Trembling uncertainty

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My mother was an accomplished worrier. She had an amazing capacity to fret, especially about anything to do with her children. I used to tease her about it, telling her she could worry if she wanted to, but that her worrying would not change anything. Whenever I said this, Mom would throw her head back and laugh, and her worries would retreat for a time.

More than I would like to admit, I am my mother’s daughter. Despite my insouciant teasing, the worry gene is mine as well, especially when it concerns my beloved hubby. Specifically, his health and his work trigger my irrational fears. If I’m truly honest, those fears ultimately revolve around me, not him. If his health fails, what will happen to me? (He lives with a very manageable chronic condition). If his consulting work dries up, what will happen to me?

I recognize, ruefully, that worry about my husband deflects me from addressing my own issues. At heart, worry reveals my mistrust in life, or more precisely, in trusting life as it is, when I am not in control.

This past month, I applied my advice to Mom to myself when, for the umpteenth time, I found myself endlessly fretting about some new work that had been offered to my husband, but not yet confirmed. I watched my mind rise with blind hope imagining a positive outcome, then plunge into despair anticipating rejection. I could feel the worry beast gnawing away at my clenched jaw, tense shoulders and twisting gut. And then, suddenly – and it was sudden – I recalled a phrase my teacher Kim Rosen had used to describe a state of being other than hope or despair. She called it “trembling uncertainty.” The phrase landed deep below my mind and something shifted. I knew the futility of worry. It would not change anything. It was precious energy uselessly expended. Instead, I could choose to return, time and again, to the ‘trembling uncertainty’ which is where life unfolds. Not knowing. In the moment. Directing my energy to the things within my control that were calling for my attention. Over the past few weeks, as I’ve consciously practised stepping into ‘trembling uncertainty’, I’ve been surprised to encounter both vibrancy and renewed focus.

And once again, a poem steadies me with its guiding light and invites me to go even deeper. I find myself turning repeatedly to this excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

~ From East Coker (III) in The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

There’s a good chance that a hard-wired pattern like worry will still hook me many times. But now the array of responses has widened. I can investigate the roots of the worry. I can stay with the fear and experience what happens when I take it in fully. I can exercise healthy willpower and remind myself to choose trembling uncertainty.



  1. Wendy Sarno

    April 30, 2018

    Ah, Mary Lou, you can’t guess how much I needed this today! In fact just yesterday at my Poem Circle a woman brought up the subject of worry and how her mother worried and how she’d learned from a master. Me too. My mother worried. When I was a teen ager I used to say “Don’t panic, Mother!” in response to some worry of hers about me. But, oh my, I learned well and carry worry around like a little hamster in my pocket. This weekend I impulsively volunteered to lead a group tomorrow night. I’ve only been to this group twice and I’m really a stranger and I have no idea what possessed me to offer to fill in for a friend who was scheduled to lead it and has a conflict. I woke up this morning worrying about every facet of this, my stomach in a knot. Trying to turn it over to the hands of Mystery has helped some, reminded me to trust, and now your giving me Kim’s words: “trembling uncertainty”. Perfect. Oh, yes, I can step forward into this. Thank you for this.

    As I was reading your post a poem was niggling at my memory and I found it. Here it is from Mary Oliver:

    I Worried

    I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
    flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
    as it was taught, and if not how shall
    I correct it?

    Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
    can I do better?

    Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
    can do it and I am, well,

    Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
    am I going to get rheumatism,
    lockjaw, dementia?

    Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
    And gave it up. And took my old body
    and went out into the morning,
    and sang.

    -by Mary Oliver, from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. © Beacon Press, 2010.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 1, 2018

      Dear Wendy – The Mary Oliver poem says it all! Thank you for reminding me of it. I want to take it to heart as a light-hearted response to worry. Love – Mary Lou

  2. Janice Falls

    April 30, 2018

    dear Mary Lou, thank you for this elegant description of anxiety, how it can overtake us, and ‘trembling uncertainty’ where life unfolds in the moment. What a beautiful practice to direct our energies where they can be best used, letting go of that over which we have no control. It is good to be reminded when we are too invested in hope or too darkened by despair, that there is another place to rest, in trembling uncertainty. with love, Jan

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 1, 2018

      Thank you, Jan. I’ve been re-reading Pema Chodron’s “Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change”, and today came across this passage:
      “If instead of thinking of these feelings [vulnerability, anxiety, uneasiness] as bad, we could think of them as road signs or barometers that tell us we’re in touch with groundlessness…the gateway to liberation…” Now that’s reframing! xoxo Mary Lou

  3. Pat

    May 7, 2018

    Oh Mary Lou, yes, trembling uncertainty, this is where I will flatten a path to. Thank YOU! I love Mary Oliver’s too, am going to share it onwards.

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