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The Shadow Side of Not Knowing

Updated: Feb 5

I am scheduled for an angiogram, and it has been turning out to be a great teacher. Kind of reminded me of Bernie, pulling the rug out from under me. Here I am, having made the transition to retirement, settling into my writing practice. I was feeling very good, and we had a January vacation planned, ten nights in Antigua while Dee’s sister was in from California to stay with their mom on Staten Island. Morri was coming with us, which is a wonderful gift. We are so grateful for this time in our lives and that she wants to vacation with us.

Dr. Bhavesh Gala, my trusted cardiologist, was okay with the plan. It wasn’t an emergency. The angiogram could wait until we returned. But there I was in beautiful Antigua wrestling with demons, realizing that I had been thinking of retirement as the final stage of my life. I think what initially spooked me about the angiogram was the risk of stroking out during the procedure. But Gala has assured me that the risk of the angiogram was far less than the risk of not having the procedure.

Still I kept picturing Bernie after his stroke, struggling to regain rudimentary skills, how proud he had been when he was first able to carry a cup of cappuccino across the kitchen, from the counter to the table in the window.  The image frightened me. It was always Bernie I pictured, never Jishu who made an almost complete recovery, only unable to thread a needle, and she loved to sew. Jishu’s disability was something I could live with. My picture of Bernie frightened me.

I was just settling into retirement — it hadn’t been entirely easy — and here I was realizing that this might be only the penultimate stage in my life, healthy retirement. There might another stage to come, unhealthy retirement. And I’ve only had 18 months of healthy retirement.

I managed to breath my way through my crisis of anxiety although it took a couple of days, and then I settled down again. No use jumping to unhealthy retirement: the angiogram is only precautionary. I am okay.

We flew back in on Saturday night, the angiogram scheduled for Tuesday morning. I was expecting the anxiety to storm back, but it didn’t. I was fine. Then Monday morning, Gala called. He had to postpone the angiogram. He had COVID.

Just when I was feeling that I had pretty much worked through my angiogram koan, here it was again in my face. Something I had never seen before.

From the time I first heard Bernie talk about Not Knowing — it must be almost 30 years ago now — it seemed to offer a spin on life which I appreciated. I was quick to see the suffering that I was causing myself and others by my relentless defense of what I took to be the certainties in my life. Not Knowing. What a wonderful practice. I was amazed to see how much energy had gone into those defenses, how much more relaxed I became when I let go of certainties.

Not knowing made it possible for me to build our network of schools. The whole project, from beginning to end, was filled with uncertainty. I was okay with not knowing. We didn’t know how things would turn out if we tried this, if we tried that. I didn’t need to sell a vision of the future. If we could live with the uncertainty, not frozen in the proverbial “paralysis by analysis,” we could move forward, and we would find out where the Universe was taking us. We were taken to some amazing, wonderful places.

It was probably a few years later, after seeing The Big  Lebowski, that Bernie began to express Not Knowing with his wonderful, “It’s just my opinion, man.” It was such a handy device. I borrow it all the time, usually crediting Bernie. It happens, you know, that I will say something with certainty, unthinkingly or unintentionally. And that kind of “knowing” so often provokes a counter-response of equal or greater energy. I feel the tension rising. I am on the edge of the old familiar adrenalin rush. Now, more often than not, I can catch myself. “As Bernie used to say, ‘Just my opinion, man.’” It takes away all the heat. I love Not Knowing.

But now here comes Mr. Angiogram, postponed for two weeks, although for the first 24 hours I didn’t know when it would be rescheduled. My anxiety shoots up. Two more weeks of not knowing. My anxiety is skyrocketing. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Tell me I could live for another 20 years. Tell me I’d be lucky to get 2 years. Tell me something. If I knew what to expect, I could plan accordingly, or try to. I’d adjust. I think I can accept whatever the Universe has in store for me. If only I knew. Not knowing is different.

What a teaching. All these years, I have been feeling bad for those who were reluctant to embrace Not Knowing. They didn’t know what they were missing. Suddenly, I am feeling more compassionate. I get where they’re coming from too.

I realize that I have always been pretty good at resolving my uncertainties. Just do something. I noticed it in high school, playing chess. I would often reach a point in a game where I sensed the outcome depended on my next move. I was going through the possibilities, the alternatives, in my head. If I do this and he does that. On and on. Unable to see my way clearly, the anxiety mounting, I would just do something. Then I would find out what he was going to. I might win. I might lose. Either way, the anxiety of not knowing was gone. Better to lose than to not know.

I saw it again in college when romances were looking about to sour. When I’d been seeing someone for several Saturdays and sensed that any week now, she would be saying, “No more, no thanks,” feeling the uncertainty of not knowing when that shoe would drop, I would escape the anxiety. I’d end the relationship. No need to sit with not knowing.

While all these years, I have been acting in the face of not knowing, Mr. Angiogram has put me a different place, a place where there is nothing for me to do but wait.

Thank you, Mr. Angiogram, for showing me the shadow side of Not Knowing.

I still have work to do with this koan. Maybe if I sit with it long enough — Dr. Gala gave me almost two weeks to practice with this not knowing — I will come to a place too where my appreciation of this uncertainty increases. There are layers of depth here. Angiogram or no angiogram, we get to my age and we don’t know when or if a stroke will happen. It could happen tomorrow. It might never happen. Something else could kill me or knock me into unhealthy retirement. The uncertainty will always be there. No matter what the tests say. There is a dimension here of Not Knowing which I am only beginning to appreciate.

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God bless you can. Know this. You will be in my prayers.

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