Increasing our Tolerance for Ambiguity

I’ve done two wonderful projects with different parts of the Writing Project this summer–first, helping facilitate our 2010 Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) in San Juan Bautista, CA, for a month, with our wonderful local cohort, and then a five day Resource Development Retreat (RDR) in Austin, Texas, with folks from all over the US. I’ll write about the RDR soon, it’s still digesting. This is a piece I wrote for the Summer Institute.

Date: July 6th, 2010

As an essential part of our ISI, we are studying the book “Courageous Conversations About Race: a field guide for achieving equity in schools” by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton (Corwin Press, 2006), and using many of the strategies outlined in it. One key practice from the book is “expect and accept non-closure.” This stimulated a lot of discussion in our group, from the TV culture of neat wraps in 22.5 minutes to the oversimplification of complex topics in schools. After several days of these discussions, I remembered a phrase I first heard from my friend Andy at the commune where I lived for nine years: “Living here it’s important to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.” In the context of communal living, it’s certainly a valuable skill–when someone would say, “I’m driving to town tomorrow,” it made for a much easier trip to expect and accept that the planned 10 AM  departure would very likely be postponed several times by the need to fix the flat or syphon gas from the other truck, or by having to wait for Yimmy to get back from the wood run, or….

I’ve used the phrase often in my “dropped-back-in” life since those days, usually in the form of, “I probably have the highest tolerance for ambiguity of anyone you’ve ever met.” It’s a line that’s usually good for a laugh, and sometimes also lights a spark of reflection or questioning in someone’s mind. Its resonance with the Courageous Conversation strategy got me reflecting more deeply on the idea. Ambiguity is a word with mostly negative connotations. When someone’s answer to a question is labeled “ambiguous,” the implication is that the responder is at least trying to avoid a direct and clear answer, if not prevaricating. Many questions, in fact most of the interesting questions, do not have simple much less clear and direct answers. Yet US culture — especially the culture of advertising and popular talk — thrives on definitive pronouncements and neat and tidy endings. Ambiguity is the province of the wimpy liberal.

The etymology of ambiguity surprised me. I assumed as I was composing in my head that it was related to the Spanish “ambos” meaning both, and referred to having dual and therefore potentially confusing meanings. The Online Etymological Dictionary, however, says this:

ambigere “to dispute about,” lit. “to wander,” from ambi- “about” + agere “drive, lead, act” (see act).

So ambiguity also ties into another of my favorite concepts, wandering–I used to have the JRR Tolkien bumper sticker on my car:

“Not all that glitters is gold, not all those who wander are lost.”

And I love the following lines as well, not nearly so often quoted:

“The old who are strong do not whither, the deep roots are not touched by the frost.”

Taking measures to increase my tolerance for ambiguity has been a personal practice since I first heard the phrase nearly forty years ago, and I still live by the concept. It’s one of my deep roots. Someone asked me today during a break in the ISI, “Are you a skeptic?” I answered yes, but not readily nor directly–it’s another tricky question. I have a lot of optimism, often a quality associated with having faith, in a religious sense. And I have a realistic view of how difficult meaningful change can be, and how long it can take to accomplish. But being clear-headed about the obstacles to progress doesn’t make me a pessimist. It just means being able to take the long view.

Confusing and difficult challenges abound in this horrifically inequitable world. And increasing our tolerance for ambiguity provides another avenue of relief from the frustrations and anger which build up as we confront impossible situations. Polarization of viewpoints and seemingly unbridgeable gulfs between disparate groups lead to feelings of helplessness and despair or apathy. So I take a brief small pleasure in picking apart this neatly turned phrase and disassembling some familiar sounding words: tolerance, the other key word in my token phrase, also has a lot of negative connotations these days. It seems a long-suffering concept: we “tolerate” things which are slightly unpleasant, but only mildly and annoyingly so. If they were REALLY bad, we’d put up a fight, but instead we unhappily submit.

But tolerance, like ambiguity, deserves to be rehabilitated. The dictionary definition is, “a disposition to allow freedom of choice and behavior.” Like “respect,” literally “to look again,” tolerance is an apt descriptor for that wonderful facilitator’s or collaborator’s attitude which invites the other to bring their whole self to the endeavor, without even a hint that the participant has to mimic or echo the point of view of the leader in order be accepted and valued. We can all accept — indeed, we must expect — that there will be no closure to our quest for social and economic justice. If we also increase our tolerance for ambiguity, it becomes easier to see that agreeing to continue the journey together may be enough for now.


Fred is a Teaching Artist, an arts integration advocate & a social justice activist. He is near completing a two-month Residency as String Game Performance Teacher at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, CA, and performed at the 2015 Santa Cruz Storytelling Festival. He also serves as Teacher Consultant for Professional Development with UCSC's Central California Writing Project and as their Technology Liaison to the National Writing Project. He is a Connected Learning Facilitator and coordinates Face To Face Drop Ins on Connected Learning biweekly at Arts Council Santa Cruz County. He teaches self-directed & connected learning via real-world projects & string games through his Original Digital Project, an Associate of the Arts Council.

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One comment on “Increasing our Tolerance for Ambiguity
  1. Cool. I enjoyed reading your post. Both the etymology and, especially, the practical take on accepting/expecting non-closure. I have a basically unrelated question that I’m struggling with that I imagine you would have some interesting thoughts about. How would you define technology?

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