(Research findings from quantum physics, neuroscience, psychology, behaviour economics, sociology, genetics, artificial intelligence, business models and analytics …. sometimes lull us into believing that we know more than we know. Bounce-Back-Ability, my book dealing with building hardiness against change, stress and trauma, ends with this piece on making space for the unknown. I want to share this at this time).
“When a bird is alive it eats ants. When the bird is dead ants eat the bird. So time and circumstances can change” - Mufti Ismail Menk
When the unexpected strikes (as it will)
‘I didn’t see that coming!’, ‘I can’t make any sense of this – Why me?’, ‘Where will it all end?’ ‘What could this possibly mean?’, ‘It’s like being hit by a bus that came out of nowhere!’
Life is full of unexpected setbacks, challenging change, traumatic incidents, like wave upon wave that knock us over each time we get up. For individuals and organisations these waves may be financial, relational, physical, spiritual …………
Life is “… a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea”. “So the waves keep coming … and you keep cultivating your courage and bravery and sense of humour to relate to this situation of the waves, and you keep getting up and going forward”. (1)
These events may shatter our reality, our assumptions, harshly expose that what we thought was known is unknown. “To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next – such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend …” (2)
Essentially, the Un-Known is part of our human condition and is an existential given …… We basically lose our self and world-images. In these moments we encounter the Un-Known in the unnamed-able experience; something beyond words and imagination. This is the realm of Chaos. (3)
Is post-traumatic growth and real resilience real?
Tillich explains how this experience challenges us to find the courage to rise again and to create ….. True creativity often arises from our deepest despair. Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004) studied how people often grow stronger by processing the consequences of negative life events. They observed how individuals generated a stronger sense of self, a deeper connection to others, and a deeper appreciation of life. They called this post-traumatic growth, and they found that people became more resilient towards future sources of life stress because they were more able to bear the Un-Known or the ambiguous side of life (Tedeschi and Calhoun (2012)”. (3)
Two local living examples are:
Schalk Burger, Rugby Union Springbok. He received the Laureaus Sport’s Foundation ‘comeback of the year’ award. In 2013 his career was cut short. Scans after a minor calf problem showed a cyst next to his spinal cord, requiring surgery. In hospital he contracted bacterial meningitis, and within 3 days was literally on his death bed. Friends and family came to pay their last respects. During his illness and recovery period Schalk lost 30 kg (25% of his body weight). He survived, recovered and represented South Africa at the 2015 World Rugby Championship.
In 1994 Alison Botha was attacked, raped by two men, stabbed 37 times in her abdomen & disembowelled. Her throat was slashed and cut 17 times, and she was left for dead on a
lonely roadside ….. Today she is a motivational speaker, with a profound ABC message of
Attitude, Belief and Choice) (4)
At the time of such trauma and distress it is well-nigh impossible to accept that good can come out of what has and is happening to us. But through the experience many bounce back, achieve greater maturity, re-calibrate their perspectives, find deeper meaning.
We look forward to greater happiness, then something out of the unknown happens, and takes that away from us - can we make space for this? And what enables us to move forward?
Can we make space for the unknown – “good’ or ‘bad’?
Although we will always have areas of unknowing, we can begin to make sense of things (and our existence) by imaginatively examining what might be – not from a position of anxiety, but from positions of :
Mindful reflection, and
We can be an observer to our own lives. We can tell a story of a future possibility – how you are fulfilling your purpose and where that may lead, how things will look when you overcome an existing challenge or trauma, where a relationship that you are in seems to be heading and what might happen along the way, how you are feeling after a recent medical check-up and what your plans are now ….. and we can enter Neil Gaiman’s world of “not yet”, asking and then answering for ourselves (perhaps in different ways) one or more of these three questions:
“What if … ? If only … If this goes on …” (5)
(Wherever possible it is good to choose a positive attitude and outcome. See the stars rather than the bars.
It’s good to look ahead with optimism, see good resolutions, opportunities, new possibilities. Having such an outlook is laudable. But realistically. We can’t afford blind, unreasoned optimism nor despairing pessimism. I like Frances Moore Lappé’s refreshing notion of being a ‘possibilist’. Her thinking fits nicely with Eric Fromm’s ‘courageous, rational optimism’.
I don’t like the promises of instant gratification being held out to us on the internet and elsewhere, of ‘transformative rituals that'll help us to activate our inner heroes and light the fire of greatness within us’. Those promises that abundance and wealth are just around the corner - if we follow ‘the three simple steps that made me rich’. The notion that if we can envision then we must expect to boost our happiness, become legends, unleash our magnificence. For me this reeks of the unscrupulous or misinformed manipulating and making money out of the vulnerable.
