I don’t know whether I should jump back into my art career after neglecting it for the past three years.

I don’t know whether the risky relationship shift I just negotiated with my husband will draw us closer together or drive us further apart.

I don’t know whether I should say yes to the guy who wants to help me develop a Whole Health Medicine training certification program.

I don’t know whether moving my 6-year old daughter out of our attachment-parenting bedroom down three flights of stairs into her own bedroom will be good for her or not.

I could go on…but I won’t bore you with the vastness of what confuses me. Instead, I’ll ask you a question.

Can you make peace – even love – all the question marks in your life?

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and dreams. Try to love the questions themselves.” 

Making Peace With Unknowing

I love being certain. I mean I really love being certain. As a doctor, certainty is a value drilled into us over and over. Nobody wants a doctor who stands in front of a bleeding patient, hedging over whether or not to rush the person to an operating room. Definitive orders are respected and followed.  Question marks are not tolerated.

Yet, I’ll let you in on a little secret your doctor doesn’t want you to know. Very, very often…we just don’t know.  Should I let the pregnant woman keep laboring? Or should I perform a C-section now to protect the baby? Should I close the incision when that artery is still oozing? Or should I risk making it bleed more by fussing with it? Should I prescribe this risky drug, knowing the patient might have a negative outcome? Or should I recommend lifestyle modifications first, knowing the patient could have a heart attack because I withheld the medication?

The only thing certain in life is uncertainty.  Yet, I was taught not to tolerate uncertainty. The residents in my class at Northwestern often made fun of one of our professors who spouted off nonsense a lot of the time, but he spouted it with such authority. “Often wrong, never uncertain,” they said about him. Trust me, this was not a compliment.  Yet, there is little room in medical culture for simply saying “I don’t know.”

I’m still recovering, trying to not only find peace, but actually love and accept all that I don’t know, not only about medicine, but even more importantly, about living a good life, doing my soul’s work, raising a healthy child, being a good wife…

I want guarantees. I want to know, for certain, that I won’t regret my decision, that I’ve made the “right” one, that there will be nothing but happily-ever-afters. But the world doesn’t work that way… Sometimes we just don’t know – and every decision is simultaneously a best guess, a leap of faith, a mistake-in-the-making, an opportunity for regret, and a possibility for a richer, more deeply fulfilling life.

Letting Go Of Ego

Part of my quest to love the questions has required distancing myself from my ego (who I lovingly call Victoria Rochester. Victoria LOVES being certain. Much of her identity has historically been founded upon knowing the right answers – making straight A’s, making the “right” medical decision, following the “right” codes of morality. But this is just a tool for Victoria – something she uses so she can feel superior to those who are uncertain or doing it “wrong.”

My Inner Pilot Light, however, doesn’t care about being certain or right. My Inner Pilot Light loves the questions and recognizes the beauty of the humility not knowing induces.  My Inner Pilot Light thinks admitting what I don’t know is vulnerable and brave and makes room for curiosity, mistakes, imperfections, growth, and fresh new opportunity. After all, the flip side of uncertainty is possibility. 

Are You Willing To Not Know?

All those unresolved things in your mind and your heart and your dreams – can you love them? Can you be exceptionally kind to yourself in spite of – even because of – the not knowing? I know you’re trying to make a decision.

Maybe you’re thinking of quitting your job. Maybe you’re trying to decide whether to propose to your significant other. Maybe you’re considering having a baby. Maybe you’re on the fence about whether to end a not great but not terrible marriage.  Maybe you don’t know whether to agree to the treatment or sign up for grad school or move to New York or sell your house.

Maybe you’re just not sure what to make for dinner or whether to add blue to your painting.

Take Your Time

Knowing that few life decisions comes with money-back guarantees, it’s easy to get paralyzed into inaction. Paralysis can be a potent form of self-sabotage.  But it can also be your inner wisdom telling you to simply love the question – to move slowly – or not at all – to ease into your decision, to simply wait.

What if it’s okay to not know right now? What if what you need is more time to get clear on what is in alignment with your truth?

Are you trying to make a decision? Are willing to simply love the question? Tell us your story.

With love and uncertainty,

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13 Comments

  1. Shasta

    Lissa–

    Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I often tell myself– “I’ll know my next step when I’m supposed to take it. If I don’t yet know, I don’t yet need to know.” Somehow life has a way of looking uncertain one minute and then saying “jump” the next. And then you land in another land of uncertainty! Ha! Thanks for the honesty you showed in the illustrations– I hold prayer and hope that you’ll keep finding yoru way exactly when and how you need to. Hugs!

    Shasta

    Reply
  2. Mary

    Thank you Lissa so much for this post, it really resonated with me deeply. I am currently in a very tough spot in my relationship (do I stay or do I go) and I am completely taken over by paralysis and fear. All the ‘what ifs’, the reality of change and all the ‘unknowns’ scare the sh*t out of me and I am not making a single move!
    Reading your post literally made me breath a big, deep sigh of relief. I don’t have to make my decisions or choices by tomorrow and that is okay! Perhaps taking the time to meditate on these questions and to love the questions will prove to be helpful in the long run.
    Thank you so much for this post and this entire website! It is inspiring for me on a daily basis.
    With love;
    Mary.

