April 23, 2014

What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do.~ Susan McCulley

Freedom, New Zealand

My step daughter, Reade, had a rough go of it in middle school and high school.

Criminy, who of us didn’t?

I remember her expressing such uncertainty in those days. When I asked her if she wanted to go to a dance or a game or invite someone over, she almost always responded, “Kinda yes and kinda no.”

While my planning/encouraging/’you-can-do-it’ stepmother self was irked by her ‘meh’ response, a big part of me totally got it.

Should I move or stay here? Should we break up or get married? Should I change jobs or stick it out? What do I do now?

When is the last time you weren’t sure what to do? When was the last time it felt like you were smack in the middle of nowhere with no clear idea where to go? Last year? Last week? Right now?

We’ve all been there: in the place of betwixt and between when it seems like there are either too many or too few options. Simultaneously feeling “Oh yes, I really want to do this” and “Oh crap, what if I do?” tends to leave us breathless and paralyzed.

Some call this place of uncertainty the interim time. It’s also called liminal time, which literally means relating to a threshold. For most of us, it doesn’t matter what you call it: what it is, is flippin’ uncomfortable.

In 2012 after teaching the body-mind practice of Nia for 12 years, I took a four-month sabbatical from my work. I was eye lash-deep in liminal time. I felt confused and disillusioned and did not see a clear path in any particular direction. I had a pile of things I was interested in and another pile of things I didn’t give a rip about and I spent a good deal of time panicking and mucking around in those piles.

Sometimes interim times are big and dramatic: a break up, a job change, a pregnancy, a move. But actually, these interim times are happening all the time – they might not be as intense, but somehow on a fairly regular basis, I find myself in between, standing in the middle, unsure what to do.

Just this afternoon, I set aside an hour to write this article and to work on another piece I’m writing. But first I felt like I needed to do some things for the family, and I had to run to the store, and then couldn’t find some information I needed, and then I only had 20 minutes left of my hour. I could organize my desk, or read that article on Facebook, and besides, I wasn’t really sure that the idea I had for this piece was all that great anyway.

And there’s the rub: I was afraid to start on something that might not turn out well. What if my point was pointless? What if someone makes a nasty comment? Or worse, what if nobody pays attention at all?

“Kinda yes and kinda no.”

Liminal time is actually essential and it’s helpful to let yourself be there, as much as it sucks. Liminal time is fertile. It’s where seeds get planted. When I’m feeling betwixt and between, it means that something interesting is brewing. Doctor and psychologist, Joan Borysenko calls it the time of “no longer and not yet.” Something is over and something else hasn’t started. If I avoid these times of not-knowing by rushing to a decision or staying the course because it’s familiar, it’s like tilling over seeds the day after I’ve planted them.

Discomfort with liminal time is the stuff that rebound relationships are made of. Lord knows, those are no help to anybody. So what’s a body to do when we don’t know what to do?

I’ve come to perk up and take notice when I feel myself saying, “Kinda yes and kinda no.” I do my best to relax, feel the uncertainty, then show up and trust. When I don’t know what to do, the truth is that some part of me does know – it knows exactly. My job, in times of uncertainty, is to wait for that part of me to speak up. Desk straightening and trolling Facebook and pretending that I’m not feeling like I’m feeling, just tills under the seeds of wisdom.

Show up and trust.

I’ve got to do both. If I just show up without trust, I’m likely to make the quickest, most obvious choice and not be alert when wisdom arrives. If I just trust and don’t show up, if I only trust and don’t do the work, wisdom hides.

Show up and trust.

You may not know now, but it will become clear. Just keep showing up, being present, asking the questions, doing the work even if you don’t know where it’s going. Trust that something will shift. A sprout will sprout. A light will come on. It takes courage to show up and trust. Take a breath, ask for help and keep doing it.

Reade is older now, living on her own. She is finding her way in the world and is much clearer about what she wants and where she’s headed. But the time will come again, maybe soon, when she will feel “kinda yes and kinda no.” Whenever it happens, I’m excited for her. Whenever she doesn’t know what to do, my wish for her is to show up and trust.


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Photo: Graeme Petrie Photography

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