Sunday, October 29, 2006

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0341 - Not Knowing

On one of the email groups to which I subscribe, there has recently been some discussion about tolerance for ambiguity, especially in regards to questions about the existence of God, life after death, the meaning of life, etc. To summarize, it seems that fundamentalists and atheists are both strident in their affirmations and their certainty about such ultimate concerns (as Paul Tillich put it, "faith is the state of being ultimately concerned."). One cannot be agnostic without jeopardizing one's moral position - this is a truism for both groups. The only alternative appears to be development of a comfort level with ambiguity, for tolerating a state of not knowing.

For cancer patients and cancer survivors, not knowing is the normal state of affairs. We don't know why we got cancer. We don't know why we survived and why others don't survive. We don't know whether treatment will be effective. We simply don't know about most of the issues surrounding our experiences with cancer.

Asking why isn't just about survivor guilt, although that is certainly one aspect of what is happening with me. It's also about delving into one's spiritual roots. One reason we do so is to regain a sense of control. That sense of control may be the key ingredient in why fundamentalists and atheists share common ground. But with cancer, the sense of control and certainty is shattered.

Tolerance for ambiguity or not knowing is an acquired skill. It is definitely not about submitting to an external authority. Instead, it is about asking the tough questions, about putting established authorities on the hot seat without necessarily expecting a resolution, about relishing the journey of question-and-answer, about holding on lightly, about what Edward de Bono calls prototruth - the best we can do after our latest deconstruction. To do this requires a minimal level of maturity that is often missing among the young and certainly absent among those who demand unequivocal answers to questions like "Was Jesus the Son of God?" or "Did I bring cancer on myself?"

In my personal journey, tolerance for ambiguity has been a hallmark of the development of my spiritual understanding. But it was with the advent of a diagnosis of cancer that I had to face the life-threatening reality of not knowing. In fact, even now, during my recovery phase, I find I have to continue with an exercise routine to strengthen my tolerance for ambiguity. Just because I have survived thus far is no guarantee that I will survive in the future, nor is it a guarantee that I won't fall back into a fundamentalist desire for certainty. I have to exercise not knowing or what the great English mystic called The Cloud of Unknowing in order to remain psychologically healthy.

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