    Reply
  3. Marianna

    Thank you for your transparency Lissa! I love knowing that I am not alone in my uncertainties…

    with gratitude,
    Marianna

    Reply
  4. Angela

    I had signed up for your newsletter when I listened to you speak on the wish summit and honestly this is the first post I have read by you and surprisingly fits perfectly into my life. I think it is funny and a bit eerie how things work out sometimes. People or opportunities appear in your life when you need them most.
    I have a dilemma. One that has been haunting me ever since I graduated college 2 years ago. I finished with a biology major with the intent of going to medical school. All my college years this is what I thought I wanted to do and now I just don’t know. I worked at an herbal shop in an alternative medicine unit and realized that I love herbs and natural healing. But I am also stuck when it comes to the issue of prestige and money.
    People say follow your heart, your passion. But it doesn’t always seem realistic.I see my self being a naturopath or acupuncturist but taking the holistic route I fear I will struggle. Not have job security. Not make enough money. Not be able to do things I love, hobbies outside of work. I think to myself maybe go into a profession with security such as nursing and then continue with the alternative health, at least I will have something stable in my life. But I do not love allopathic medicine.
    I fear what is unknown. The uncertainty. And the fact that most people have this fear does not comfort me in any way.
    So I have paralyzed myself into inaction like you said. And yes some people might need to move more slowly and wait but I feel like all I’ve been doing is waiting and nothing has happened. And in this urge to do or be something, to end this inactivity, I fear I will make the wrong and hasty decision that I will regret in the future just for the sake of doing something.
    Advice?

    Love,

    Angela

    Reply
    • Lissa Rankin, MD

      Angela,
      I so feel you. And I trust that your Inner Pilot Light will know how to guide you. But just make sure you’re making your choices from love and passion and not from fear. Fear very rarely leads us in the direction of joy. It masquerades as safety, as “practical,” but in truth, it just doesn’t trust that following our bliss will turn out well.

      In my experience, following your bliss is the ONLY way it ever turns out well.

      But take what I say with a grain of salt.
      Follow your own heart.

      Oh- and welcome!
      xo
      Lissa

      Reply
      • Angela

        Thank you so much Lissa. Very good advice. It is easy for fear to blind us. I will keep that in mind.

        Love,

        Angela

        Reply
  5. Midge

    Sometimes teetering within uncertainty brings just the balance I want–allowing my mind to just “be” wherever it “is” at the moment is truly freeing. Letting go of the worry and concern in making decisions can bring such peace. I’ve noticed that some things just seem to work themselves out when I allow them to–answers arrive and solutions surface. Finding the balance between action and inaction can be empowering. Lissa, your words are thoughtful and loving. The simple wisdom you share resounds with me and gently reminds me that I am being just who I am.
    Finding comfort in uncertainty,
    Midge

    Reply
  6. Karen Kimbell

    I have been single again for three years and now at 64 and living alone, I have a great many “I don’t know” decisions to love or not. I have to say remember the line, “You had me at Hello”? Well, you had me at quoting a favorite poet, Rilke. I, like you Lissa, want the certainty; I’ve always wanted the certainty, yet the times that I have taken a leap of faith ‘without a net’ have been among the best times in my life. But, I was never this age when I took those leaps before and my uncertainty has grown over the past three years. Ultimately, I make the decision, but I struggle and probably worry my friends to death with ‘what ifs.’ I’m learning to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. My ego still bangs its head against the wall of my comfort zone. I’m not perfect at this, but I keep telling myself that the best is yet to come–whatever that best may be. My life didn’t end because someone walked out in the midst of our certain plans. Comfortable with unknowing . . . yeah, I’m getting there.

    Wading through the depths of uncertainty to the other side even though I can’t see through the fog,
    Karen

    Reply
    • Lissa Rankin, MD

      Karen,
      I believe in you…

      Keep trusting
      Lissa

      Reply
  7. Kathy

    I LOVE this!!! Thank you! I am an RN and can relate to alot of what you said AND know the truth about not knowing AND I LOVE certainty. I remember reading that quote as a 19 year old sophomore in college and thinking it was good and important and trying to deeply understand it but really couldn’t. Now decades later, I finally understand it in my soul, even though there is still a 19 year old in me who is saying, “Wait…but I want to KNOW!!!”

    Reply
  8. Christina

    Hi Lissa,

    I think you are asking the right question, and are so brave to put it out there so honestly and openly. I became an accountant because I liked thew black and white – the certainty and knowing there always was an answer. I realize now I wanted so badly to have what the feminist movement said we should have – the ability to make it in a “man’s world” – but how much that denies the gift that our intuition has for us.

    Having just finished reading Caroline Myss’s book “Defy Gravity”, the idea that the mystical law of “there is only now” is a perfect compliment to the whole idea of feeling safe in uncertainty. I am working hard to change my tendency to let go of needing to know and accepting that all is well with my soul, no matter what.

    Heavy lifting, but seems to be life changing. Thanks for another perspective and reminder to stay with it!

    Christina

    Reply
  9. Ms. HalfEmpty

    I too, struggle with uncertainty. I want to know the right path for me. After leaving my lucrative, but unfulfilling job in May, I have many unanswered questions about what I’m supposed to do. I’m still waiting for my vision.

    Reply
  10. Avryle

    I love this post for the question is raises within. Uncertainty is scary, indeed. But I’ve found that when you take the leap and dive into the uncertainty (thus making some of the uncertainty obsolete because usually when leaping you get at least some answers quickly, even if not the ones you wanted) you gain some amount of peace of mind. When you choose to foray into the unknown, with great courage, you eliminate the probability of later asking yourself “what if I had?”. This doesn’t work for ALL uncertainties but at least for following dreams and such. Better to try than to wonder what could have been, later.

    Reply

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