The Uncertainty Principle

I don’t know how many times it has happened, but in the months leading to and since I turned thirty, I have found myself stuck and not knowing what to do. Just minutes ago, before sitting down and flipping my computer open, I stood in the hallway of the Faculty Center, halfway from the entrance of the building to my faculty room, the lights darkened and other people far off at the galleries, and I stopped in the half-light and thought, “What the fuck am I doing?” This time, like the many other times that I have paused to ask this question, left me in a debilitating state of uncertainty, as if I were paralyzed with fear of not knowing. I literally could not move, my legs stuck in cement and my upper body heavy. Each step from there was a struggle, and the weight of the world bore down on me as if I were carrying Shaquille O’Neal on my shoulders.

This not knowing extends far beyond whatever I worried about when I was younger. Because then there was always the future, and many prospects. Now things are sort of locked in, and within the parameters of my life—work, writing, family, relationships—courses are defined and yet I don’t know if I am getting any of it right. In video games we get immediate feedback to know if what we are doing is right (mess up and you die, do well and you get points and move to the next level) but in real life it’s very rare to find such clear markers telling us if what we’re doing is right and if we should keep on with it.

And thus I find so much doubt in the things I am dealing with. 

My sister, who I think is a good kid, gets good grades, looks like she has fun, and is the kind of person who expands her cultural knowledge, seems alright. I have been taking care of her since she was born. In the period when I left California and moved to the Philippines, I took a year off from school. As preparations were made for the move back, I was given the responsibility of taking care of my sister, and my parents left me with the unappealing tasks of changing her diapers and sucking the boogers out of her nose. I prepared her food, learned how to keep her from crying, and let her munch on my fingers when she was teething. And now I attend her concerts, go to Parent-Teacher conferences, and try to make a home for her even if it’s just the two of us.

But there are many moments when she asks me for something, or when she needs help taking care of school stuff, or even just talking about how she feels about things, when I wonder what is wrong with the world (and my parents in particular) for thinking that I could raise a teenage girl. Once, she needed to shop for female essentials (read panties and bras) and I stood there in the department store just thinking, “What the fuck am I doing? How can this be normal in any way?” I brought a book and she let me stay at a distance while she did her shopping and when she was done I forked over the cash and we left. Later in the night, I sat alone feeling overwhelmed by the idea that I was in fact raising a teenager, was tasked with leading her through one of the most tumultuous times of her life, was responsible for her having the right values and her turning out to be a good adult. That is a depressing thought because I myself am unsure if I have turned out alright and am a good adult.

My work situation is indicative. One of the recent events that has led to this renewed bout with self doubt is a particularly bad teaching observation session. Teachers are usually subjected to teaching observations, where more senior teachers will observe thenjuniors to assess their abilities, give them inputs for improvements, and gauge whether the young teacher deserves to have their contract renewed or not.

This does not sound so bad, but in practice it is a nerve-wracking exercise as the young teachers are pushed into an extremely artificial teaching situation. As if there were not enough anxiety when you stand in front of a class of twenty, thirty kids, and try to teach them about literature, the added pressure of having older teachers watch and essentially judge you, can be overwhelming.

And it was thus earlier, a few hours from the narrative present of this essay’s writing. In a classroom there are so many things that can go wrong. Discipline can break down and you can lose control of the class. Students can show up late and their entrance to the class can be disruptive. The teacher can suddenly blank out (and trust me, this happens a lot more often than we would like to admit, even when we’ve prepared notes and made outlines for the class). Among the many other problems, what I ran into was the class shutting down in response to a text.

I have the tendency to push boundaries, test people’s sensibilities, and generally mess with people to see what they will put up with (which means I can be a real asshole sometimes). This works well in terms of writing, but it is a hit and miss technique in the classroom. I threw a text at the students which caused the class to completely shut down. In the middle of a discussion on humor, I gave them an essay satirizing the myth of the artist as being inspired by childhood trauma—in the essay a father lionizes his efforts at abusing his children by describing the kind of art that they will eventually create. I found this essay hilarious, not least of all because I come from such a traumatic background, and I thought the joke was so wonderfully extreme and out there that it was irresistible. The problem was that it was so out there that a majority of the students in class were not prepared to engage it; they could not accept the fact that we were joking about child abuse. This after we watched a clip of Rex Navarette’s “Maritess vs. the Super-Friends” and discussed the sexual harassment, pedophilia, racism, class struggle, issues of the Filipino diaspora, and perceptions of Filipinos in other countries. I tried to bring out the idea that tragedy and comedy were the same thing on opposite sides of a coin and tried to get them to engage the piece as a literary text, not as something that condones child abuse, but we couldn’t get past that.

