The Right To Uncertainty
The Muse Letter No. 57
I think about promises a lot lately. The ones that we make, the ones that are given to us, the ones that we need to feel secure, the ones that should have never been made.
In German the word to promise = versprechen is a homonym meaning that it has two (or more) different meanings. It is constructed with the word sprechen = to speak and the preposition ver = mis (like mis-spoken) that usually is used in combination with verbs to indicate a wrong, faulty action, but not always. Which leads to the strange notion that the word versprechen = promise means to assure someone that one will definitely do something or that something will happen but it can also mean to pronounce something wrong or to make a slip of the tongue.
So A promise = Das Versprechen in German is somehow both: A slip of the tongue and an assurance for the future. Just of course not at the same time.
Or maybe it is.
How can you ever be sure that you’re going to be who you say you’re going to be five minutes from now? Five hours from now? Five days, weeks, months, years?
Isn’t our tongue always slipping a bit when projecting into a future that we have very little control over? Always turning and twisting and trying to reach for something in the dark.
There’s a scene in Anne with an E where Anne sits down on the eve of her sixteenth birthday praying to God, reflecting on her past 15 years and what she’s expecting in the future:
“Gracious heavenly Father, as you recall, for some time now, I've sent you repeated prayers in the hopes that you'd make me good-looking when I grow up. Well I'm turning 16 on Saturday, and I now know that was a childish flight of fancy and not a proper prayer, and I apologize. It seems to me that my destiny is to be the Bride of Adventure. I expect you approve, because you've sent me on so many now that I've quite developed a taste for them. Rest assured, this isn't a capitulation. Because I'm not an ideal beauty with many suitors, or even just one. But because in my maturity, I've come to the happy, evolutionary opinion that I am unusual, and I embrace it.”
I often think of that idea, being the Bride of Adventure when things happen or I expect things to happen that I’m resisting or unsure of. We so often demand decisions and clarity from ourselves and the people around us that we forget that the right to be uncertain is vital. That sometimes choosing not to choose for a moment or even longer is about acknowledging the fact that we’re constantly in motion anyway, floating through the ether and holding on to any lifebuoy we can grab, when all we need to do is start swimming. Embracing uncertainty is a chance to shift and wriggle and breathe and move and live. It is our right to do that.
It’s easy to think that the opposite of a promise is uncertainty. In order to make a promise you have to be certain but I have the suspicion that the reason why German people started using the word promise = versprechen and have it contain both meanings is because a promise in the end is not about certainty really rather it is a believe, a wish, a tongue slipping, moving forward into the unknown. And only when we make it, when we say it out loud, certain or not only then we will find out it’s true nature, wriggling and slipping and breathing and so alive.
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