Befriending Uncertainty: Knowing When It’s Too Soon to Tell


I was recently reminded of a topic I wrote about in an earlier blog: The value of saying, “I don’t know.”

I went on retreat with a lot of unanswered questions – about work, parenting, and life. At first, my mind treated not knowing as a problem and actively, impatiently grappled for answers.

But as the hours and days unfolded, it dawned on me (once again) that it’s OK to not know. No sooner, I recalled Rilke’s poignant words, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…”

When I shifted to treating the questions as friends – rather than foes – my body relaxed and nervous system settled.

Like everything, not knowing is what we make of it. Do we turn it into a problem? Do we try to (excessively) think our way out of it? Do we think we ought to hurry up and do something about it? Or, do we try to shield ourselves from looking like we don’t have it all figured out?

Once while driving down the freeway, I came upon a car that was taking its sweet time in the slow lane with a large white sign painted on the back window:
Be Patient
Learning to Drive Stick

What if we were all this honest with each other about what we don’t know? I get it, it completely contradicts how we’re taught to show up in the world, but isn’t it silly – and stressful – to keep covering up the truth of who we are as vulnerable, imperfect beings?

Sure, there are times when we need to express – or act on – what we know, but not every situation calls for such a hasty approach.

Is Not Knowing Really a Problem?
What if we treated not knowing as an adventure, or opportunity, to explore and discover the riches of life as it unfolds?  What if we didn’t have to hurry to do something, and instead rested in not knowing with spaciousness, patience and nonjudgment?

There’s a famous fable called, “Too Soon to Tell” that illustrates how we can meet not knowing with nonjudgment and openness.

As the story goes, there was once a farmer and his only son in the days just before the Civil War. Having only one horse, the farmer and son worked long hard days, sun up to sun down, just to get by, with nothing left to spare.

One day as the father and son plowed the fields, their horse got spooked and ran off. The son was devastated; “What bad luck, now what will we do?”
The father replied; “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.”

The father and son continued to work the farm. Then one day their horse comes running back over the hill with 6 other horses. The son exclaimed, “What great luck, now we have all the horses we’ll ever need!”
To which the farmer replied; “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.”

The next day as the farmer and son were working with the horses, one particularly difficult horse threw the son off his back and broke his leg. The son cried: “Oh father, I am so sorry, now you have to work the farm all by yourself. What bad luck!”
Once again the father replied: “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.”

Several days later the Civil War broke out and all the able bodied young men were sent to war. The farmer’s son, having a broken leg, was forced to stay at home.
After the leg had healed, the father had the only farm around with a son to help and seven horses to boot. They worked the farm and prospered.

Good luck, bad luck. It’s too soon to tell.

The story points to the possibility of keeping our minds and hearts open in the midst of uncertainty. While it may seem unsettling to not have an immediate answer, it can be liberating to slow down our assumptions and actions to just see what happens.

After all, when there’s a big disappointment, do we really know if it’s the end of the story? What if it’s the beginning of a great opportunity?

Breon Michel

About Breon

Mindfulness teacher, compassionate community leader, entrepreneur, writer, stress reduction aficionado, hope igniter, adventure seeker, mountain biker, devoted to others

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