One morning on the way to work I looked up from tailgating a Corolla made in 1952 to see a cloud of grey across the highway. It was low to the ground, dove colored, with a pigeon’s pedigree at best. Living in Southern California’s droughtlandia, my pulse hiked up and I came to full alert. Thoughts of evacuation, wild fires, packing the car and finally getting to eat that spam in my emergency kit darted through my mind, but those thoughts quickly evaporated like the gin in my martini the night before. What I first thought to be smoke turned out to be mere fog. The thirty seconds of breaking news in my head dissipated with a deep breath and half a mile. Smoke means danger, fog means slow down, and be careful and oh hell I need more coffee.
After my small scare I thought about the nature of smoke and fog beyond navigation in the practical sense. For smoke, our response to it is more often black and white: good fire when in hibachi, bad fire when the garage housing that hibachi lights up. The simple mechanism of a unipolar switch that is either on or off, good or bad, a call to 911 or another beer and kabob, creates easy assessment. No mystery, no difficult problem identification, just the way humans like to categorize problems, people, events, ideals and Kardashians. It is good or bad, it is black or white. It is very simple absolutes with a great deal of clarity between choices and their criteria.
Fog on the other hand is tricky. The inability to see the road ahead causes a different type of panic, the unknown, the unseen, can lead to an expanse of what if, who dat, a queasy limbo, the grey expanse between black and white in Maybeville. Maybeville, a place so far from Tinder that you need shots, a Sherpa guide and a passport to get there. Back to fog, fog leads to more anxiety in the not knowing, in slowing down, being careful and fully present for what is to come. It is about constant monitoring and assessment and being vigilant. It is the space between seeing something, and sussing out whether it is a problem, might become a problem or is just nothing. The time lapse in that fog or grey area in the process of identification makes us anxious and uncomfortable. We want to rush through to an answer as quickly as possible, whether that is prudent or not, even at the stake of being wrong in our assessment. We as a species do not like not knowing what is to come, what is going on, what the hell is on his head, I am just saying.
The unknown portends doom in movies, in books and in our tiny craniums. Twice a year I wake up and look at the ceiling and see a black dot above my head and fear gripes me. I think, “Is that a spider? Is that a spider that bit me in my sleep? Could it be a black widow, a brown recluse or a green lacrosse?” That last thing there is not even a thing, just fear on a jazz rift in my head. I take a breath and think, “Where are my glasses? Oh wait… that is the same hole in the ceiling I saw 6 months ago. Oh, yea, nothing… where’s my coffee?”
When there is not an easy assessment of perceived danger or the unknown, which translates into the same thing for the amygdala, we rush to judgement. The not knowing is uncomfortable, but that is most of life really: not knowing what is next, what do we do, and what do we say. The not knowing, the transition between noticing and knowledge, between awareness and enlightenment is important. This is where a deep breath helps, then another, to find clarity past the uncomfortable to get perspective. It is where reason, logic, heart space, and compassion live. Compassion for our tiny scared self and asking for our humor in the moment to return so we can relax and spin down.
Sometimes when I am faced with a decision and I don’t know what to do, the right answer is to do nothing. Just wait, be uncomfortable in the not knowing, in the limbo until I do know what to do. That is a difficult thing, to accept being uncomfortable rather than rush to be through it. Choices made in haste rarely turn out well. Ask anyone who met and married in a Vegas chapel in a 72-hour period, or got a drunken-fueled tattoo of our saintly mothers, a shag haircut when we felt stuck or that McDonald’s special burger with the jalapenos on a desolate country road.
In smoke, we know fast and clearly what to do depending on where the fire is. In fog we stall and then rush, both poor choices when dealing with the unknown. Going slowly, sipping tea, taking a breath and waiting for clarity is our best choice. In the time it takes for the fog to clear we can sing with Neil Diamond or Twenty-One Pilots, eat a donut, think about Paris or just indulge in the mystery of life and how it is unfolding in front of us.