Learning to love the mess

February 18, 2009
Life Challenges

Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all. — Chuang Tzu

A dear friend recently shared a series of losses that he had suffered. As he explained how a terminally ill friend had become the “final straw” in breaking his foundational beliefs about death and his own mortality, I found myself strangely excited. In case you might find me a bit twisted, I hope you’ll understand that my enthusiasm rose from a deep belief in the power of confusion. 

I wouldn’t wish such tragedy on anyone, yet we don’t seem to become wiser when all is easy and understood. Really, why should we? If I have the world figured out, I don’t have much incentive to dig deeper. It’s as though crisis creates cracks that allows wisdom’s light to seep in. I trust that as my friend earnestly wrestles with how to deal with great loss and the inevitability of death, he is going to gather insight. Selfishly, I hope he’ll share his garnered prizes with us.

It feels like our core beliefs create a sort of scaffolding or something solid to stand on over the sea of uncertainty. “I am a mother,” “I am from Minnesota,” or “I live in a democracy,” might be some of the planks that support my identity or the lookout post I have built. But, with enough time, the wood gets worn. Tough times also have a habit of ripping up carefully lain floorboards, like the globally favorite, “The financial markets are secure.”     

When my core beliefs are battered and I can’t tie reality up with a nice bow, I can feel set adrift in that sea. Questions like, “Who am I? What do I believe? What should I do next?” become hard to answer. Life, or my interpretation of it, gets messy or confusing.

I’ve come to have an innate trust in this messiness. My perspective expands when life pushes me to move into a state of not knowing. The more I become comfortable hanging out in the confusion, the more clarity I bring back. Meanwhile, we all have a fundamental desire to get back to solid ground again; I like to know who I am, or pretend to anyway, and to believe that I know how this all works!

Hanging out in messiness as mediator has helped. Usually you will have two sides at the negotiation table that have completely different versions of what occurred in a dispute. A first impulse is to want to determine who is right and who is crazy. Yet, the mediator’s job isn’t to find the real truth, but instead to hold a confusing reality that is created by assuming that the opposing stories are equal. Allowing there to be irreconcilable differences opens the possibility of a third interpretation of the situation that the parties can create together.

Without firm footing on how the world works, or who I am, I notice that I slow down and better consider each step forward. It creates a rawness or necessary vulnerability, as I wonder what else I have been missing. It wakes up my compassion as I realize that we are all madly trying to piece together how to play well with very limited information. Also, if we take a cue from all the major religions, learning to love the mess is “right work” and one of our main life tasks.  So, I get hopeful when those I love dip into confusion, and look forward to the treasures my dear friend might uncover in that chaotic space.   

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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