Thursday, May 3, 2012

What is Faith in Ambiguity?

Faith: belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit,etc.

Ambiguity: doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention

Photo by Mike Adams

"What do you blog about?"

Again and again, at my first writer's conference, I was asked what my blog was about and what kind of writing I do. I tried answering this question multiple different ways.

"Oh, I write some funny stuff and some think-y stuff."

"I write about ducks."

"I write about my kids. My kids all have ADHD. I guess it's a blog about ADHD."

The most surprising thing to me was that when people heard "Faith in Ambiguity," they usually asked me if the blog was about my faith.

"No," I would say. "It's about my faith in ambiguity."

Obviously, this wasn't clear, even to me. I learned many things at the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop, some of them tactical, some of them inspirational, that will make me a better writer and a better blogger. None were more important than this:

I am funny, but I am not a humorist. I am a writer who writes about an idea. That idea is faith in ambiguity.

What is faith in ambiguity? Faith in ambiguity is about asking questions, questioning assumptions and taking a second look. It is about carefully listening to both sides of an argument and then throwing both of them out the window to look for the truth that neither side has found, in the dirty, dark place everyone forgot to look. Faith in ambiguity is about making the joke that gets the laugh of recognition but that no one was brave enough to tell.  Faith in ambiguity is about owning every part of being human, every part of being alive–the illness, the pain, the addiction, the embarrassment, the fear, as well as the love and inspiration. It is about showing up, fully human, not knowing the answer to anything, and saying so, and then laughing until you wet your pants because it is all so ridiculously hilarious.

Why, you might ask, would all this uncertainty be good? People find great comfort in answers and the faith they hold that there is a reason and order underlying everything. Ambiguity–faith in ambiguity–seems to fly in the face of that comfort. And I really think that it does. People who want their bee hives to remain unprodded will probably not like this blog as much as people who are strangely fascinated by a sudden exodus of bees. That is OK with me. I stopped being comfortable years ago with the answers that were served to me like bland porridge, and started seeking my own. But, apart from personal temperament, I think there are some excellent reasons for having a little more faith in ambiguity, all around.

Not knowing means we can experiment. If we are already sure that the earth is flat and traveling to the end will cause a person to fall off into an abyss, there is no reason to circumnavigate the globe. It takes a doubter to come up with that. All explorers are, by nature, doubtful people–the ones who want to see evidence with their own two eyes–our kindred souls rejecting their breakfast pablum in search of more savory fare that may conceivably exist, if only they look far enough.

Science is a function of uncertainty. Whether or not you think you like science, my strong guess is that you enjoy electricity, access to emergency health care and Starbucks WiFi, all of which are the products of somebody at some point supposing that a) this is not really all there is and b) it could actually be better. People who push the boundaries of the world forward, causing creation to unroll in a direction heretofore unimaginable, are not contented souls. They have itchy minds, full of wonders and doubts and problems to solve. I write because my mind itches something awful and the only way I know to scratch it is to inflict the questions I have on the rest of the world.

When we don't know, we can ask. Asking is a profoundly powerful act–one that binds communities together in humble service and mutual respect of one another. In a family, in a church congregation, in a classroom, in an office, if you want to empower the people you find yourself traveling along with, ask them. Ask them for advice. Ask them how to work the TV. Ask them what they really want from their community. Then listen. We cannot ask if the answers sit on our tongue, melting like lozenges that make everything taste like oranges. Our mouths have to be clean. I have learned to ask children for help and to tell them I am not sure and, because of this, they see that they can become a person of importance with me. They are dying to be asked for their assistance, and I find adults to be no different.

When we don't know, when we are not sure, we can have compassion. I may think you were rude to me just now, but what if really you are in terrible pain? What if I misunderstood? What if your intentions, all along, have been aimed toward helping me and I could see you as nothing but a bully? Ambiguity makes me pause. The data is not clear. Is that child behaving this way in class because their parents are bad parents or because the delivery of my curriculum is not working for them? Is it ADHD or boredom? A terrible attitude or perhaps a crippled sense of self? If I am not sure, I look again. And again. Doing so makes me a better teacher, mother and friend.

