Surprised by joy—experiments with uncertainty

Mel Crossley studied Philosophy and Religious Studies, and teaches in Norwich. This article first appeared in 'Surfing: Women on the Sea of Faith'.

Since the religious task must include reference to some form of joy, some idea of delight—indeed must be enlightened and informed by joy—what nature of joy should we be seeking today and how can we find it?

C. S. Lewis probably meant something very different, wholly tangible, when he discovered his 'joy'. It is difficult to be 'Surprised by Joy' in the middle of February as I sit and write this. However, if I am to be true to the title and true to myself, I must try—and if I can do it in the heartbreak country of February then perhaps the task itself becomes more valid.

The joy I am trying to discover is the joy of Uncertainty. It is not an easy delight but a severe one demanding an abandonment of certainties and more than a smidgen of courage. I claim Uncertainty as a right of the latter part of the twentieth century. The Enlightenment is over and Uncertainty becomes our responsibility as well as our right. It is the only condition we can live in after the monolithic certainties of Auschwitz and amidst the fundamentalisms of our own age. Living in the face of a godless universe is another aspect of this Uncertainty and one which must be made part of the quest for joy.

Gutsy though we have to be in facing these Uncertainties I would like to think it is an ennobling prospect rather than a scary one. My overwhelming conviction is that we cannot be fully human—and experience authentic joyfulness—until we confront the Uncertainties; and that includes taking leave of God.

So, what are the practical implications of this—how are we to find joy? Well, I am not saying that we have to, or indeed should, embrace life with a philosophical grandeur equivalent to the free climber's assault on the rock face (ultimate risk is, perhaps, an ultimate metaphor of Uncertainty). This would catapult the possibility of joy into the hands of the elite few. Uncertainty is all about risk, but only a few of us will become free rock climbers, and so allowances must be made. Most of us are quite feeble at heart. This is not to say that should we attain the dizzy heights of the pinnacle—and hopefully most of us will get a least a glimpse of it—we shouldn't take absolute delight in our achievement. However, in the School of Uncertainty, most of us (and I'm a real wimp) will spend most of our time on the rich pastures of the foot hills—trying to find the courage to go up a little further.

I have recently discovered a book called Sophie's World by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. Gaarder has written a philosophical novel in which fourteen year old Sophie is encouraged to engage in philosophy. For Gaarder philosophy happens because of our sense of wonder at the universe. He uses the analogy of our world being a white rabbit pulled from a magician's hat. We are all born on the fine tips of the rabbit's hairs, but it is only philosophers who try to climb up the fine hairs to stare in the magician's eyes. The rest of us spend our lives climbing deeper and deeper into the cosiness of the rabbit's fur.

My analogy is similar: the fine hairs are the pinnacle and the cosy fur the rich pastures. Perhaps Sea of Faith gives us a mechanism for climbing out of the fur and the pastures.

So how do I apply the demands of Uncertainty to the day to day realities of my everyday life? How do I reach the rock face and become surprised by joy? My experience of Uncertainty has been in finding metaphors of what it might be like to live entirely in a world of Uncertainties, I feel like a scientist undertaking experiments with Uncertainty. My relationship with Uncertainty is as the scientist with the experiment there is a distance between us, but we are inextricably linked. My mountain is the sheer delight of the experience of living in that state of Uncertainty even if only for a while—just as the scientist might take delight in her successful experiment. Keeping that distance between myself and Uncertainty is about as far as I can go, Uncertainty is a two-sided coin—it is unsettling as well as thrilling and because I am a coward I only experiment; that is, apply Uncertainty to 'certain' areas of my life. And there's the rub—I can only face Uncertainty when I feel certain and secure. Perhaps this is the destination we must reach before taking off for Uncertainty.

My metaphor for living in a world governed by Uncertainty is my bicycle. In a sense it is the interface world where joy might be encountered. It is through my bike that I plan unburdened journeys of discovery and although many of these are voyages of the imagination, now and again—when I feel good enough about myself to break into the arena of risk—I put my head into the wind and enjoy being for once unfettered and feckless. Last August I rode my bike from Edinburgh to Carlisle, in a day I hasten to add. I was on a cycling and friend-seeing holiday in Scotland and could easily have taken the train back down to England. I remember the anguish of that decision: the certainties of British Rail—the time for departure and arrival, the price of the sandwiches, the leaf-tea; everything was laid out—secure and certain. If I cycled I didn't even know my way out of Edinburgh. It was with a real wrench that I pulled myself away from certainty—but an anticipatory sense of risky delight made it worth while.