Positive culture - yes, positive emotions – yes, positive attitude – yes, positive thinking - yes, IF REALISTIC)
Be curious about your resurrection out of a traumatic situation. Did this happen as a result of your own resilience, help from someone or something, or a combination? How does this inform your future living?
We can gain perspective from the present moment, focus on the now rather than obsess on regrets and resentment that belong in the past, or hopes, expectations, anxieties that may lie in the future. And return to what carries us through, including our own purpose, and finding meaning in beauty, wonderment and the ‘mundane’:
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
Thus the little minutes,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages
Of eternity (6)
Or, through more formal contemplative practices. The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous 14th century monk, is an ‘instruction’ on entering the mystery and present/presence of God through prayer and meditation. (7)
We need to build on what we know we know. Remembering that we don’t know what we don’t know. And we should also learn to sometimes let go of what we think we know!
So we may need to let go of things in our past, revelations from our unconscious as they become known to us, and potential things in our future that are not yet known.
A man was running for his life to escape a hungry tiger.
He came to the edge of a cliff, stepped over and held onto a vine. The tiger couldn’t reach him, but there was no way up again.
Looking down he saw another tiger at the bottom waiting for him to let go and fall.
A rat appeared and began gnawing at the vine.
The man noticed a strawberry growing on the face of the cliff.
He held the vine with one hand and with the other grabbed the strawberry and ate it.
How sweet it tasted!
Letting go and focusing mindfully on the present moment, opening up to curiosity, awe and wonder is a way of becoming free of the past and fear of the unknown, and embracing it.
Reframing our situation to see the funny side is a much- underrated coping mechanism. It’s a way of shifting to the positive, putting things into perspective.
“Walking naked in his bedroom at the White House after a bath and giving dictation, was interrupted by President Roosevelt who entered the room. Churchill, never being lost for words, said, ‘You see Mr President, I have nothing to conceal from you’”. (8)
Now, different people may perceive and respond to the same situation in radically different ways. That’s fine. We can learn generic skills, mechanisms, practices and coping characteristics, but we are all different and unique.
Two monks are doing a walking meditation together, one of them smoking and explaining that he had obtained permission from the abbot.
The other, who is also a smoker, exclaims, “I don’t understand. I asked the abbot if I could smoke while I meditated and his answer was an emphatic ‘No!’’
“Ah” says his companion, puffing away, “I asked him if could meditate while I was smoking!”
What we do have in common is that we can prepare for the unknown, learn during traumatic events, and build resilience for the next time around. Curiosity, mindful reflection and humour can be our companions on this journey. “Resilience is everything because it is the foundation of piloting through rough terrain in life, of gaining all possible power and knowledge from adversity”. (9)
A sage perspective, well worth reflecting on, comes from Primo Levi. Italian chemist, holocaust survivor and Nobel Literature prize winner. (I love his writing. In his autobiographical The Periodic Table every chapter is based on a chemical metaphor).(10) He says:
“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable”. (11)
1. Chödrön, Pema How to Move Forward Once You’ve Hit Bottom Lion’s Roar Newsletter 7th October, 2016 http://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-move-forward-once-youve-hit-bottom/
2. Sacks, Oliver A leg to stand on Touchstone, NY 1984
3. Vanhooren, Siebrecht The Un-Known and practicing un-knowing edX Course: Existential Well-being Counseling: A Person-centered Experiential Approach, Meaning and Spirituality Module (October 2016 to June 2017) referring to Tillich, P. (1952/2000) The courage to be New Haven: Yale University Press; Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004) Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1, 1-18 and Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2012) Pathways to personal transformation: theoretical and empirical developments - In: P. T. P. Wong (Ed) The human quest for meaning: theories, research and applications, second edition (p. 559 – 572) New York: Routledge
4. Botha, Alison (Thamm Marianne) I Have Life: Alison's journey as told to Marianne Thamm The Penguin Group (SA) (Pty) Ltd 2002
5. Gaiman, Neil The View From the Cheap Seats: selected Nonfiction Headline 2016
6. Carney , Julia Abigail Fletcher Little Things 1845
7. Anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing Harper Collins Spiritual Classics 2004
8. Gilbert, Martin Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s war leadership Pimlico 2004 9. Trederwolff, Jude How Improvisation Grows Resilience — and resilience is everything October 2016
10. Levi, Primo The Periodic Table Penguin Books 1986
11. Levi, Primo If This is a Man/ The Truce Penguin Books 1979