I was scrolling through my Instagram history when I found a post from this day five years ago. It was a picture of the whiteboard we kept on our fridge at my old apartment, on which my roommate had written words uttered by yours truly: “I don’t want to be immersed in this kind of ambiguity.”
It was, apparently, a significant enough declaration to deserve whiteboard status – perhaps because it was inspiring, but more likely because my roommate recognized that it was a notable digression from a pattern that shaped my existence. I architected my life such that few conclusions could be drawn. It was more than being indecisive. I lived in a world in which nothing was decided.
The utterance was accidental, but it briefly highlighted the error of my ways, and I immediately wanted to change. I developed a new mantra for my new life: Full Court Press. I was going to make irreversible decisions and pursue everything at 200%.
That strategy suffered from poor planning, worse execution, and ultimately, ironically, lack of commitment. Over time, I reverted to my old ways with little guilt or concern. When you’re younger, it’s easy to treat everything as harmless and temporary. “Now I’m in my ambiguity phase, next month I’ll be in my aggressive phase, who knows what phase will come next?!” One of the most interesting things about getting older is that you have a larger data set and start to see that some phases are recurring. In other words, you start to notice your patterns.
Another thing about getting older is that if one of your patterns is an aberration from typical human behavior, you have to work harder and harder to keep it alive and you look stranger and stranger to other people. So if your pattern is ambiguity and the world around you is drawn to certainty in droves, you have to wonder: why work so hard to be miserable?
Of course, that question ignores the real essence behind our developed behaviors. Even when they seem detrimental and ineffective to others, they are the protective devices we have built up to spare us from something we perceive as worse. But I probably wouldn’t have realized that ambiguity was one such behavior for me if not for the fact that at time when I rediscovered that Instagram post, I had not also been dealing with a dying tooth.
See, last February, I had a crown put on my tooth that resulted in pain that never went away. The dentist (who, by the way, I blame entirely) tried to fix it several times, to no avail. She was a deeply incompetent woman, but she said something to me that really stuck: “Your tooth is pain because it’s either healing, or dying.”
Oh, the ambiguity! I was briefly flummoxed by her obvious ineptitude, but I was pleased by having options; I was thrilled by the possibility that my tooth might be healing, which is a normal response. The abnormal response is that I refused to find out if my tooth was dying.
Although she recommended that I see a root canal specialist who would be able to tell me if the tooth was dead or dying, I didn’t go. Ultimately, I just stopped chewing on one side of my mouth. To many people, this seems absurd. But I remember at the time, I was despondently unhappy in my life. I was in a crippling relationship, I was miserable at my job and I didn’t have much going on outside the two. I thought, “my tooth can’t die. I can’t lose that, too.”
Again, it’s not the craziest thought anyone’s ever had. What’s crazy is the idea is that if you never visit a doctor who can tell you that the tooth is dead, there’s still a chance that it’s healing. Obviously, the tooth is dead whether or not you chose to acknowledge it. But that was not what I thought. I thought that if I rejected the information I didn’t want, I could make it untrue. In other words, ignorance enabled me to pretend that the situation was still ambiguous, and ambiguity protected me from the outcome I most feared.
In way, ambiguity is the evil twin of possibility. It creates the violently untrue illusion that if you analyze the situation enough, you can bend it to your will. It creates the violently impossible illusion of control. But while possibility can only be actualized with action, ambiguity lets you believe that thinking is the same as doing.
In most areas of your life, you can play this trick convincingly, but physical pain is not one of them. At some point, you’ll be sitting in a dentist’s chair and he will say, in disbelief, “This happened a year and half ago? And it’s been hurting the whole time?” You will hope he says, “To reward you for your suffering, I’m happy to inform you that your tooth is healing” but instead he says, “you need to see someone who can tell you if this tooth is dead.” You’ll realize that do need this information, but also how much you don’t want it. You’ll realize that no matter how much you theorize or how many years you wait, you will not be able change the outcome. You’ll realize how much familiar pain you’re willing to endure to avoid a feeling you don’t understand.
I thought I couldn’t handle life with if my tooth turned out to be dead so I tried to protect myself by refusing to know whether or not I have a dead tooth. The irony of the situation is that if you acknowledge the dead tooth, you have to go through an awful process to fix it, but when it’s over, you start chewing normally again. If you don’t acknowledge it, you get to have eternal hope, but you struggle every time you try to eat a carrot.
So, today, I’m going to root canal doctor to find out what’s going on. Maybe, five years later, I’m finally ready to stop being immersed in ambiguity. Or at least pretend for a few months.