Ambiguity, vagueness, and uncertainty are not to be dreaded, but relished

Life is about not knowing… Delicious ambiguity! (Gilda Radner)

Some people are uncomfortable with ambiguity. They have a need for precision. In their eyes, the world is clearly defined. Things are good or bad, right or wrong, virtuous or sinful. The problem is, the only time that is true is while we dream. Of what value is life if we choose to sleep through it?

You see, life is like driving. We’re in a car, not driving to a specific destination, but just ‘out for a drive.’ Yes, we are in the driver’s seat and have firm control of the steering wheel. We can choose to turn right or left, take this road or that one. And we must remain alert and keep our eyes on the road, lest we wind up in a ditch or accident. But where will the road we choose to take, take us? No one can predict how events will unfold. Nothing is predictable, except the Law of Life that says: Nothing Is Predictable.

The analogy of life being like a car ride makes sense to me because the Latin root of the word ‘ambiguity’ is shared by ‘amble,’ which means ‘to wander about.’ We are wanderers, just like everything else around us. Our planet wanders around the sun, which wanders around our galaxy, which wanders around our universe, which may be wandering around a multiverse (multiple universes). And what about the subatomic particles that are wandering about atoms, that are wandering about molecules, that are wandering about in our own bodies?

Ambiguity, vagueness, and uncertainty are not to be dreaded, but relished, for they are what make life an adventure. Shouldn’t we just relax, let go of our cares, and enjoy the drive? Gilda Radner (1946 ~ 1989) was someone who did so. And here is what she had to say on the subject, “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity!” Who would have guessed that she was to die on Saturday, May 20, 1989 at age 42 of Ovarian Cancer? She had only a short drive, but she enjoyed every mile and milestone of her journey. Isn’t that what we should be doing?

Ambiguity is more than the entranceway to adventure. It is also the path to knowledge, for the child of ambiguity is doubt, and doubt is what motivates us to investigate, uncover, and deepen our understanding. Those who cling to certitude and claim to have all the answers will end in doubt, but those who begin with doubt, will end with a better understanding. More than 33 centuries ago, the wise pharaoh Akhenaton (1380 ~ 1362 BC) taught, “True wisdom is less presuming than folly. The wise man doubteth often, and changeth his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubteth not; he knoweth all things but his own ignorance.” Civilization advances not in proportion to the degree in which we believe, but in proportion to the degree in which we doubt. Ah, delicious ambiguity! For only those who know nothing, doubt nothing.

It may appear paradoxical, but ambiguity and vagueness are also the path to clarity. For they who acknowledge that nothing is certain, nothing is firm, and nothing is completely understood have a clearer understanding of the nature of life and the universe. Certitude is about limits, but ambiguity is about flexibility and expansiveness. Those who embrace ambiguity recognize that there are many answers to the same question, none of which are completely correct.

Take religion, for example. They display different attempts to understand reality. Monotheistic religions claim to know God and give him a handful of attributes, such as Compassion, Mercy, Justice, and Love. In contrast, Hinduism offers millions of gods, each with a different personality. It is their attempt to understand the one God by acknowledging the complexity of the infinite. Each god represents just one aspect, facet, or characteristic of the one, true God. Their embrace of ambiguity, dichotomy, and contradiction offer them a bigger and, paradoxically, clearer understanding of Ultimate reality.

Ambiguity is also the gateway to beauty. Great works of art attract us by what they do not reveal as much as by what they do. The unknown leads to conjecture and allows us to explore the field of possibilities. Only in a finite world can everything be understood. When we open our heart to ambiguity, doubt, and wonder, they stir and inspire us because they recognize the power of the infinite.

What distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our awareness. We know. And the source of wonder, delight, and awe is the fact that we know we do not know. Because of our ignorance, life is mysterious, and because it is mysterious, it is beautiful. Here’s what Albert Einstein (1879 ~ 1955) had to say about this experience, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

Ambiguity is also the key that unlocks the power of evolution. Evolution is possible only because of ambiguity. For example, how would a primitive life form adapt to a hostile environment? Would it develop wings and the ability to fly, powerful legs and the ability to run, or camouflage and the ability to hide? Because the outcome is in doubt, the possibilities are endless. If the outcome were certain, there would be no further advances. So, we have good reason to welcome ambiguity; after all, we owe our existence to it.

Does my article appear ambiguous, vague, and unclear? Are you still trying to decipher my point? If so, don’t fret, for it is about to be cleared up by Rev. Roger Fritts, who said the following in his March 1, 1998 sermon at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, “I cannot wish away the modern world. Science and technology, bombs and missiles, computers and television, airplanes and hospitals, satellites and laser-beams, spaceships and artificial hearts – all are products of the puritan work ethic. Not all are evil. Nevertheless, beyond our wires and buttons is still a great mystery, a great unity that underlies existence. The toleration of ambiguity in words like God, spirituality, and prayer can be productive, if we take the toleration not as permission for sloppy thinking, but as an invitation to deal responsibly with issues that go beyond words. May we recognize the ambiguity and mystery that underlie our existence; may we see this mystery as real and vital and awesome, and may we feel a reverence before it.” I hope that clears up what I’ve been trying to say; although I wouldn’t want it to be too clear, otherwise you will stop growing!