How do you respond to “mess”? In this case, uncertainty, unpredictability, unknown or without (perceived) order – basically anything in front of you that is beyond your experience or prior knowledge, hence, it becomes something you “don’t know how to handle”.
I’d used to think that it was just that the country I was born and grew up in was so structure (and somewhat manicured) that everything needed to be predictable for me. But I realise it could happen anywhere else, because of the social conditioning (“new territory is unsafe”), family conditioning (“study hard, take a ‘good’ job and settle down”) or friends (“why do you want to be different”). It took me really long to realise that taking risks is what allows to grow, and not taking risks stifles us. And I can see why. Anything outside what we know looks like “mess”, there is no order, a fear of the unknown prevents us from exploring, which keeps our circle of experiences small such that the next encounter that comes by is forcefully made to fit to what we know so that it would not appear “messy”.
And so responding to mess or allowing myself to step forward despite not seeing all the pieces laid out in front of me – is somewhat an on-going lesson. My most reliable feedback is looking at how I typically respond to mess, identifying the pattern and then making the conscious choice to face whatever I need to that doesn’t look structured (yet) to me.
So let me count the ways that we typically respond to mess.
Shut down, blank out, run away
All systems do not respond. No reaction, no movement, even dropping everything and leaving it. This is with the faint and futile hope that the mess would somehow “go away” or resolve itself. Maybe it does, maybe it just grows and sometimes it evolves. Either way, you won’t know, because you are not even daring to look at the mess.
Let me order it!
The messier it gets, the more there is to organize. Every mess can be compartmentalize to a few categories, then taken down bite-size bit by bit. The elusive dream is that once organized, it is no longer a mess. More time to spend on ‘organizing’ an impossible puzzle, and not enough time looking at what the puzzle brings.
Resignation, letting the crowd push you about
At least you are somewhat looking at the mess, though not really identifying with it. It’s fate, it’s the environment, it’s the circumstance, it’s just something that happens to you (again and again). Just standing there in the mess, you may get pushed around and move some place, but it sure won’t be where you are looking to go. And it doesn’t sound any less messier.
Frozen, and not about letting it go
Just rooted on the spot, like a deer in headlights. The mess paralyzes you because you don’t see the few steps ahead, so you don’t dare to take just one of those steps that you do see. Unlike the Disney movie Frozen, there is a whole lot of holding on tight and not enough letting go. In this case, I’m not sure if the strain of not being able to move or the self-imposed fear of moving will get to you first.
I recognize that I have had all four at different parts of my life, though I often gravitate to the “Let me order it!” and “Frozen” quite a fair bit. To choose a different approach, I ask myself two questions:
1. Am I ok with mess?
And if I don’t feel like saying yes, there is already something I am resisting and not willing to look. Perhaps the mess is well…very unstructured, perhaps I don’t know how. Being ok with it means I will be able to get to where I want to get, despite not knowing how. It means looking for the why and being ok with anything that comes. I recognize this state by a feeling of groundedness, being centred in myself and when I look forward to “leaps of faith”.
2. Can I surrender to the mess?
Surrender involves vulnerability – in my resistance, there is often something I want to be right about. Though whatever that it, it often is not relevant to the mess at hand. Surrender is also not about expecting the mess to look a certain way. Why should it? If it’s something beyond what I have experienced, I wouldn’t know what to expect to look. While the answer is always “I can”, the act of asking the question often reminds me that I don’t have to put too many definitions on to what I cannot define at the moment.
On a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the most vulnerable, open, comfortable with mess and uncertainty, I’d rate myself a 2. I don’t know when the impetus hit me to really start looking within. It could have been that I have been stuck for a long time, that I have tried everything I knew. It could have also been that I knew this was not the way to live, structured and always in a little box. It could have been that I didn’t want my kids to grow up losing who they are when every single day, they are all about living wholeheartedly, jumping heart first instead of head first. It could also be that I myself wanted to experience what is to live wholeheartedly, jumping heart first instead of head first. And for all that, I knew that if I was ok with mess, it was only because I was ok with me.