My decision was motivated by the sheer Joy of Uncertainty. I became suddenly and spontaneously free from the certainties of life's burdens and responsibilities, albeit for a day. I had no idea of a route until I saw the next sign post (my map reading skills have never been that accomplished). I cycled through solid grey lowland towns, rolling hills, bright sunshine and showers and finally into the flat plain of Carlisle. Food stops were wherever I could get some tea and a bun; my night stop was, for most of the day, a mystery. (Fortunately, there had been a cancellation at Carlisle Youth Hostel). There is a thin line between the joy of this Uncertainty and irresponsibility as, for a lone cyclist with very low level skills of basic bicycle maintenance, a puncture 15 miles from anywhere (that is, anywhere with a bike shop) may well have spoilt the day—but again it might not have done—it might just have made for a different sort of day. However, in pitting myself against these Uncertainties I experienced one of the most vivid and memorable days of 1994 (and had one of the most satisfying conversations of 1994 at Carlisle Youth Hostel with a fellow cyclist)—and no-one can take this away from me. The Joy of Uncertainty is risky but if successful immensely worthwhile—and more fun than taking the train.

So how can we experiment with uncertainty when we ourselves are not feeling certain and secure? Uncertainty is about risk, but we need to feel good about ourselves to take that risk. I do not ride my bike for enjoyment in February. How then can we be surprised by joy in the merciless grind of winter when we really need those certainties to get us through? If we can't delight in the risk of Uncertainties when the days are short and the nights are long perhaps we must be satisfied by mere snatches or glimpses of joy and delight. I have been made momentarily joyful by the Friday afternoon sunshine as the days perceptibly lengthen—and, vicariously, through the hopeful uncertainties and striven optimism in the imaginary lives of a Joanna Trollope novel. So perhaps we can still be surprised by joy in our darkest of moods; the first crocus can be a real lifeline for entering again into the realms of possibility and of life.

Joyfulness and delight make us feel good and as frail creatures we need this—but given that we are often pushed to find delight in Uncertainty since most of the time we are not courageous enough—is there any other way we can find our delight? I think there is—and it follows on from Uncertainty. Having been freed from the Certainties a Sea of Faith outlook returns to us, in glorious Technicolour, the possibility of Wonder. Like living with Uncertainty, to live with Wonder in our hearts and minds is to take a risk—it is scary but ultimately liberating and empowering, It helps us to become fully human and enables us to become philosophers in the best sense of the word—to borrow again from Sophie's World—a philosopher is someone for whom life is astonishing, says Gaarder.

A mixture of Uncertainty and Wonder can stop the world becoming a habit—something we accept as a matter of course (again I borrow the terminology from Gaarder)—an exercise in monotony which incidentally must be a root cause of the blue malaise of the late twentieth century. Because of Uncertainty and Wonder the world becomes more precious, a mystery waiting to be unravelled, explored, cherished and valued. This is something worthy of joy. I have a feeling it might be intuitive; 'for somewhere inside ourselves' says Gaarder, 'something tells us life is a huge mystery. This is something we once experience, long before we learned to think the thought.' Is it through the abandonment of Certainties that we can unravel our thoughts and learn to rely more on the intuitive faculty of Wonder.

So, have I been there—have I unpicked myself from Certainty and experienced Wonder? I tend to think this is even harder than the risk of Uncertainty. To Wonder is to expose ourselves, to lay ourselves bare to intuition and to be stripped of all the comfortable assumptions of our own everyday realities. In Gaarder's book Sophie's mother becomes distracted and disturbed when Sophie asks her to consider the astonishment of existence and in so doing confronts her with the tedious predictability of her own life. Gaarder would say she is deeply embedded in the rabbit' s fur or, if you prefer the analogy, fails to notice any more the rock face from her own position in the gentle foothills.

So what is my experience of all this? I remember being about seven or eight. It was summertime, hot and sunny. I was standing on the porch of our house idly watching passers by—and from time to time playing an imaginary game of stations, using the yellow leaves of our privet hedge as tickets. I was running to and fro from the porch to the hedge, again and again, collecting tickets. Back on the porch I began to spin round, first of all slowly and then faster and faster. Maybe it was part of my game—spinning was travelling on the train—or maybe it was a reaction to the boredom of the endless hot afternoon. I enjoyed the speed, even the dizziness and sense of dislocation that went with it and then the parameters changed.

I tried to imagine what it would be like if there was nothing—no porch, no privet leaves, no hedge, no house, no people—just nothing. I got down to stars dotting blackness, and then blackness, and couldn't go any further; then I stopped and, with some relief, came back to the world of that summer afternoon. It was a little bit scary but quite exciting. It was my first and one of my most tangible experiences of Wonder. I remember re-enacting this whirling dervish state several times as a child. Perhaps we should all spin round and loose our certainties and see where we get to?

Uncertainty is worth working at. Many see it as an enemy, a destructive ally of relativism and far too risky to take on board. I think we have a responsibility to Uncertainty and might be surprised by its hidden delights. Not least of these with the departure of Certainty is the rediscovery of God in all our humanness. We can now find God in the washing up bowl. Divinity has truly come of age and we can seek ritual and pleasure in the ordinary and mundane. We can see the world we used to see as trivial and predictable as the arena of Wonder. The crumbling of Certainty and in its wake the dawn of Uncertainty brings to everything a new light—sparkling with freshness and excitement. It's worth taking a look.

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