After the observation, there is a post-observation conference where the teacher who has been observed is told where he has gone wrong and what can be done to improve it. During the observation, I was told, “You could have saved the class here, and here, and here, but you failed to.” As I sat there I knew precisely where I had gone wrong, and I knew exactly what I should have done. But overwhelmed by the pressures of dealing with the class, and the pressure of being observed, I broke.

I’ve been teaching for years. I began teaching high school with absolutely no background and wound up getting some very good training in teaching skills while I was teaching at the high school level. I like to think that I’ve become a better teacher, that I know more, that I’m better able to handle things now. But then, in that moment, in the clutch, I missed my shot. This not only kills that moment, but it plants the seed of doubt that if you can miss that one crucial chance, then you can miss it again. The fear grows and it gnaws, and I feel it climbing into other aspects of my life which are fraught with the possibility of failure.

I tried to explain to the observers that I had taught the text before, and it had worked perfectly, generating an amazingly intelligent discussion. But then I was suddenly a kid who had perfected an amazing combo in Mortal Kombat, only to be unable to replicate it when I was showing it to my friends. It doesn’t matter how awesome the thing you did was, if you can’t show it to somebody and they can’t verify that you did indeed do it. So there I was stuck with this terribly bad performance, and this was what was going to be graded and remembered.

It was this feeling of utter failure.

This feeling leads into doubts about career choice. I love teaching, but suddenly, and with the prospect of such a bad performance defining the decision of whether I will be allowed to keep teaching, I have doubts about what I’m doing. And as I begin to doubt that, I inevitably bring other things in.

I have doubts about my other careers, the ones in writing and publishing.

In publishing, I’ve always seen myself as a risk-taker too. I want to think of myself as someone who is experimental, who is pushing boundaries and trying new things and always trying to innovate. But then I think, what if this isn’t going anywhere? There’s a certain trust that you have to have, a level of belief, that the innovations you are trying to pioneer, the work you are trying to do, will eventually have some kind of impact. Because obviously in such large structures as the publishing industry, change comes slowly and whatever moves I make, they will only reflect much later on if the industry landscape changes. If that’s the case, how can I even know that what I’m doing matters?

The same is true of writing, where we are told that it is only time that will tell if our writing was any good. We struggle and we strive with the written word, and better than writer I have always loved the term wordsmith to describe what we do, fashioning things with meaning, function, and aesthetic appeal with our minds and language. There are writing awards and publications, putting a book out, getting feedback from people. But really, how can we tell if it’s any good? And more importantly, when we are in the middle of big projects (for example, this essay comes in the middle of both this #books@30 project, as well as my first attempt at a novel), how can we know if what we’re writing is any good? How can we know that it will come together? That it will work out? And more importantly, how can we know that the thing that we devote so much cognitive input, time, effort, patience, love, pain, and sacrifice to will actually be something worth the time to read (which is only a fraction of time you put in writing it)?

There’s so much doubt which I could have found acceptable when I was even just a few years younger.  The thing is that at thirty I thought I would have things figured out. I don’t know if that is delusional but it seemed that after my insane twenties, things would have settled down by now.

I know I run the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, but for someone who’s come up from pretty much nothing, I have accomplished quite a bit. I’ve got the books and the movies and other work that I’ve done. There are some accomplishments in publishing. I have a number of students who are pretty accomplished in their own right, and my first batch of high school kids is graduating from college in a couple of months. I like to think that I’ve done alright.

And from that I’ve done that’s alright, I was hoping that I would have a sense that things were going well. Yet there are those moments when you get totally wiped out. I go back to my basketball metaphor and the clutch shot. All the guys who make it to the pros have been training all their lives, devoting themselves to playing, trying to improve the weaknesses of their game while maximizing their strengths. They make it, they get drafted and play for a team and go through the season and in the playoffs they get the ball. All of their training, all of their efforts, all of their life has brought them to that crucial moment when they have to take the shot that decides whether their team will proceed to the next round or win the championship, or if they are going home. They take the ball and so much could go wrong, a bad dribble, a slip, a defender getting the jump on them, and if they can get past those and get open, they jump into the air and practice a form and stroke that they have gone through thousands if not millions of times already, and then that’s it, the ball’s in the air and they hold their breath and wait.

