Grasping Uncertainty.

This year has been the epitome of a paradox, and the past few weeks have been no different. My mind and body would feel exhausted even if I have not left my room. It has been difficult seeing what the nation is facing only through the window of a phone screen. When Typhoon Ulysses made landfall, my continuous doom-scrolling on Twitter, Instagram, and other quick-updating news sources felt like running an endless marathon that tired out my entire body even if I was just using a finger to swipe downward — deeper and deeper into a rabbit-hole of anxiety-inducing posts about the calamity.

As the wind and rain outside our home billowed, another storm was brewing within me. My thoughts were racing because I knew that it was only a matter of time until we lost our electricity. It’s a strange and discomforting feeling to think about my modules first while the country was being ravaged by a typhoon. It was rooted in the uncertainty of what I could wake up to tomorrow. Would we still have electricity? Water? Are classes going to be suspended? If Leonardo Da Vinci, the master of sfumato, was in my place, I know that he would welcome these questions with open arms and careful consideration.

However, I am not Da Vinci.

We were fortunate enough to have experienced the least of Typhoon Ulysses’ onslaught. The winds were strong, but we did not lose electricity. Sadly though, our entire barangay suffered a water outage that still hasn’t been fixed even at the time this article is being written. The week that followed the aftermath of the Typhoon was another battle. How should I spend my time now that classes were suspended? Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that I have unknowingly trained my own mind to expect the highest form of productivity from myself, because theoretically, I had all the time and resources I needed to effectively study. I guess it still held true that week. I was clamoring for certainty about my grades. My mind was considering the idea of taking it as an opportunity to get a leg up on my academics.

It was very toxic and deep inside, I knew it was wrong.

It felt like being wooden boat with a large hole. But instead of plugging up the hole, I was desperately trying to ladle out the water from the boat to feel a sense of productivity and certainty. I was missing the big picture. Being the stubborn-headed student I am, I did try to catch up on academics. I tried answering discussion boards but each page drained me even further. During one of my breaks, I came across this video.

I realized that I was trying to be productive, without a clear definition of what productivity is for me. The ambiguity arises when we realize that productivity can have various definitions for different people and fields. The economic concept of productivity compares input and output. When the output is greater than the input, that can be considered as productive. According to Vice, some economists argue that the key to being more productive is working less. This is quite a contrasting concept when you think about it. It is not supposed to work. However, evidence says otherwise. The video further explains that in Microsoft Japan, reducing the work week to four days increased productivity by forty percent. I am slowly learning that paradoxes can be one of life’s greatest teachers. Maybe it was time I listened to its teachings.

Understanding sfumato takes a lot more than mere module pages. When I decided to let go my frantic scrabble for certainty, I became enlightened about my priorities. Seeing that I was too focused on my making my future foreseeable made me realize that I was dismissing what was happening in front of me.

A day later, I found myself in a Zoom meeting with 26 attendants. It was a townhall meeting organized by Ateneo Musicians Pool meant to become a safe space of discourse on the proposed Student Strike penned by a handful of students. I’ve heard of the strike a few days earlier but I was too busy distracting myself with an internalized feeling of dread and a fake sense of productivity to actually read into the intricacies of the situation. I attended to educate myself on the strike by listening to the sides of my fellow officers and members of the organization. I expected to hear a clear cut winner between the two sides. It’s either the petition makes sense and it should be supported, or it shouldn’t. Instead, I left the meeting with more questions than answers. Although I did make significant realizations.

I’m proud of my school for not immediately dismissing the petition. Reading the first draft, it was full of vague demands and unclear forms of protest. It was too idealistic, yet the students saw its potential even with its ambiguity. They acknowledged that it came from a standpoint of eagerness to take action for the benefit of our nation, which opened up conversations within the LS community, even reaching Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque and Duterte himself. The meeting showed me that the conversations regarding the petition did not demand a clear-cut answer or verdict. The Atenean community knew that this was more than a binary choice for approval or disapproval. It required deep reflection and consideration for all perspectives in the playing field. To me, this is the best manifestation of sfumato.

Sfumato is the capability to immerse oneself in the gray areas of life, without a need to seek refuge in the clearly marked areas of black and white. I’m glad that through meaningful discourse, the student strikers of Ateneo were granted support from the admin and their fellow students. My heart is with their struggle even if we are all unsure on what it could lead up to.

A few months ago, I gave mom an orchid for her birthday. It was a beautiful plant with white flowers. Yesterday, November 25, I looked at a mom’s plant with yellow leaves, wilting flowers, and brown roots. Mom’s orchid is dying. I’m not sure if it was because of neglect or overwatering but I had to act fast. As I removed the plant from its pot, I found that all but one root is alive.

I was unsure whether this plant was a goner, but if the past few weeks have taught me anything, it’s that I should embrace uncertainty and get to work. I immediately researched on possible potting mediums and I did what I could to save mom’s orchid. Even with its single root, it was still standing. Some forums tell me that I should accept defeat and throw the plant away while others mention that there’s still hope though it would take an entire year to bounce back to health. It still has a couple of leaves and flowers but it’s not clear to me if the effort I’m going to put into taking care of this sickly plant will amount to anything.

However, I’m willing to wait and see because today, I’m accepting that uncertainty is interwoven into experience of life.

The ability to thrive with ambiguity must become part of our everyday lives. Poise in the face of paradox is a key not only to effectiveness, but to sanity in a rapidly changing world.” — Michael J. Gelb

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