“The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.” ~Pema Chodron
The idea of an open future can be thrilling. What lies before us often feels as though it’s just waiting to be written by a mix of our personal willpower and luck.
Lately, however, the reality of uncertainty has been frightening me. The lack of anything certain to grab onto has destabilized me in a way it never has before.
You see, as we move around the calendar year, the day darkening quickly and the temperatures dropping, I am circling back to what was a season of tremendous loss for me last year.
In a matter of months, I lost four people who were important to me, three of them so suddenly that there was no opportunity to plan, to re-focus my vision of the future without them and grasp onto it.
These losses, one by one, transformed the meaning of uncertainty from thrilling possibility to a cold, frightening truth.
For a long while, my only response to this new understanding of uncertainty was fear. I was paralyzed with fear.
I inevitably started questioning the point of investing in such an ephemeral future:
Why plug along with my professional life in that goal-oriented, forward-thinking style of mine? Why save money or, conversely, why buy anything?
And, of extreme importance to a health-conscious person like me, why make so many investments in my health? Why plug along on an exercise machine or chug bottles of expensive green juice or eat raw or sweat or stretch or spend the better portion of my salary on kale and sprouted bread?
Weren’t these activities just my efforts at grasping, at giving myself the illusion of control over an uncontrollable world?
By awakening to uncertainty in such a jarring way, I was living both in fear and with a newfound interest in fatalistic indulgence:
Coffee after dinner? Sure!
Chips and salsa and ice cream for lunch? You only live once—why not!
Push-ups? What’s the point if it could end tomorrow.
My daily meditation practice? What’s the point in investing so much in my own mental peace and happiness given so much uncertainty?
Unsurprisingly, this fear-fatalism combination started to have consequences on my health: sluggishness from drinking all of the coffee I wanted and doing less exercise, and high blood pressure from the anxiety (and the coffee!). I’m sure that many more serious health issues might have come about had I let this fear-induced indulgence carry on.
Instead, I turned a corner. I returned to my healthy ways with a force like never before.
Here’s how I have transformed uncertainty from a paralyzing reality into the fuel behind my healthy lifestyle:
1. I started to consider investments in health and well-being as an act of compassion toward others.
Of course, running, meditating, and eating bowls full of green vegetables may not ensure my future entirely. However, if I want to start living my most compassionate life today (and given uncertainty, I do want to start today!), striving toward a healthy, balanced life may the place to start.
By being calmer and stronger I may positively influence those around me, starting with my own child and family members, and extending to those I work with or interact with online. Even if I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, being peaceful and healthy today may be one of the most compassionate things I can do for those around me today.
There are other ways that make mindful and healthy eating in particular a good place to begin living a compassionate life even in the face of great uncertainty:
For example, as part of a way of consuming more kindly and healthfully, I’ve been taking a moment to express gratitude to all who have contributed to my meal. This deeper consideration has led me to make choices that are mindful of the living beings involved in making my plate of food possible:
I’m not vegan, but I’m leaning into a more plant-based diet.
I buy mostly organic and from smaller vendors at farmers’ markets to support smaller, more environmentally sustainable operations.
These changes have been as a result of the fuel of uncertainty and my desire to make the gentlest mark on those around me—at this very moment.
2. I let myself be amazed by what my body can do, and how good my body can feel in this very moment.
Sure, it might feel good in the moment to lie around on the couch. But, it can also feel amazing to dance samba, bodysurf, run with the wind whipping your hair, or hike to the top of a mountain, taking in the scenic view you’ve earned after a good climb.
In other words, physical activity is not necessarily a boring, mindless down payment on a future that is not guaranteed. It can be a practice in extreme mindfulness, enjoyment, and wonder—at this very moment.
There is nothing that reminds me that I am alive more than moving—dancing to my favorite song, discovering a new, delicious stretch in yoga, or running in nature. The uncertainty of tomorrow has become my ultimate fuel to move and feel alive today. I am grateful for my overall health, my motor skills, my muscles, my joints, my sense of rhythm.
I have it all today and may not have it tomorrow, or next month, or next year. There is no time to waste. I want to move now!
3. I realized that uncertainty works both ways.
The thing about uncertainty is that we really just don’t know. We might become sick or develop pain or disability at any moment. We might live a short life. But our lives may also be much longer than we expect in those moments of fatalistic indulgence.
Although we’re stacking the odds for a long healthy life against us when we eat chips and ice cream for breakfast, odds are statements about probability, not certain predictions of our individual futures. We may, if we’re lucky, beat whatever odds we’ve set out for ourselves and live for decades longer than we expect.
Given such uncertainty and the possibility of a very long life, wouldn’t we want to live a long, healthy life? Our healthy activities today can contribute to a better quality of life later on—better physical functioning, fewer chronic health conditions, and better cognition.
Working to make sure that I’m in the best shape possible in my older years, if I’m lucky enough to get there, may also be an act of compassion for my family. I’ll be able to engage more fully in family live and demand less care for shorter periods of time with a healthier body later on.
Again, there are no guarantees. That’s the point.
As Pema Chodron suggests in her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, it’s okay to let the fact of uncertainty scare you. It certainly scared me.
But once I got a little reprieve from the fear, once it subsided enough for me to breathe, I realized that uncertainty can serve as the ultimate fuel for my best, healthiest life today.
With the lessons of uncertainty in mind, I will be dancing samba, drinking green juice, and running along the beach at whatever chance I get, enjoying each healthy action more and more as I’m gifted another day of this amazing life.
Photo by aarmono