See, it’s that big shot, the crucial moment that defines how we are perceived. And our judgment of this player will forever stand in this way. For all that I think Chris Webber was a brilliant player, he could never knock down the big time shot, which was why I would have always picked Robert Horry over him (and it shows too, not just because I’m a Laker fan, but because of all those times that Horry knocked down the game winning shot). Same goes for my opinion of Carmelo Anthony, who to my mind still cannot deliver in the clutch. These guys are brilliant though, they can do amazing things on the court. There’s a reason why they are superstars in the league. And yet it’s those big games that I remember.

I wonder if there is some other way to see, for example, my recent teaching observation. I’ve been trying to break it down in terms again of basketball, particularly NBA ball. You’ve got playoffs, before that the 82 game season. You can’t win all 82 games (though some teams have come very close). And within each game you’ve got good and bad quarters, and within each quarter, you’ve got every single play. Every time that you bring the ball up and down the court. Each trip up and down the court, every single offensive and defensive set, must be played and played to the best of your ability as these build into the overall flow of the game, overall team performance, season record, and seeding in the playoffs.

I’m thinking now of all the things I do in this context and suddenly there is comfort to this uncertainty. I can’t always think about the big game, can’t fixate on that clutch shot that I missed. Because if I’m stuck there, then I can’t concentrate on doing my best on the next play, the next game, the next season.

So every time I have a minor failure with my sister, my teaching, my writing, it all goes into this bigger project of the season, and then next season, and the idea that like sports teams I, and we all, are always in the process of finding what will make us better, trading one thing for another in the hope that we’ll do better with that. We work within our salary caps, build up our capacities, try and address the things that are making our team weak. We turn to new training techniques, maybe we’ll hire a math guy to help us figure out our stats and make better acquisitions. We’ll give up some things to free agency and hope that we get something good in the draft, and there’s always an opportunity to rebuild our team after a disastrous season.

And so I guess, even with all of the feelings of ineptitude, doubt, and loss (and now, not much discussed in this essay but showing up in other books, what comes to mind is also all my failures at romantic relationships which have led too to much doubt and loss) and of being uncertain of how things turn out, I have to see this as a long game, a long season, and a long life that I have to keep working at.

In one of my first jobs, in development/NGO work, I worried that my interviewees wouldn’t divulge information because they had been working in government for so long, had high positions and were much older while I was just a kid fresh out of college. A wise friend who had brought me into the project gave me advice that has served me in good stead ever since: 50% of it is looking like you know what you’re doing so dress right, nod your head and talk like you know everything you need to know and you’ll be fine; the other 50% is actually knowing what you’re supposed to do. It’s easy to learn the latter 50% eventually, but you have to be able to put up the front of looking like you know what you’re doing immediately.

I think I’ve followed this principle pretty well thus far. And I guess that in the face of uncertainty I have to put up that first 50% and look like I know what I’m doing. Then I can figure things out as I go along.

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3 Responses to The Uncertainty Principle

  1. Mollie Player says:

    Thanks for this read. Your positive, do-something-about-it approach is great.

  2. resty o. says:

    i remember a john mayer song about this perennial dilemma. have you heard his Why Georgia?
    i guess, there will always be that doubt for as long as we live.

    I am driving up 85 in the
    kind of morning that lasts all afternoon
    just stuck inside the gloom

    Four more exits to my apartment but
    I am tempted to keep the car in drive
    and leave it all behind

    Cause I wonder sometimes
    about the outcome
    of a still verdictless life

    Am I living it right?
    Am I living it right?
    Am I living it right?
    Why, why Georgia, why?

    I rent a room and I fill the spaces with
    wood in places to make it feel like home
    but all I feel’s alone
    It might be a quarter life crisis
    or just the stirring in my soul

    Either way, I wonder sometimes
    about the outcome
    of a still verdictless life

    Am I living it right?
    Am I living it right?
    Am I living it right?
    Why, why Georgia, why?

    So what, so I’ve got a smile on me
    but it’s hiding the quiet superstitions in my head
    Don’t believe me
    Don’t believe me
    When I say I’ve got it down

    Everybody is just a stranger but
    that’s the danger in going my own way
    I guess it’s the price I have to pay
    still “Everything happens for a reason”
    is no reason not to ask myself

    If your’re living it right
    Are you living it right?
    Are you living it right?
    Why, tell me why
    Why, why Georgia why?

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