In 1980, I began my career as a law clerk working at the Arizona Court of Appeals. My job was to research issues for the judge and work on draft opinions, which would then be fully reviewed, analyzed and edited until he was satisfied with the result. I spent countless hours examining case law and statutes, attempting, to the best of my young and inexperienced mind, to offer the correct analysis and conclusion. But I was never more than a few inches away from the total fear of being wrong. Scholarly uncertainty motivated me; it demanded and inspired some of my best and clearest thinking.
As a practicing lawyer, being right or certain about a fact, legal interpretation or desired outcome is tantamount to being successful. Over the years however, I began to realize that being right was less important to me than being real. Being real often meant being unsure or uncertain, which is clearly not a quality clients desired or expected when they hired me. When I left the practice of law in 1994 to pursue my passion for Jewish learning, I knew that I would relish the freedom of starting from a place of not knowing. Graduate studies in Jewish education couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.
It wasn’t until my husband, Ray, was diagnosed with cancer, however, that I experienced the full force of living with chronic uncertainty. In those three and a half years of daily unknowns, I learned that the only thing of which I was certain was that I would somehow manage to handle each challenge as it arose.
There were times when it seemed like we were living in a mine field, tiptoeing cautiously through life for fear of what might explode next. What if the CT scan came back positive? Were the side effects of treatment worse than the cure? Was there a clinical trial to help us? And of course, the question to which we would never know the answer: How much time would we have together?
The one thing we both knew with absolute certainty was that in the very space of not knowing, in that most precious precariousness of life, we had the chance to become our best selves. To be present to what we had, to love fully and truly, realizing that we would never know the answers to many of our questions.
After Ray died, I took many trips; staying in motion seemed to help. Sometimes I traveled to remember; other times I traveled to forget. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to listen to my instincts. No book or grief group could tell me what I needed to do. I had to find that out for myself.
I visited my childhood summer stomping grounds and spent a week in Cape Cod. On a cold and rainy October morning, I walked on a beach in Truro that I had loved as an 18-year-old camp counselor, awash in summer romance and suntan oil. I thought about how back then, there had been no Tucson or law degree, no husband or children — not even an imagined fantasy of which they were a part.
As the tide washed clean my footsteps, it struck me that someday, perhaps 20 years from now, I might find myself on this same beach, reflecting back on all of the yet unknown and beautiful things that would and could still happen in my life. And in that moment I realized that in order to survive, we have to stay open to what we don’t know.
Slowly but surely I have come to recognize that uncertainty is not to be dreaded or feared. It is to be embraced as the portal to possibility. It’s the silver lining of my loss and the gateway to a life yet to be lived. Staying open to possibilities and not knowing means that anything is possible. For in the end, it is how we react to the uncertainties of life that enables us to evolve and thrive.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.