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The Age of Uncertainty

By Eulalia Benejam Cobb
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Masks, social distancing, distance learning, quarantines–we thought we were done with all that. We flung down our face coverings, hugged our friends, breathed sighs of relief. Now mask mandates, booster shots, and those obnoxious limitations loom once more on the horizon. Will the uncertainty ever end?

The answer is, no. Covid may fade; the dreaded Delta variant may disappear; and we may return to some version of normalcy, if we can remember what that was like. But one thing is certain: something else is going to happen. In 1918, after the “war to end all wars,” people thought that they could get back to business as usual. But the war was followed by the influenza pandemic, then by the Great Depression, and by the Spanish Civil War, which was the dress rehearsal for the Second World War….

No matter how often we are proven wrong, we humans persist in our longing for certainty and stability, for things to stop happening so we can rest. I can’t imagine that this desire has any evolutionary value. Wouldn’t it have been better if as a species we had evolved to take change in our stride–to expect it, accept it, even enjoy it? Instead, we are forever waiting for the crisis of the moment to end, for the project to be completed, for exams to be over–and then, what? Then, and not before then, we will relax, take a deep breath, and be happy.

Here is how it is for me right now: for a year, I have been waiting for a hip replacement, which is scheduled for next week. As I hobble around preparing for surgery–making one last trip to the market, taking Bisou for her check-up, doing the laundry–my mind, my heart, and my very bones are suffused with the conviction that after that magic date all will be normal, all will be well, and I will finally rest and be at peace.

I feel this despite the fact that the many years I have lived and the many Buddhist books I have read should have taught me that, even if the surgery goes well (which it will!), when I return from the hospital some problem/dilemma/unexpected shift in the axis of my world will greet me at the door. It’s reasonable for me to anticipate hurting less after the surgery, but foolish to expect to take a deep breath and sink into blessed permanence.

That deep breath signaling the end of change would, if I were to take it, be my last one. Up until that moment, as long as I am alive, everything is bound to continue shifting in maddeningly uncertain ways. So if I want to relax and be happy, I need to figure out a way to do it right now, with chaos swirling all around.

I often find Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and teacher, hard to take. But that’s not her fault. She’s a tough woman, and she writes unvarnished truths that, in my heart of hearts, I know are accurate. Such as: “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

Who wants to hear this kind of thing? And yet, we all know that she’s right.

She also says, “Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.” This reminds me of the Aesop fable that I read as a child, in which a sturdy oak tree, standing mighty against the wind, mocks the lowly reeds that bend and sway with each gust. But then a big storm comes and knocks down the oak, while the bending, swaying reeds survive unscathed.

The weather of our lives is as changeable as the weather of the planet. It’s human nature to identify with the oak tree, wanting certainty and permanence no matter what. I am working on becoming more reed-like, swaying and bending in harmony with whatever comes, and maybe even learning to take pleasure in the dance.

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