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Living with Ambiguity

Photo of Jane Elder

There was a particularly sage observation I once heard from my undergraduate psychology professor. I can’t remember the specific lecture in which this observation arose, but it has stuck with me for years: “One of the signs of good mental health is the ability to tolerate ambiguity.”

And, oh, the ambiguity we are all living with right now.

Whatever habits of mind we have that enable us to deal with uncertainty, discomfort, grief, fear, and weariness are certainly getting a workout in 2020. Some days it is an act of courage just to get out of bed. 

Of course, no one knows what lies ahead. But we can be sure it will be different from what we’ve known. Gazing in to the chasm between the known and unknown can be disorienting and terrifying. But it can also be exciting when one considers the opportunities for transformational change. 

The environmental author and educator Dorothy Lagerroos once observed that, during the Early Middle Ages, no one really knew what the Renaissance would look like, or even that it was coming. But, at a certain point, social and political change was rapid and transformative as bold new ideas about art, science, and culture swept across Europe. Of course, the Renaissance didn’t just “happen.” The seeds of change—the invention of the printing press, an emerging merchant class—were planted long before they flowered.

Yet all too often vast economic and social change happens on the backs of the vulnerable and oppressed. In modern times, the term “Luddite” is often used as derogatory shorthand to belittle those who fear progress. But the original early 19th-century Luddites were artisan weavers who smashed British textile factory machines because they understood the impact automation would have on their lives and livelihoods. As the violence grew, with Luddites burning down factories and exchanging gunfire with company guards, it became clear that nothing could stop the coming Industrial Revolution. After a few Luddites were shot and killed in a raid on a mill in Huddersfield, the rest were rounded up by troops and transported to Australia—or hung. 

Indeed, history shows us that change is rarely simple or linear. It was, and always will be, unpredictable and messy. While the human capacity for imagination and adaptation is remarkable, I wonder if we are at the cusp of another social transformation today—or just living through a few tough years. Have the seeds of justice, equity, and sustainability been awakened from their slumber? Can we lift ourselves—all of us—into a tomorrow that is more just, more humane, more beautiful? Whatever may happen, I’m certain future historians will have much to write about this particular American moment.

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Jane Elder is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brings to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts. Her career has focused on environmental policy and communications, while personal interests include theater, modern dance and painting.

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