Uncertainty is not something we generally welcome. Most of us like to know what’s coming next. We want to be in control of our situations. It’s disorienting to be in the dark about the future, or to believe we are out of control.
Deep down we know that nothing is certain, that we really are not in control, but in day to day life, we often act as if we have to have certainty and control. The problem with desiring control and certainty is that they can paralyze us and close us off from spontaneity and growth.
In a daily email I receive, I recently read this contrast between joy and happiness: Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers . . . Joy is the experience of possibility, the consciousness of one’s freedom as one confronts one’s destiny. In this sense despair, when it is directly faced, can lead to joy.
While this quote says nothing of control or certainty, the contrast between happiness and joy paints a picture of happiness as a sense of certainty and the ability to be in control of a situation, while joy embraces uncertainty as necessary if one is to experience freedom and growth. Joy can tolerate short-term discomfort because in the long run, hope and joy are connected.
If happiness hinges on our sense of certainty, we swing between happiness and frustration, anxiety and even anger depending on whether or not we feel certain of what is coming next in our lives. If happiness fluctuates like a wet-weather stream, joy has the constancy of an underground aquifer. A joyful person understands that life is uncertain and that control is illusory and thus does not attach his or her well-being to such transient circumstances.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We would like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser.”
To be patient with stages of instability is not easy, but the joyful person understands that instability is part of life, part of the movement to something new and that God is in the instability, pruning us for new growth. Welcoming uncertainty and instability, with the understanding that they are necessary for the journey, enables us to see them as gifts rather than as something undesirable.