Open to Ambiguity


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How do you feel about uncertainty?  Today I caught the end of an interview with George Saunders, the author of the acclaimed book Lincoln at the Bardo.  He said something that struck me right across my forehead.


He says that we as humans have a tendency to close up.   He suggests that as much as possible we should open ourselves to ambiguity, to uncertainty, to not knowing, because he believes that we are capable of responding best to the world this way.  In this state we will make “the right call” more often than not.


Ambiguity doesn’t mean chaos.  Moshe Feldenkrais described a mature, well organized person as someone who can go in any direction with equal ease at any time.  By that, he meant that the ability to tolerate ambiguity on a purely functional level was an indication of the highest chance of survival.


The people I consider the best jazz musicians are balanced on hilltops on one wheel of their bicycle waiting for the clue that will tell them which path to take at that given time.  They’re not worried about the paths that could lead to disaster.  They’ll deal with that when they come to it.


But here we are as writers and performers and thinkers and we have this audience and they’re expecting to understand what they’re getting.  They don’t want us to figure it out in front of them, write the novel while they watch, or say “Hey, just a second, I have to get this measure right, can you just chill?”  They want, and deserve, something that has been prepared for them.


So if living in ambiguity is a possible ideal state, but performing (writing / presenting, etc.) requires a degree of practiced certainty, what’s the resolution?  Is it possible for us to be presenters of any kind without having something unambiguous to present?  Or is there value in being ambiguous as we present?


I think there are at least two answers.  On the one hand, we can present a certain and unambiguous product which will not leave the audience feeling uncomfortable or cheated.  Yet that product may itself arise from an ambiguous process and may be a shadow of the process itself, in the same way that a photograph is a shadow of an event.


On the other hand, there is something to be said for not closing up, even when presenting a “finished product.”  Someone once said, “You don’t finish writing a novel, you abandon it,” and from my own experience I take that to mean that at some point I have to present my best effort without expecting closure.  And as for performance, if there isn’t room while I’m playing to suddenly change direction, to hear the audience gasp and go with it, then I’m not truly connecting with them and I might want to reconsider just what I’m on that stage for in the first place.


Do you want to leave the question like this, with two answers?  Can you live with the ambiguity, or do you have a more definitive response?  Either way, I want to hear from you.

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