At this moment in my life, a grandchild is about to be born. I don’t know when. I don’t know for sure anything about this baby. We assume she’s a girl because an ultrasound early on indicated that was the case, but we can’t be certain. And all the other possible variables in life are held in a wonderful womb of mystery. Who is she? What will she be like? All I know is this sense of waiting.
We all have moments in our lives like this, where we are waiting to hear. Perhaps we have applied for a position or a program, and we are waiting for acceptance or rejection, not knowing if we will be elated or disappointed. Where every ring of the phone, checking email or looking in the mailbox could be pivotal, changing the whole direction of our lives.
The nature of this moment is quite clearly the state of not knowing. We see clearly that this is true because there seems no way around it. But in fact this is true of every moment in our lives. We never can be fully sure that the next moment will be the way we imagine it.
Last week my husband and I had long-held tickets in hand for a flight home from Mexico, but it turns out that one leg of our flight had been cancelled. The airline left a message on a cell phone that wasn’t operative because we were out of country, so we didn’t know that our trip home was in question.
We didn’t know.
We had our ticket in hand that promised us a flight, and believed it meant something. But it meant nothing. It was just a piece of paper, not a promise at all. We didn’t know.
Fortunately, we found out in time and were able to do a work around and we arrived home on the day we planned, just by way of different cities. And even then, there were things we didn’t know. The gate stated on our boarding pass was 19. We waited there, but then an announcement was made and all of the passengers on the SFO bound flight were to go to gate 34. We waited there, assuming we would be boarding from that gate. Why wouldn’t we? It was a natural assumption, just as it’s a natural assumption that we will wake up the next morning, or that our car will be where we left it. Our lives are based on such reasonable assumptions. But then, an announcement was made that we should all go to gate 29. A hundred people together shuffling around their baggage and babies, their cell phones and cameras, sharing this experience of ‘I don’t know.’ This was not that big a deal, but it just illustrated so clearly about these assumptions. And this particular set of illustrations could have gone on and on, as there are about 70 gates at the Mexico City airport!
Once on the flight, once up in the air, once homeward bound, the future seemed a little more certain, a little more clear. We relaxed into knowing we would be home soon.
Then suddenly all the lights went out. Now this was not a shifting from ceiling lights to low lights. This was suddenly barreling through a pitch black night in absolute darkness. It only lasted about five seconds. Not long enough for voices to rise. Just long enough for the truth of the situation to make itself known in that dark silence: We don’t know.
We don’t know what the next moment will bring. At some level we all understand this, but we don’t acknowledge it. Not to ourselves and not to each other. None of the crew explained this event, nor to my knowledge did the passengers discuss or acknowledge that brief close up glance at the truth. Life aboard the plane went on, cabin attendants pushing their carts of meals and drinks (All free, even alcoholic drinks! A little plug for good old Mexicana!)
It wasn’t until we were all wearily assembled around the baggage claim at midnight that I heard one man say to another, ‘So, how’d you like that blackout?” People chuckled. It was now a story to tell, grateful that it was just a blip of a tale, not like the ones that make the news. Not like the flight to Hawaii our friends took years ago, where the skin of the plane peeled away and they were flying through the blue sky and clouds with the wind beating upon them.
We all know these as stories about other people. It is human nature to be fascinated by them, perhaps because at core we want to know the truth, even as we hide from it in our own lives. In someone else’s life it gives us the truth, but allows us the delusion that it doesn’t actually apply to us. We can go on believing that our lives will play out as planned, even as others do not. This idea of not knowing seems so scary. We feel that knowing is a level of control over our situation. But it’s not.
On the shuttle trip home from the airport, our driver was a gruff woman, short tempered with other drivers and with passengers as well. (Somehow this is our traditional re-entry into the US after being made soft by the sweet nature and patience of the Mexican people.) This driver was impatient and grumpy. When a passenger would dare to offer information to make finding their house easier, the driver would say, “I know, I know!” as if the idea of not knowing was a mark against her, or a threat to the integrity of her very being. This happened in each case, and in each case it turned out she didn’t really know and had to make sometimes dangerous last minute modifications to correct her course. As the last passengers to get out, I felt so badly for her, trapped in her defensive fortress of ‘knowing’ that I tipped her generously. She was surprised, and she really struggled to say thank you, another threat to her fortress: gratitude. Had she sensed how badly I felt for her, she would have probably punched me out.
Thinking we know is painful, even dangerous. In this tight defensive stance, we are cut off from resources – like the bounty of information the passengers had about how to get to their homes. Thinking we know, we are narrow focused to the point of blindness.
Imagine trying to find your way across a field while peering through binoculars. Obviously you could easily trip over what’s right in front of you or be eaten by a hungry bear right to your left side. But this is kind of what we do in our lives when we think we know the future. We fall in love with our plans and trust in the promises of pieces of paper that say what the future will hold. We believe that the binoculars give all the information necessary. Clearly they don’t. We never ever have all the information.
While in the Mexico City airport, I was trying to get news of the potential tsunami from the 8.8 earthquake in Chile. My brother lives in Maui and I wanted to know that he was safe. I was in a place it was difficult for me to check news, so I kept looking for people that seemed to be connected to the internet and asking, “So how’s Hawaii?” Turns out it was fine. My brother and friends had a fun party upcountry and that was that.
He told me when I talked to him that he knew it would be a non-event. And I said, well, I appreciate that knowing that, you still took sensible precautions. He said well there was one potential event that he would not have time to take precautions for: Apparently a big chunk of the Big Island could drop into the ocean one of these days, and if it were to do that, he and his neighbors wouldn’t have time to run upcountry, let alone plan a party.
One potential event that could catch him by surprise? Only one? Really? This from a man who has had his fair share of unexpected news come across his phone over the years. Yet he names the one event he would be unprepared for, the void in his known universe. And this is what we all do. Perhaps we each have the scary thing we name that we keep as a Talisman to ward off all other unknowns.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Ah! How liberating is the I don’t know mind! The Buddha always encouraged his followers to rest in the moment and discover for themselves what was true. He didn’t encourage them to rest in the future, to vest in the future. He didn’t encourage them to trust his findings but to find their own, moment by moment.
To think we know what the next moment will bring is clearly erroneous. We don’t know! Pretending we do is a great weight. Acknowledging that none of us knows may seem scary, but it is also freeing.
One thing we get free of is being locked into expectation and disappointment. Thinking we know how things will turn out, we live partly in the future, conjuring up fantasy. Then when reality hits, we are stuck in that place in between, comparing, contrasting, complaining. We make ourselves miserable over and over again.
When we have these moments where so clearly we can see that we do not know, like this moment for me awaiting a grandchild – when we have these anticipatory moments, we can see them as a gift. They remind us of the truth of EVERY moment, not just this one. Every moment is pivotal. Things turn on a dime. Knowing this we can release into the sea of change, learning to surf the constant ebb and flow of causes and conditions. Learning that staying fully present in THIS moment is always the best course.