Embracing uncertainty

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated June 06, 2010 12:00 AM


Illustration by REY RIVERA

I was watching a documentary the other night about the Titanic, the mighty ship touted to be the most advanced, modern, state-of-the-art sea vessel of its time, which its makers claimed was virtually unsinkable. The toast of the engineering world, it was built using the finest materials available, and had the imprimatur of utmost safety from experts in the maritime industry. And yet, we all know that, on its maiden voyage, it sank after hitting an iceberg, killing hundreds of its well-heeled passengers.

The documentary on the Titanic brought to mind the US Challenger space shuttle which exploded seconds after it was launched in 1986, killing the entire crew.

Such mishaps shocked the world because tragedy or failure was the farthest thing from people’s minds, considering the extreme care and preparation that went into these endeavors. But, to paraphrase Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men most often go awry.” Things do go wrong at times, despite man’s best efforts.

We all try to go for the sure things in life, or at least go the extra mile to neutralize uncertainties that may disrupt our plans. This is understandable, since predictability and comfort are valid human longings.

We send our kids to the best schools with the highest reputation to be able to ensure their future. A lot of kids spend an inordinate amount of time in school, which may start from pre-school all the way up to a master’s degree or a PhD. The aim is for them to get a superior education and thus have the opportunity to get the highest-paying jobs available. There is a lot of preoccupation with success. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s good to aim high.

I marvel at how methodical parents and students can be in their pursuit of this goal. They follow the track of long hours in school, lots of studying, a graduate course, a doctorate, practicum in a prestigious firm, so that when they finish, they have the best credentials to get ahead.

But then, just like in the world of machines and technology, things do not always turn out the way we expect them to. We have all heard tragic stories of the promising graduate who suddenly falls into a devastating addiction, the charismatic priest who leaves the priesthood, the socialite who is set to marry Mr. Right but suddenly cancels the wedding, and worse, elopes with someone who is far less stellar.

Such stories leave us scratching our heads in disbelief; we are hard put to find an explanation for what happened. It seems the only conclusion we can draw is that life has other plans for the people involved.

I know a girl who canceled her wedding even after the invitations had been sent out because she felt that things were just too “perfect,” so she began to have doubts. Her parents were aghast at her decision and could not understand how she could turn her back on a “sure thing,” even if it was exactly for that very reason that she distrusted everything.

Joseph Campbell, my favorite wise old writer (I have read practically all his books), wrote about this exact same thing when he warned, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

This is such a powerful insight that I took it to heart the moment I read it.

We yearn for a life that we can control as much as possible. What we forget is that there are just too many variables that make life wildly unpredictable. Life has a dynamic energy that can animate and set its own course, even if we do not do anything. The best we can do is engage with it as we create and pursue our dreams while, hopefully, getting it to cooperate with what we want to happen.

As a musician, I like to compare the business of living to jazz. Improvisation is at the very heart of jazz. One has to make do and attempt to ride the waves of chords, beats and time signatures that life is playing. To be able to do that, one must be open, awake to life and its imperatives.

I remember watching the legendary Duke Ellington perform with his band over 40 years ago at the CCP. Before the show, he asked a rising Filipino violinist to join him and play a few bars of Summertime, a favorite jazz piece. The young man must have rehearsed his parts very well because he played every note quite perfectly during the performance. As he finished the last few strains of the piece, he smiled proudly at the audience, obviously pleased that he had not just “survived” Duke Ellington, but that he also did quite well.

Old Duke, the playful jazz maestro, probably felt that the young musician was, well, too polished and rehearsed, and on the spot, he signaled him to do another round of the routine, this time, totally impromptu. Totally taken aback, the young man hurriedly picked up his violin and after a few tentative, unsure notes, began to catch the vibe of where he wanted to go with his instant improvisation. Midway, he began to nail it and finished the piece with a pretty good riff, to the approval of the audience.

I learned two things that night. One is that practice and preparation will get you a crack at auditions and maybe even the job. The other is, openness, flexibility and presence will help you not only to succeed, but do well. The first will give you competence and some confidence. The second is a bit harder to learn because it demands that one must come from a true place. Earlier authentic experiences are the raw materials that shape and guide performance.

I have seen people in other disciplines who have learned the first lesson not through any formal education but through mere observation. They are quick studies who never even finished school but are observant, flexible and hungry for knowledge.

The author Samuel Butler compared life to a solo violin recital where one learns to play the instrument on the fly. It’s a pretty apt analogy, which I must always remember, now that I have ended a 40-year run with APO and am, in a great sense, starting anew.

It excites me that life may call me to do new things. While I have some projects going, I always ask myself what tomorrow will bring. I have accepted and embraced unpredictability. I am able to pack a suitcase in a few minutes for sudden, unexpected journeys. Who knows? I could just suddenly open a trumpet case and engage this new instrument with great enthusiasm, dedication and enjoyment.