Uncertainty

It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature of the road itself. … No twists, no turns or hairpin beds obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu with awful dread, because she was not the kind of woman who wanted her future told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would only have been Not to Know. Not to know what each day held in store for her. Not to know where she might be, next month, next year. Ten years on. Not to know which way her road might turn and what lay beyond the bend. –Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

…İrfan realized that he, too, like Endymion, was terrified of perceiving his own fate. One’s fate should always remain a secret. No mortal is strong enough to know exactly what life holds, when an accident will occur, or in what guise death will arrive. –Zülfü Livaneli, Bliss (Türkçesi: Mutluluk)

What will I do after leaving college? Where will I be? How will my relationship and friendships stand when we have all graduated to the next stages of our lives? What does adulthood hold for me? Once in a while, I admit, the uncertainty of it all tears me apart. However, these passages from two different novels I have recently read–one by an Indian writer, and one by a Turkish musician-turned-novelist–reminded me that certainty is a double-edged sword.

We all need the certainty that we will be secure from violence and that our basic needs will be met. Nobody wants to or should feel uncertain that they will have sufficient food, water, shelter, access to healthcare, political rights–in short, the lower tiers in the hierarchy of needs. This is not the kind of uncertainty I will be referring to.

For a satisfying and flourishing life, it seems we need the uncertainty that comes from having an abundance of options. I could be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a writer; I could get married to be polyamorous; I could live in Mequon, USA, or Istanbul, Turkey in a house or an apartment or a camper-van–my choices are only limited by the amount of planning, research, and work I am willing to put in to make my choices a reality. The uncertainty that many college graduates and almost-grads like me experience is a reflection of this freedom of choice. How do we choose from among our many options? What if we make the wrong choice? How do we know if we have made the right one? Who should we follow, if anyone?

Getting wrapped up in our indecision, it is easy to forget that such freedom of choice is a scarce blessing. Ammu, a character from Roy’s novel, is a female divorcee trying to make her way in Indian society; and Livaneli’s Meryem is a 15-year-old girl, victim of sexual predation, and subsequently a target of communal exile and attempted murder. It is all too clear, too certain what life holds for these two women. Society has already made their choices for them.

For us, our multitudinous life choices lay open for us to choose and pursue, creating a deep sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty can be traumatic–society-as-gesellschaft brings with it a sense of impermanence,  alienation, and imbalance because no one can tell us what is right and correct apart from ourselves. Making one’s own decisions is harder than letting someone else tell us what to do, but easier is not necessarily better.

In Mutluluk, İrfan becomes dissatisfied with his predictable lifestyle, but because he possesses a freedom of choice not accorded to the aforementioned women, he is able to change his life radically–leaving behind his prestigious Istanbul professorship and dull social life to buy a boat and set out to sea, as he had always dreamed. The process of making the change is stressful, traumatic, and hard for İrfan, but the result is literally a dream-come-true.

Uncertainty at first feels like an evil, but it derives from something good: abundant opportunity and freedom of choice. Too much certainty is the real evil.

Of course, I am reading my own concerns into these stories. What in fact underlies both of the above quotes is Death in the phenomenological and literal senses. Why does too much safety and certainty–having too keen a knowledge of “what life holds”–feel like a small death? Conversely, why do we need an element of spontaneity, insecurity, and even danger to feel truly alive? As Adam Gopnick puts it, “It takes more than full bellies to make fulfilled lives. Without enough to eat, life is nasty; with merely enough to eat, it feels empty. The escape from not-enough can highlight the emptiness of only-enough.”

Ultimately, why is it so important that we not know when and how we are going to die? These are questions I leave for the story-tellers to answer.

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