It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work.
And that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
-- The Real Work by Wendell Berry
I wasn't familiar with Wendell Berry but within a short space of time first Patrick and then Port referenced his work.
Anyway, Disho Port uses the above poem as an introduction into the concepts of uncertainty and doubt as they are seen from a zen perspective, but uncertainty is currently all around us, which he rightly mentions.
In his weekly roundup of links for 16th May Doug Belshaw led with a picture of graffiti in Hong Kong which translates to:
We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.
It's a common theme from politics to the economy to the environment to humanity's general behaviour and arrogance: the old way didn't really work but it was what we were stuck with.
Most of us are unable to do much about these things; laws may change and office life might never be the same again - these are beyond our control - but we can look at ourselves, how we act and what we personally choose to be responsible for.
The world has changed, possibly forever, and will change again. That is the only certainty. How we choose to live in it, whatever its state, is up to us.
By and large we no longer know what to do or which way to go, we are all confused, experiencing thoughts, emotions and a reality shift that we have never had to before.
We are uncertain as to what the future will be. We are uncertain if we will awaken and use this to reboot our ways of acting and thinking.
We are uncertain about whether many will emerge from this happy to be alive and live to excess rather than be thankful for every little thing we have.
Will the future be better or worse than the normal that was precisely the problem?
We just dont know.
It's the Socratic Paradox - we know we know nothing. And thats a good place to start.
It isn't just not knowing how to think or act or respond, that sense of "I don't know shit" as Port says, but really knowing that you don't know, having to face up to it and accept it. It can be terrifying but there is often an awakening from such uncertainty, it is a blank slate, it frees us to begin again without our prior preconceptions.
Perhaps, for many of us, the real work has already started as we navigate through our current and future realities. Gone is the old and comfortable and settled, we need to find a new way.
But what is work? What does it mean? Is it just turning up somewhere five days a week to earn a salary? Does, or should, work help us discover who we are? Should it serve some greater purpose on personal, spiritual or societal levels?
Maybe the real work is focused more on ethics and morals and how we can better serve ourselves and our home, this planet. Maybe the real work is concerned with the betterment of the human condition rather than the self-centred, ego-driven existence that has become the de facto norm.
As Julian Summerhayes wrote in his post Wrecked:
"Covid19 should be, in a profound and meaningful way, our undoing, so that we can, much like a rights of passage or initiation ceremony, be reborn."
He's not particularly optimistic. Nor am I.
In the second muse-letter I said:
"Will this change us forever or will we just revert to type once this is all over? You'd like to think that this will have a positive impact on all of us, make us more caring and considerate for our fellow citizens. Once the shadow of death has passed will we go back to being selfish, self-absorbed, almost unaware of those around us?"
and posted this elsewhere:
"It is a huge shock to the system, both individually and societally, a wake up call that the status quo needs to be disturbed. We cannot possibly go back to how we were before but I fear many will, just as they have ignored the advice and seemingly tried to ignore the current reality."
But, this idea of experiencing a reset through not knowing shouldn't only apply during times of global crisis. We all have periods of uncertainty in our lives, sometimes they are incredibly intense and we are left wondering where to turn and what to do. We muddle through as best we can, try to find a way back to how things were or as close an approximation as we can muster.
We don't seek change because change is scary, change is stepping out into the Great Unknown.
When life throws us the proverbial curve ball it is an ideal opportunity to pause and reflect, to not simply rush back to re-establishing the status quo. When we truly don't know what to do or which way to go we shouldn't immediately revert to type through lack of any alternative, we should ask ourselves if those defaults are truly halcyonic.
Can we do things differently, maybe better?
It's not easy; the truly worthwhile things never are.
I have made my own mistakes to the point of when I was made redundant ending up in exactly the same job, for the same team, under the same manager, but as a permanent member of staff rather than outsourcer. Such was my desire to return to normalcy that I would rather go back to a job that I resented.
I was blinded by it, couldn't see any other way forward. In all likelihood I still am, still baffled, trapped.
We are living through probably the most defining period many of us will ever experience - personally, societally, globally - and it can teach us how to resist the quick win if only we are prepared to listen.
I've had a hard time getting in to The Gift by Lewis Hyde so decided to put it aside for now. There's nothing to gain from trying to struggle through something that doesn't grab you, better to wait until the time and mood is right.
In its stead I have begun Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday, the author of The Daily Stoic which I've owned for a few years now. Holiday casts his net a lot wider but it was comforting to see him starting with likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
I suppose it makes sense that I would currently find this a better fit than The Gift coming off the back of Thich Nhat Hanh's Silence.
The similarities and intersections between certain aspects of Stoicism and Buddhism continue to interest and intrigue me so I feel this is going to be quite a good read. I'll report further in the next letter.
And that's it...
We continue to live in unprecedented times which, in turn, should call for unprecedented actions. We should not expect things to go back to as they were, back to precisely the problem, they can't.
The uncertainty, the not knowing, is almost crippling when it should serve as our release.
Take care and stay safe.