of day.
However, in pitting myself against these uncertainties I experienced
a most vivid and memorable day (and had a most satisfying conversation
with a fellow cyclist). No-one can take this away from me.
The joy of uncertainty is risky but if successful immensely
worthwhile - and more fun than taking the train.
So how can we experiment with uncertainty when we ourselves are not
feeling certain and secure? Uncertainty is about risk, but we need to
feel good about ourselves to take that risk.
I do not ride my bike for enjoyment that February. How then can we be
surprised by joy in the merciless grind of winter when we really need
those certainties to get us through?
If we can't delight in the risk of uncertainties when the days are
short and the nights are long perhaps we must be satisfied with mere
snatches or glimpses of joy and delight. I have been made momentarily
joyful by the Friday afternoon sunshine as the days perceptibly lengthen
- and, vicariously, through the hopeful uncertainties and striven
optimism in the imaginary lives of a good novel.
So perhaps we can still be surprised by joy even in our darkest of
moods. The first flower of spring can be a real lifeline for entering
again into the realms of possibility and of life.
Joyfulness and delight make us feel good and as frail creatures we
need this. But given that we are often pushed to find delight in
uncertainty (since most of the time we are not courageous enough) is
there any other way we can find our delight?
I think there is. It follows on from uncertainty. Having been freed
from certainties, a new outlook returns to us in glorious technicolour -
the possibility of wonder. Like living with uncertainty, to live with
wonder in our hearts and minds, is to take a risk. It is scary but
ultimately liberating and empowering. It helps us to become fully human
and enables us to become philosophers in the best sense of the word. For
- to borrow again from Sophie's World - a philosopher is someone
for whom life is astonishing.
A mixture of uncertainty and wonder can stop the world becoming a
habit - that is, something we accept as a matter of course (again I
borrow the terminology from Gaarder), an exercise in monotony. Because
of uncertainty and wonder the world becomes more precious, a mystery
waiting to be unravelled, explored, cherished and valued.
This is something worthy of joy. I have a feeling it might be
intuitive. "For somewhere inside ourselves," says Gaarder, "something
tells us life is a huge mystery. This is something we once experienced,
long before we learned to think the thought".
Is it through the abandonment of certainties that we can unravel our
thoughts and learn to rely more on the intuitive faculty of wonder.
So, have I been there? Have I unpicked myself from certainty and
I tend to think this is even harder than the risk of uncertainty. To
wonder is to expose ourselves, to lay ourselves bare to intuition and to
be stripped of all the comfortable assumptions of our own everyday
realities. In Gaarder's book, Sophie's mother becomes distracted and
disturbed when Sophie asks her to consider the astonishment of existence
and in so doing confronts her with the tedious predictability of her own
life. Gaarder would say she is deeply embedded in the rabbit's fur or,
if you prefer the analogy, that she no longer even notices the rock face
from her own position in the gentle foothills.
So what is my experience of all this?
I remember being about seven or eight years old. It was summertime,
hot and sunny. I was standing on the porch of our house idly watching
passers by - and from time to time playing an imaginary game of
stations, using the yellow leaves of our privet hedge as tickets. I was
running to and fro from the porch to the hedge, again and again,
collecting tickets. Back on the porch I began to spin round, first of
all slowly, and then faster and faster.
Maybe it was part of my game - spinning was travelling on the train
- or maybe it was a reaction to the boredom of the endless hot
afternoon. I enjoyed the speed, even the dizziness and sense of
dislocation that went with it. And then the parameters changed.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if there was nothing - no
porch, no privet leaves, no hedge, no house, no people - just nothing. I
got down to stars dotting blackness, and then only blackness, and
couldn't go any further. Then I stopped and, with some relief, came back
to the world of that summer afternoon.
It was a little bit scary but quite exciting. It was my first and
one of my most tangible experiences of wonder. I remember re-enacting
this whirling dervish state several times as a child. Perhaps we should
all spin round and loose our certainties and see where we get to.
Uncertainty is worth working at. Many see it as an enemy, a
destructive ally of relativism and far too risky to take on board. I
think we have a responsibility to uncertainty and might be surprised by
its hidden delights.
With the departure of certainty, not least of these delights is the
rediscovery of God in all our humanness. We can now find God in the
washing up bowl. Divinity has truly come of age when we can seek ritual
and pleasure in the ordinary and mundane. We can see the world as an
arena of wonder where we once saw it as trivial and predictable.
The crumbling of certainty and in its wake the dawning of uncertainty
brings to everything a new light - sparkling with freshness and
excitement. It's worth taking a look.
This article first appeared in "Surfing: Women on the Sea of Faith"