I entered a triathlon once. I miscalculated the length of the run leg (I wasn’t exactly competitive about it) and didn’t realize it was two laps of the course until I put on a little late breaking burst of speed to cross the finish line and the marshall waved me away: “Another lap to go.” That was gutting. My feet had never felt so heavy.
Moving goal-posts, shifting sands, another lap to go on an empty tank. Welcome to 2020.
It had taken me about eight weeks into pandemic life to realise that I don’t have to resolve anything or have any answers. (Thanks to Dr Henry for doing the heavy lifting on that front.) I just have to co-exist with uncertainty as my newest uninvited roommate – the couch surfer who doesn’t seem to have intentions of leaving anytime soon.
School was cancelled. School was on-line. School was back on, with a suite of accommodations, as a kind of practice run for the fall – at parents’ option. Was it really safe? How was I supposed to calibrate the actual risk? Was my kid a guinea pig? What was the right decision? When that option first popped up, I didn’t think I could find my way forward. But the course marshall was waving the flag, cool and unflappable: Keep on moving. You’re not done yet.
Turned out, school was fine. No big deal. (Staff and admin, you are wonderful. Thank you, thank you. So much respect.) Then, as quickly as we’d adjusted to the new swing of things, it was over, done, everyone’s graduated, all our home-schooling sins are washed away, and summer is here. (Can I re-iterate once more? Thank you, teachers.)
Sorry, where is the course map, again? Can we travel or not travel? How close is close to home? What the heck have we all signed on for here?
I start to type “When will the pandemic end” and Google finishes the question for me. The string of search results yields no clarity. I literally resort to pulling an oracle card, and it warns of “Faultlines.” Well, no kidding.
I tune back in to another 3pm briefing, and Dr Henry responds to the question, “Is a second wave inevitable?” with her trademark disarming candour: “I wish I knew.” Caveat: given what we have seen of pandemics through history, including one in the late 1800s that was probably a coronavirus, “We need to prepare for a second seasonal surge in the fall.” And that was before Beijing, before 136,000 cases were reported to the WHO in a single day, before case counts in a host of US states started doubling, before the virus counter surpassed 8 million.
And yet, we’re being invited to transition to an easing of restrictions – an invitation people are responding to at different levels of speed and enthusiasm.
What this means to me now is that I probably should tell uncertainty to get off the couch and get comfortable in the spare room.
Danielle Dulsky says this is an opportunity to practice “generative befuddlement.”
“In the absence of our usual escapes, we’ve been brought face to face with the parts of our lives and our world that are unsustainable,” Dulsky said in an email interview.
Dulsky is the author of Seasons of Moon and Flame: The Wild Dreamer’s Epic Journey of Becoming – a book of practices and practical suggestions for gleaning insight and clarity, through a deep attunement to the seasons.
“If we are being called to build a new collective then we’ve got to pay attention to what fragile systems are crumbling so we know what to build in their place.”
Her prescription for navigating such strange times is to “get weird and fall in love with uncertainty. When we think we know something for sure, and we decide we’ve discovered the answer to everything — or ‘the one true way’ — we are limiting the potential for Mystery to speak to and through us.”
John Keats, the romantic poet who died, age 25, of tuberculosis, called this “negative capability” – a willingness to be in uncertainties without reaching after fact and reason.
One of Dulsky’s favourite exercises for creating the feeling of “generative befuddlement” is to imagine yourself, or the world, in the future, and then shape that projection until it feels like a memory.
Befuddled is such a funny old word. It’s not a crisis word, an emergency, a battle metaphor. It’s gentle and mild and has misplaced it’s spectacles, and maybe this is what we need to cultivate – this myopic bumbling, this perplexed fumble for something close at hand that we must have overlooked. Don’t look for grand certainties and pronouncements – that need is what predisposes us to misinformation and conspiracy theories and gives compulsive liars their seductive allure. Preserve your right to feel befuddled, move a bit more slowly, shuffle if you have to. Echo-locate. Let your embarrassed query – “does this feel okay?” – bounce off those around you. Set another plate at your table because uncertainty probably has a hunger for eggs and toast, too. Nourish it.
At the other side of this experience, Dulsky hopes that what arises out of this pandemic pause will be “clarity. I think once the mud settles, whenever that may be, we will be transformed. We will see the fragility of many of our global systems, and we will be tasked with not wasting this opportunity to make the world anew.”
Conceivably, the caterpillar has absolutely no concept that it’s a butterfly-in-waiting. It’s surely befuddled when it disintegrates into a kind of DNA soup. The seed, when its capsule cracks open and it’s riven with shoots and tendrils, might not know the tree, the bush, the plant it will become. How these radical new forms are generated is genuine mystery. And maybe that’s what generative befuddlement is – both a precursor and a response, one of many, deeply acceptable responses to mystery. Sometimes mystery warrants awe, sometimes a hymn, sometimes down-on-your-knees sobbing, and sometimes a mildly perplexed bumping up against each other in befuddlement, in which we say, “Strange days, aren’t they. How’s your new housemate? Y’all done anything weird and wonderful lately?”