Becoming Comfortable with Uncertainty
A story and a game to help kids and adults become more comfortable with complexity and uncertainty.
My grown son tells me that he still finds this story to be a helpful reminder that we never know for sure what will happen next.
A father and his son wake up one morning and learn that their horse has run away. Word travels fast, and when their neighbor hears the news, she exclaims, “What rotten luck!” The farmer replies, “We’ll see.”
The horse returns and brings with him a gorgeous stallion. Their neighbor calls out, “How wonderful!” and the farmer says, “We’ll see.”
The farmer’s son mounts the stallion, but the horse starts bucking, and the farmer’s son is thrown to the ground while trying to control him. He breaks his leg. The neighbor shouts, “How terrible!” Again the farmer replies, “We’ll see.”
War breaks out, and the other young men in the village are drafted into the army, but the farmer’s son stays behind because he has a broken leg. The neighbor congratulates the farmer, who shrugs and says, “We’ll see.”
Through mindfulness and meditation, kids—and their parents—become comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, just like the farmer in this story. Many of us find this to be a relief. Joseph Goldstein, a pioneering American meditation teacher and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, once gave a talk in Los Angeles in which he spoke about trying to untangle inconsistencies between two schools of contemplative thought. Goldstein told the crowded auditorium that he struggled to figure out which view was correct until he realized that one didn’t have to be right and the other wrong. “Well,” he said, “that was a relief.” Seven years after this talk, he elaborated on the relief of not knowing in an article posted on the PBS television network’s website:
We don’t know a lot. We don’t know much more than we know. And it’s a relief to let go of our attachment to views, our attachment to opinions, especially about things we don’t know. A new mantra began to form in my mind: “Who knows?” This not-knowing is not a quality of bewilderment; it’s not a quality of confusion. It actually is like a breath of fresh air, an openness of mind. Not knowing is simply holding an open mind regarding these very interesting questions to which we might not yet have answers.
When older children, especially teenagers, become comfortable with not having all the answers, the negative connotation that’s usually associated with not knowing can get turned on its head. Having relaxed their need to pin down an answer immediately, kids are able to respond to whatever’s happening with less urgency. Then they can be more receptive to other points of view and curious about what might be waiting for them just around the corner. Even young children, who aren’t yet ready to understand the crazy quilt of causes and conditions that lead up to every moment, can feel more secure in the face of uncertainty by becoming comfortable with the idea that they don’t need to know the answer to every question.
Asking young children to guess what’s inside a mysterious-looking box is a playful springboard into discussions about what it’s like to start something new, to not know the answer to a question, and to not know what will happen next. Prepare for the game by filling the mystery box with playful objects outside of the children’s sight and then placing the closed box a short distance away in front of the children.