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Uncertainty is grace

June 5, 2013
Cover of "Tinkers"


I recently finished Tinkers by Paul Harding (the bastard won the Pulitzer and it was his first book), and although there was a wealth of beautiful passages throughout the book, one in particular has stuck with me since I first read it and will probably be important to me as long as I live.

“Your cold mornings are filled with heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comfortable in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”

Beyond the elegance of the prose is an idea that I find incredibly comforting, and it’s in the line “rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you.” I’m not religious, but I do think grace is profoundly important in the human experience, and here Harding seems to be saying that the uncertainty that we live with everyday, that angers and frightens and frustrates us, is actually an expression of that grace.  At first glance, this makes little sense, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how  true it is. We can’t know the answers to questions about our fate (mostly, from my point of view, because there is no such thing as fate), so it’s useless to worry about it.  Of course, that’s just not realistic.  Our consciousness and our free will demand that we look ahead and that we contemplate who we are and whether what we are doing is the right thing.  But imagine for a moment that you could have all paths of your life laid out before you. Let’s say for the sake of argument that a fortune teller or tarot reader could give you your future.  How would that make life any better? In what way would you be happier?  If it’s fated to happen, you can’t change it, so knowing it’s coming doesn’t do much for you.  This is not meant to be a slight to people who use these services.  We all look for comfort where ever we can find it.  It’s just meant to illustrate how important uncertainty is in our humanity. What makes you feel more alive?  Knowing that you have to go to work in the morning or wondering what excitement the weekend holds?  Without uncertainty, life becomes drudgery.  Yes, it leaves us open to a lot of strife and pain, but it also leaves us open to wonder and awe.  Nothing is set, nothing is known, and so anything can happen, and we have the power to shape everything we do.

Perhaps a definition of grace is in order.  As I see it, grace is our inherent humanity, it is treating others as being equally important, it is sacrificing some happiness for yourself to ensure happiness for those you care about and for the wider world, and it is expecting nothing in return.

This is all just abstract nonsense when you’re in the midst of real suffering, when not knowing what’s coming around the corner is eating away at your insides, and it’s the kind of advice that is very easy to give but extremely difficult to put into practice.  But we try and keep trying, and like Harding said, “when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2013 12:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Ab! True, it may seem like abstract nonsense when you’re suffering but you’ve been there and now have the clarity to reflect on those experiences. I really appreciate the way you put it into context from a non-religious perspective as well.

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Tim Minchin but the passage reminded me of this song that always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside:

    • ajhagg permalink*
      June 5, 2013 12:32 pm

      Thanks, Maureen. I only know Tim Minchin from this, but I love it.

      • June 5, 2013 12:41 pm

        Ahhh, yes, Storm! I have the pleasure of sharing an office with someone like this. It doesn’t often come into play at work but she drives Aaron NUTS on FB. I’m pretty much in love with all of Tim’s work, you should explore his other stuff too, I think you might like it!

  2. Tess permalink
    June 5, 2013 1:03 pm

    That passage is beautiful, and your take on it is even more beautiful.


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