By Catherine DiMercurio
I think it is human nature to crave clarity; the nature of our world is to offer us, instead, a lot of ambiguity. When I hired in for my current job, the posting included a line about being comfortable with ambiguity. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the latest corporate buzzword, like “agile” or “synergy.” I remember laughing, thinking how silly that sounded on a job posting, and also feeling as though, having gone through a divorce, I’d muddled through so much ambiguity I was a pro at it. But I’m not. I can handle it, I can move through it. I can even fake a positive attitude about it when I have to. Sometimes, it’s not even faking. I can pull it off and accept that the world is simply this way. But often, ambiguity is, for me, a wellspring of stress.
Life and Algebra
In high school, my advanced algebra/geometry teacher encouraged me to go into some math-based profession, to keep taking advanced mathematics in college. I remember telling him, in a manner that was, for me, oddly candid, that I hated math. I was taking the classes the school’s advisor told me to take if I wanted to get into a good college, but I hated math. He told me that I couldn’t hate it and be so good at it. Part of me, he said, must really like it. I thought he was crazy. But when I think of that now, I realize he was a little right. Probably the part I liked was that at the end of ambiguity and confusion, there was a right answer and I could usually find my way there.
One of the worst parts about divorce was the realization—and it hits you in different ways almost daily—that the future you had been not only imagining but cultivating, simply wasn’t going to happen anymore. The erasure of it all is maddening. Talk about ambiguity. Moving forward and coping with that is often easier as time goes on, but sometimes it still feels like a punch in the gut. Building a different future and cultivating new dreams helps a lot, though. So, when I’m told I need to be comfortable working in an ambiguous environment, I think, no problem.
Clarity and Answers Are Not the Same Things
But like algebra, living in ambiguity doesn’t come easy to me. I have to work at it. Not being able to visualize how things are going to work out can feel quite threatening. I had a whole blog post written about dealing with something difficult at work, and how I struggled in the aftermath of knowing a mistake I’d made on the job had made more work and stress for a respected coworker. I agonized over the error.
But as my weekend unfolded, an event occurred that put this work issue in perspective. Those details are not fodder for this forum, but the situation reminded me that we have no choice but to live in ambiguity, that though we may be offered clarity, even finality on one front, this too offers new and uncertain paths that we have no choice but to take. We can’t control what others think about who we are or the choices or effort that we’ve made, and we often will never know what they think. All we can do is try and be our best and be true to ourselves. And this holds true within the workplace and outside of it.
Being who we are takes bravery and thoughtfulness, and if we want our true self to be perceived by those around us, all we can do is try earnestly and openly to keep being who we are. Still, we may have to accept that people’s unfavorable opinions about us have formed not because they have failed to understand us, but because they have accurately seen us for who we are, have understood on some level that which we want others to understand. They may have perceived our truth and still found fault, or a reason to pull away. We may also have to accept that we might never know what others see in us, or believe they know about us. We have to live within the cloudy grey space of not knowing if they got us “right” or if they got it all wrong somehow.
Understanding all this, living in this reality, is hard work for me. In part, this blog reflects my effort to live with openness and candor and integrity, knowing that in the end, I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I say this in a lighthearted way, searching for silver linings, but when I say it’s hard work, I don’t mean the kind that makes you sweat with effort and feel good about it when you’re done. I mean the kind that hurts when you are doing it and never feels much better because there is always more of it. Maybe there is no victory in this work but there is balm for weariness in knowing ourselves better, in being our better selves through the effort.