The beauty of uncertainty

Nothing is certain and nothing lasts. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, ‘there is only one law in the universe that never changes – that all things change, and that all things are impermanent. This realisation of impermanence is the only thing we can hold onto.’

Realising impermanence and uncertainty means learning to let go of the desire for answers, and to live in the questions. In her book Becoming Wise: An inquiry into the Art and Mystery of Living Krista Tippett writes, ‘The intimate and civilizational questions we are living with in our time are not going to be answered with answers we can all make peace with any time soon.’

She quotes the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

How do we live our way into the answer?Attempt what is not certain,’ writes artist Richard Diebenkorn. ‘Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.’ His advice is echoed by writer Siri Hustvedt, discussing her essay ‘The Delusions of Certainty’, in which she reflects on the value of living in the questions.

It is unlikely that we are going to find the theory of everything, she says, but it’s not about getting to the end of questions; rather, it’s about generating new ones, and ‘stirring up certain forms of received knowledge’.

It’s true that a rich and fulfilling life can be lived in the questions. But the challenge beyond accepting that not all questions can be answered is learning to appreciate and, as Rilke says, trust uncertainty. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. Uncertainty means not being in control of outcomes. Most of us would prefer to know what is going to happen next, to be able to determine our future.

Uncertainty usually precedes a change, which may or may not be desired. We often resist change, wanting things to be different while at the same time wanting to keep them the same. It’s why we often stay in less than ideal situations: ‘Better the devil we know.’

In less than two months’ time my job contract ends and I am unsure where I will be living or what I will be doing. I keep thinking that if I only had the answers to those two questions, I would feel okay. I know that moving cities and changing jobs is a big deal. Waiting to hear back from employers is stressful. I am struggling to be comfortable with not knowing. So I remind myself this state of limbo cannot last forever. We never really know what the next step will bring. We can’t know with complete certainty where we will be, what we will be doing in a few years’ time or even tomorrow, no matter how much we try to predict, control, or keep things a certain way. There are things we can’t control, and fighting against this only causes suffering. As a friend reminded me, I should try to remember the Zen saying we saw at a tearoom recently: 日々是好日, hibi kore koujitsu, which loosely translated means ‘Every day is a good day no matter what.’


Debbie Millman, design from Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (2009)

Since I moved to Japan, I have slowly become more accepting of change. Here, change and the concept of impermanence are acknowledged as part of daily life in a way that they are not in the west, where they are often resisted. In the school system, teachers have to change jobs every few years. So each year in March I’ve had to say goodbye to graduating students, teachers who are changing schools, and also fellow ‘foreign’ teachers returning home. I’ve had to move schools too. At first I strongly resisted these endings, departures and changes. I caused myself distress fighting against these things that were going to happen whether I liked it or not. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes, ‘the irony of our struggle to hold on is that it is not only impossible but brings the very pain we are seeking to avoid’.

Over the last few years in Japan, though, I have begun to be influenced by the sense that seems to underlie most interactions and narratives, and which is visible all around, in the often flimsily constructed houses, made from materials not meant to last, in stories about death and departures found in novels, movies and even school textbooks, and especially in the four distinct and celebrated seasons. That is, impermanence and the appreciation thereof, known as mono no aware. As Ian Buruma describes it, ‘the beauty in the melancholy inevitability of life’s passing’. But although things end, there is renewal, too. Like the seasons that return year after year. As Christopher Harding says in his talk ‘Killing Time in Imperial Japan‘ on the BBC Arts and Ideas podcast, ‘time doesn’t tick, it flows. It’s not linear but cyclical.’

It is nearing the end of May. Where I live in the north-east of Japan, spring is over and we are heading into the rainy season. I recently finished a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki called Spring Garden. Beautiful and subtle, the book is full of metaphors relating to change and the passing of time.

