The wisdom of uncertainty

Living in Cambodia has been an exercise in uncertainty. I was reminded of that when I wrote the latest chapter in my book. I decided to change the book’s title from This Could be Heaven to Serendipity Road for that reason.

wm blake quoteAs I’ve worked on my book, I’ve learned to let the chapters write themselves. What comes out when I write that way amazes me. I sit down to write one thing and something else comes out. It started way back in Chapter One, In Limbo. The book was going to be about life in Cambodia — specifically my wife’s early life, which is the most amazing life I’ve ever heard about. I had to get here first, though, so I found myself writing about Bali:

I went to Bali to suss out job opportunities, but within days of landing, it became clear that a career as an ESL teacher wasn’t in my cards. It was a job coveted by younger, better qualified expats and although they were polite, the few schools I contacted made it clear that waiting around until a position became available probably wasn’t in my best interests. All my rational ideas exhausted, I was at an impasse. What was I going to do now?

I did what any intelligent person would do: I consulted a tarot reader.

The reader was a “drop-dead gorgeous” Italian woman. She laid out a spread that took me in two directions. One was the safe route, as symbolised by the 4 of Pentacles, a miser who hoards his wealth. The other was the path of the Fool, who dances on the edge of a cliff, intoxicated with life.

the wisdom of uncertaintyAs clear as the reading was, I still wanted a sense of control over my life, so I resisted a little:

“What about teaching English in Bali?” I asked, still clinging to that fading dream.

She didn’t see it in my cards and wasn’t too enthusiastic about my question. “That’s the sort of job that’s on the Four of Pentacles side of the spread. See how the man has his feet planted firmly on top of two gold coins? That symbolises his need to stay put and protect his wealth. He’s holding another coin close to his heart and the fourth coin on top of his head says money is all he thinks about. It’s up to you, but does that look like the kind of life you want to live?”

No, it wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to live. Besides, at that point in my life, I had nothing to lose by letting myself be cast adrift and allowing the winds of fate to be my navigator. I chose the Fool’s path and wound up in Cambodia.

Serendipity became my personal deity. My only role was to choose a route when I came to a crossroads. I was put to the test when I came to a seeming dead end in 2008. Serendipity seemed nowhere in sight when I ran out of money and couldn’t get a job teaching ESL. What I didn’t realise was that she had another path for me to take and nudged me in that direction when a job appeared out of the blue. As I write in Chapter 18, Running on Empty:

I never expected Serendipity to bail me out when my own stupidity was responsible for getting me into a jam, but that’s what happened. The timing of my email was perfect. My friend had just gotten a job and they needed remote workers.

“Why don’t you do what I’m doing?” he continued. “I work for an SEO company. All the work is online, so you can do it there as easily as you could do it here. I know my boss needs someone. The work is easy and I’ll be happy to help you get started.”

That job didn’t last long, but it led directly to my current career as a freelance writer.

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

Life’s not a cruise when you embrace uncertainty. Serendipity doesn’t hang around all the time. Once she’s given you a nudge in the right direction, it’s up to you to follow your path. Mine was rocky at first and I was working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day just to eke out survival money. I was getting jobs on bidding sites and for awhile, was getting a penny a word for my efforts. I worked my way “up” to 2 cents a word, but that was the best I could do for over a year.

hope-despairFaith in Serendipity doesn’t absolve me of responsibility. It just helps me embrace uncertainty and insecurity. Serendipity throws bad “luck” at us as often as good “luck,” but bad/good and luck/fate are matters of perception anyway. In many ways, we’re always at a crossroads: we always have the choice between hope and despair.

My unexpected divorce in 2005 seemed like a devastating blow. I was expecting to cruise into old age. Instead, I’m leading a more fascinating and challenging life than I ever imagined I would live. Running out of money felt like a punch in the gut, but led to the most fulfilling career I’ve ever had. There may come a time when loss doesn’t lead to gain, but I’ll always have the choice between hope and despair. Not hope for a better future or more money. The word “hope” comes from the verb “hop,” which means “leaping in expectation.” The challenge is to leap in expectation of anything rather than something.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to convert anyone to my “faith” in Serendipity. As William Blake wrote: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” There are enough ‘isms’ in the world as it is. Mine works for me. What’s yours?

Further Reading:

Stop Making Plans: How Goal-Setting Limits Rather Than Begets Our Happiness and Success

An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence