Opinion: Why Uncertainty is Okay

Graphic by Lexi Kuhl

When I was in the second grade, my school enrolled my class in a writing competition for elementary students. Every student in the class was required to write, edit and illustrate an original story. I hated this idea. I hated writing. But, writing a story was required, and unfortunately part of our grade.  

So, I wrote a book about a bird who couldn’t fly. I named her Tweety. Tweety was a red macaw with lots of siblings who could fly. Tweety hated that she couldn’t fly, so she practiced. By the end of the book, Tweety could fly, and she was the fastest flying bird in the world.  

To my surprise, I won the award for the best book written by a second grader at the competition. The judges said my book was an excellent example of resilience. I had no idea what that meant at eight. However, as I sat in a chair, receiving my award, I knew that moment would shape me.  

From that point forward, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t care if I was an author or a journalist. I wanted to write.  

The next eight years of my life were spent glued to a computer screen, authoring books, and learning how to become a journalist.  

The first year of the pandemic happened during my senior year of high school. Throughout the lockdown, I, and everyone else in the world, had a lot of time to myself. During this time, I learned a lot about myself. I learned I had likes and interests I didn’t know about before. I learned how to paint. I learned how to sew. I even learned I was oddly good at physics. 

High school students are busy. Between classes, homework, sports, and jobs, it’s hard to discover new passions.  

I loved writing, but it was all I ever knew. Because I was so busy, I never had time to discover anything else.  

Often when we are young, we find something we love and stick with it. But as we get older, we get busier; we have less time to explore. So, when it comes time to choose a career, we stick to what we know.  

The world has so much to offer, yet we are told to pick one thing and spend the rest of our lives doing it.  

Although I have dedicated the last three years of my life to being a journalist, I feel unsure about my career and future.  

I love writing, but sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had studied fashion design, physics, or education.  

In “The Bell Jar,” Sylvia Plath’s character Esther ponders this same feeling of uncertainty. How can I pick one life, one career, one fig, when I have so many I want to live? 

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”  

The fig tree highlights Esther’s inability to decide on a career path and her future. Each branch of the fig tree represents a different decision, a different life. With so many options, the fig tree feels paralyzing.  

Having to choose one career path feels restricting. Much like Esther, I worry about the different opportunities the world offers. Uncertainty often seeps into my bones, and I wonder if I choose one fig, will I not be able to pursue another?  

Every young person can relate to the fig tree quote. The horrible feeling of unknowing, the feeling of indecisiveness, and the sense that if you choose one path, you give up all the others is suffocating.  

A friend of mine recently changed his major. He’s a senior. When I asked him why he said he was always uncertain about his major.  

“On the first day of classes, my professor came into the classroom. And the first thing he said to all of us was ‘If you don’t love finance, then you shouldn’t be doing it for a living.’ So, I went that day and changed my major,” he said.  

I then asked if he was certain about his new major. He said he didn’t know, but it was okay.  

In the last episode, of season one, of my favorite show, “Master of None,” Dev, played by Aziz Ansari, feels uncertain about the future of his relationship. Dev expresses his uncertainty to his father and his father compares his indecisiveness to Esther from “The Bell Jar.”  

“You are like a woman sitting in front of a fig tree, staring at all the branches ‘til the tree dies,” Dev’s father said.  

Dev, who has never heard of “The Bell Jar,” stares at his father. Dev’s father, surprised by Dev’s lack of knowledge of the book, explains it to him.  

“Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. You never read.”  

Dev’s father then goes on to say:  

“Look, you are a young man, you can do a lot of things with your life: career, girlfriend, travel, you can even start a family. But you have to make the decision and do something about it. If you don’t, you’re doing nothing, and the tree dies. Go to the bookstore and get that book.” 

After his father’s speech, Dev makes his way to the bookstore. Dev does not buy the book. Instead, Dev picks the book up and finds the fig tree quote. As he reads the quote, we see all the possibilities for his life branching out.  

The fig tree quote inspired Dev to decide.  

Dev then visits his girlfriend, Rachel, only to find she dyed her hair and is moving to Tokyo. She breaks off a fig from Dev’s tree and ends things with him. 

Dev is left with uncertainty once again until Rachel explains that she’s always wanted to move to Tokyo and that now was the time.  

Cut to the end of the episode and Dev is sitting on a plane explaining to a random lady that he decided to move to Italy because of pasta. He explains to the lady that he loves pasta and wants to take a pasta-making class. Surprised by his spontaneous decision, the lady asks:  

“You just decided? Just like that?” 

“Just like that,” he replies. 

Uncertainty follows us everywhere. In the last episode of season one, Dev follows his father’s advice and decides. The decision is spontaneous, and Dev doesn’t know if Italy is where he’ll spend forever, but he embraces his uncertainty.  

The desire to be certain is a powerful emotion. Uncertainty is uncomfortable.  

But what if we allowed ourselves to lean into the discomfort? What if we face the fog and embrace the ambiguity?  

In science, it’s critical to have uncertainty. If everything were certain, we would never have new things to research and discover. Uncertainty breeds curiosity.  

It is okay to be uncertain. Everyone has been uncertain of their future at one point or another.  

Ava DuVernay, the director of “When They See Us,” didn’t make her first short film until she was 32. DuVernay spent the first part of her career working as a film publicist. After working with filmmakers for years, she decided she too wanted to be a director.  

Vivienne Westwood, the punk fashion icon, opened her first boutique at 30. Her business took off once her husband, Malcolm McLaren, began managing The Sex Pistols. Before fashion, Westwood worked as a teacher.  

Celeste Ng, author of “Little Fires Everywhere,” didn’t know she could write for a career. It wasn’t until Ng started working in publishing that she realized she wanted to be an author.  

Uncertainty is okay. Not knowing what you want in life or for your future is okay. Changing your career path is okay.  

Although I’m still unsure what I want to do with my life, I feel more comfortable knowing that I don’t have to know. As Dev’s father said, I’m young. I can do a lot with my life.  

Much like Dev, I didn’t read all “The Bell Jar” at first. I only focused on the fig tree itself. Not having read the entire book, the fig tree was a symbol of tragedy. Nothing good came from the tree. But after reading the book, I realized Esther was just hungry and contemplating her spiraling life because so.  

While the fig tree is a genuine expression of fear, it is also a place for possibilities. It’s scary, but you don’t have to have your life figured out. You can choose one fig, and then another. You don’t have to subject yourself to one fig, one career, one passion, one life.  

The fig tree is not supposed to be the inevitable end, but a look at the endless opportunities.