Friday, October 7, 2011

Uncertainty or Possibility?

Ten years ago, when I was still in high school, I would have been appalled if someone told me that in my mid-twenties, I'd still have no idea where my life was headed. At 15, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to train horses for the rest of my life. Duh! But the truth is, my life has taken turns that I never could have foreseen, and as Jobs reminded us in his 2005 Standford University Commencement speech, it is only now, after the fact, that I am able to connect the dots.

As a doctoral student, my future is far from settled. If my teachers' and mentors' constant reminders weren't enough, Occupy Wall Street has now made it clear that a job after graduation is not certain (or maybe even likely), though I will have three degrees by that time. I know my dissertation process is right around the corner, and I'm not sure what to write about. I know that, in a few years, when I am done, I'll have to decide where I am willing to live, and if I'm still prepared to commit myself to the adjunct's lifestyle, at least for a time. These things, among others (the cultural pressure to find a husband and have kids before my eggs die, for instance), are a constant source of panic. What if I fail? What if I graduate and never find a job? What if I never meet someone willing to put up with the instability of my life as a scholar? Ack! Start one bad thought, and it's guaranteed to turn into an avalanche.

My students are asking many of the same questions: Why am I in college? What is the value of a degree? What if I have no major? Will I ever get a job? Will I make my family proud? What if I fail? You can see the anxiety that is caused by uncertainty taking its toll on them, especially now, as the midterm process begins.

image from

What I'm slowly learning, or trying to convince myself, is that there is very little difference between the words uncertainty and possibility; both deal with an unpredictable future. The difference is that uncertainty incites fear, while possibility creates excitement. Rather than focusing on that uncertainty, I am retraining myself to think in terms of possibilities (and trying to keep them positive). I can be stunted by thinking, "Gosh. I don't know what will happen next. How can I plan if I don't know what's around the bend?" or I can say, "The future is undecided, but that means that I am left with choices." Possibility pushes me to accept the latter.

This uncertainty vs. possibility notion also plays into writing. Writing is a scary process. We never know where we will end up or how our audiences will react. These uncertainties can make us cautious, cause us to self-censor, or stop us from writing freely. Of course, taking a risk is part of the game. As a writer, I have to be willing to cut things, dramatically revise, and revisit ideas if I want to get the closest to the "truth" (whatever that is). I have to be willing to say things that may offend people. But I should also remember that the possibilities are infinite. Possibility allows for creativity. Somewhere in my imagination are stories that have yet to be told, forms that have yet to be tried, and ideas that have yet to be developed.

As a professor, I can use "possibility" to remind my students that the open-ended nature of writing is what makes it such a valuable thing. Though the task of getting started can be daunting or producing something without understanding a professor's evaluation process, writing helps us to learn, to think, and to grow as individuals. Often, the gems that are hidden in our brains surprise us.

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