The apartment block where Taro, the main character lives, is soon to be demolished and redeveloped, and one by one its occupants are vacating. Taro finds a wasp’s nest which appears solid and permanent but, he realises, is only temporary. While walking through the neighbourhood, he is aware on the one hand of its history, the rivers buried beneath the roads, while on the other hand he notices signs of the future: scaffolding and construction work, houses that are unoccupied, waiting to be repaired or replaced. He observes how the area is constantly in flux, with new buildings being erected, others taken down, and Shinjuku Station seemingly in a permanent state of renovation. In various ways he resists these changes, despite their being necessary for progress and a natural part of the cycle of renewal.

In Japan, progress has been so rapid that this has resulted in struggles to adapt and assimilate old with new. Popular writer Banana Yoshimoto, whose work often deals with this theme, says in an interview on The Hindu:

Japan is changing so fast that a lot of people are being left behind without being able to cope with these changes. In these situations when people can’t cope, the loneliness is mixed with some kind of restlessness, so it becomes even harder to escape. This affects all generations in Japan because the changes have been so rapid.

So how do we cope with change and uncertainty? Accepting their inevitability is easier said than done.  One way is to try to remember the preciousness of this fleeting life that could end at any moment.  As Buddhist monk and writer Yoshida Kenko wrote in the 14th century:

If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like some smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.

We appreciate things more when we acknowledge they don’t last forever. The very briefest incidents in life, a sunset, a flower blooming, contain great beauty, as Marcel Proust frequently observes in his novel about time and memory,  In Search of Lost Time:

But I was touched to find that these chrysanthemums appeared less ephemeral than, one might almost say, lasting, when I compared them with the tones, as pink, as coppery, which the setting sun so gorgeously displays amid the mists of a November afternoon, and which, after seeing them, before I had entered the house, fade from the sky, I found again inside, prolonged, transposed on to the flaming palette of the flowers. Like the fires caught and fixed by a great colourist from the impermanence of the atmosphere and the sun, so that they should enter and adorn a human dwelling, they invited me, those chrysanthemums, to put away all my sorrows and to taste with a greedy rapture during that ‘teatime’ the too fleeting joys of November, of which they set ablaze all around me the intimate and mystical glory.


Piet Mondrian, Chrysanthemums, oil on canvas (1909). Mondrian, influenced by Theosophy, believed that art reflected the underlying spirituality of nature and was concerned with the symbolic representation of spiritual concepts.

There is beauty in meaninglessness, too. Palliative care specialist BJ Miller talks about how people nearing the end of their lives often have unanswerable questions about why they are sick, why them, what is going to happen after they die. This is the ultimate unanswerable question and the one religions and philosophies are seeking to understand – what happens after death. According to Miller the two things that bring the most comfort to the people he cares for are baking cupcakes and Mark Rothko’s giant square paintings. The first is an activity that is done simply for the sake of it: the cupcakes won’t last, but there is comfort in the process of making them, in the smell, taste, textures and method. And though Rothko’s colorful blocks have no clearly discernible meaning or metaphor, they are nevertheless magnetic and beautiful. The beauty in meaninglessness can be a consolation to those seeking answers to the unanswerable.


Mark Rothko, No. 10, oil on canvas (1950)

In Buddhism it is a common practice to meditate on death and impermanence. Thinking about the inevitability and universality of death rather than avoiding it brings both comfort and perspective. Lama Surya Das writes in his book Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be:

The Buddha said that meditating on mortality and impermanence was for him the most important form of contemplation. ‘Death is my teacher’, the Buddha said. … We meditate on impermanence in order to cultivate a full awareness and appreciation for the transitory nature of life and all things. Nothing ever remains the same; every breath, every moment, every object every animal, every inset, every bird, every fish, every human is here only for a limited amount of time.

All art and creation takes place in the realm of uncertainty. This is Keats’s negative capability, the capacity to tolerate uncertainty and contradiction which is necessary to be able to create. I have experienced this in my own writing and from many descriptions I have read by artists and writers, like this, from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

‘E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

I agree.

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