The long arc of justice is and always has been a function of the shedding of our collective assumptions. We don't think black people are lesser creatures deserving of bondage and abasement. We know they are. We know gay people are crazy. We know what kind of parents are the wrong kind. We know so much of which we have no experience at all. We are never free from the repetition of the same cruel injustice over and over until we stop knowing. If history is any guide, we should be very, very concerned about the things that we think we know.

Faith in ambiguity is the doubt of the mindful, the practice of asking "Why?" of everything, but most especially, of ourselves. Faith in ambiguity, is not, however, a license not to choose. The worst thing we can do, in my opinion, is fail to choose. In the absence of choice, Life drags us along by our ankle and we hit our heads repeatedly on the concrete as events fly by us, which we have observed but never been the author of.  Life presents you with decisions, and, if you are like me, you consider everything from the polarity of the earth to the astrological signs of the people involved, and then belabor that decision until it is worn down to a tiny nub of a thing, chewed through with agitation. And then you just select and live with the result. Every time you do, you end up upright, able to say, at least "Oh, well, that was not the best decision I ever made."

Faith in ambiguity is also not ignoring the facts. It is not sticking your fingers into your ears and saying that nothing is clear so you are going to ignore overwhelming evidence in favor of whatever inclination it is easiest to bear. Not knowing leads the scientist to conduct her experiment, a mathematician to find his equation, a philosopher to observe and enlarge on our views of humankind. It does not, on the other hand, alter the course of history in any meaningful way to throw out the controls, pretend that two equals three and suppose a new and implausible kind of human. It's just make-believe.  Faith in ambiguity is about facing the facts. If there is crap on the living room floor, it is about saying so, not imagining that really there is a Tootsie Roll. What is in question here is really the motivation of the dog.

I need to write to soothe my itchy brain, and I am so grateful that you show up and apply aloe. What I really want for this blog is to create a space on that internet that holds apart the crushing walls of surety and ill humor and allows us to laugh at silly, stupid things and to speak our mind respectfully without fear of retribution. I want to have this be a place where people come to take a second look, and sometimes to stop and giggle between those hard glances. So, I have this mission to spread a little faith in ambiguity out into the world–just cast out my little whirling dandelion seed of an idea upon its breezes–and see what happens.

Are you in?


  1. Yes. I am most fascinated with the exodus of bees. Reason I keep showing up back here for more ambiguity:))

    1. Thanks, Sandra. And thanks for coming back and for saying you have come back, so that I don't feel lonely here. Here's to poking more sticks together into whatever looks interesting, to see what might fly out.

  2. "my mind itches something awful" That's such a great way to explain the urge to write. I love that you have a real purpose to your blog. The way you see the world and then put it down in words is magical.
    I'm in.

    1. Thanks so much. "Magical." I will try to remember that. Too often, the internal dialogue says "crazy" or I feel like I am peddling thneeds, except that, quite reasonably, nobody wants any damn thneeds. Some days my purpose is nothing larger than to amuse myself and maybe somebody else, but I like the feeling of knowing there is a bigger picture.

  3. "In the absence of choice, Life drags us along by our ankle and we hit our heads repeatedly on the concrete as events fly by us, which we have observed but never been the author of." - such powerful imagery. Painful, but necessarily so.

    I'm in, Tara. I am all in. This post is an example of why I crave more ambiguity. I love to read you because you make me think, not just about what you write, but about other things I observe/think sometimes days later. Sometimes it's related, but usually it's just my brain turning things over and asking "What other possibilities exist?"

    1. If I can make people think because I wrote something, even if in the end they decide that what I said was hooey and they write a long response telling me so, I believe I have succeeded adequately as a writer. If I can make people think and enjoy words at the same time, then I can even feel proud. Thanks for making me feel proud. You are such a warm, effusive, wonderful person to have in my corner, M. I am so lucky that you are.

  4. Replies
    1. I would count on you to do this with style, Kelly. :)

  5. My brain has been itchy a lot lately, but I've had no time to scratch it. I'm ready now- thanks for this post:)

    1. You're welcome. I don't know how you find time to scratch your nose, much less write, but I am so glad you do.

  6. Yes, but please no bees. You can have roaches and snakes, spiders and ants, but please, no bees :)

    1. I think if I had suggested an exodus of roaches, snakes, spiders and ants, people might be weirded out, but point taken. I will compromise with you and we can have snakes and spiders, but no bees, ants or roaches. How's that?


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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License