Living with Uncertainty

Anyone suffering with chronic pain is intimately familiar with the problem of living with uncertainty. Each specialist may offer a strong opinion about what is wrong (it’s your back;it’s your disc; it’s your muscles; it’s your mind) with a solution that follows ( exercise, surgery, stretching or strengthening, meditation, drugs)–but with no guarantee. The patient (from patiens, to endure) is usually left, paying out of pocket, to put together all these opinions on her or his own.
In his book A Different Universe, Robert Laughlin (nobel physicist) points out a fundamental difference in attitude about uncertainty in science: In physics, which comes from the same stream as chemistry and engineering, uncertainty is just considered bad science, whereas “the essence of biology is living with uncertainty.” Biology, Laughlin writes, evolved from agriculture and medicine, presumably paths used to valuing the educated guess.

When it comes to many kinds of chronic body (somatic) problems, the frustration of not knowing exactly what’s wrong (we only know that it hurts) may be as bad as the pain itself. Chronic problems invite us to a new relationship with ourselves: instead of labels, we have experiences, instead of certainty, we have the process of discovery. As with all our relationships, we may not have learned to value finding out as much as knowing. But when generic solutions fail, we are invited to meet our individuality and to discover many dimensions of meaning and a myriad of possibilities. We are invited to experience the wholeness of problems: to bring the physical therapist, the specialist, the psychotherapist, the general practitioner all into the room together; we are invited to find the willingness to invite it all in and thereby, to find out something new.
My favorite quote attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.”