She would not turn back in fear, not desperately shape herself to fit into old, tightly wedged spaces. She never thought of herself as someone who would do anything other than what was expected of her, yet there was never really an arrival at any fixed point. All that wishing for certainty, all that belief in the clear path always visible up ahead. Here she was with life before her unknown, a reluctant yet inevitable traveler on the path still uncharted.
— Excerpt from Visible City by Tova Mirvis
There was a time in my life I longed for certainty. I made big choices, life choices, based on reducing fear of the unknown. If I could only follow a charted path, get further down the road of expectations, things would be certain. Then I could relax. My younger self was sure of it.
I started my career in a time of uncertainty. In college, my family lost the business that had supported us through most of my childhood. I watched my father cast adrift, trying to figure out what he was going to do with himself without his business to run. I graduated in 1992, the middle of an economic downturn, where jobs were scarce. I was one of the lucky ones with an offer from a good company, a large corporation with a track record for stability.
Things were certain now, right?
Three months after I started there were layoffs. I wasn’t one of the ones who lost their jobs, although I was in fear of it for weeks, until one of the managers told me I was safe. “It would be cruel and unusual punishment,” he said of hiring then firing me in so short a time. Whew, I could breathe again.
Things were certain now, right?
This first job had an interesting demographic. I was the only woman in an engineering department of about 30 engineers. The closest in age to me was 10 years older, the average age was closer to 20-25 years older than me. In my quest for certainty, I looked at those older engineers with envy. They had it all figured out. Good jobs, families grown or nearly so, retirement on the horizon… To my mind, they had it all laid out. I wanted to fast forward to that point.
Things would be certain then, right?
Oh, my poor little younger self, in her quest for certainty. Now that I’m at that point I so longed to be, middle age, I understand just how uncertain life is. There is no path, no course where if you do everything right you will get the prize of absolute stability.
Life happens, life changes. Jobs go away, illnesses happen, loved ones leave us. All of the coworkers who I thought had life figured out had lots more life to live, lots more uncertainty to face, just as I did.
Looking back, I can see how naive I was to want to skip ahead. Life isn’t a destination or a goal that you can shortcut to, it is something to be lived. Something to be experienced, in all of its ranges of emotions and options. It’s the choices we make in the face of uncertainty, in the face of fear, and the lessons we learn from them, that make us whole people. It’s our struggles that make us human.
Fundamentally, uncertainty is what makes life interesting. It’s how we get to shape a life, and a self, that is wholly our own.
Like the character in the Mirvis novel, my younger self faced “life before her unknown, a reluctant yet inevitable traveler on the path still uncharted.” That young, reluctant traveler has, with time and experience, turned into a willing participant in the journey through uncharted territory. She has learned to face her fears and move ahead out of the “old, tightly wedged spaces.”
I have learned there is no certainty in life. That’s what makes it worth living.