Spiritual Life: Wisdom can be found in ambiguous situations

Timothy J. Ledbetter, Tri-City Herald on

Published in Religious News

There is one thing about ambiguity.

Umm, no. By definition an ambiguous situation means there is more than one component. The factors differ and are not resolvable.

Take the phenomenon of light. It acts both like a particle bouncing around and like a wave flowing and bending around. Different actions at the same time, but not resolvable -- it's ambiguous.

Years ago, after her father tragically died, my future life partner moved with her mother and young siblings from Indiana to Washington to make a new start. We met in a church some years later ... and the rest is history.

Ambiguity: had he not died, and they moved, we would likely have never met. Certainly my life, and presumably hers, would have been sorely impoverished.

So, what do I do with that reality? How to hold that tension between wanting her father to live and wanting to meet and share my life with her? Rather than seeking resolution of the tension of ambiguity, perhaps there is another option.

There is a biblical parable about ambiguity. The story is about someone preparing to attend a great banquet. Admission ticket in hand, the guest is in a quandary about where to sit. The guest's inner wrestling went something like this: "I want to sit near the head of the table. But if I take a seat of higher honor, I might get demoted by the host. But if I sit near the foot I may not get promoted. What to do?" (Luke 14:7-11).

As the attendee tries to determine a proper seating strategy, the ambiguity in this story cannot be resolved. You can't sit in two places at once. That's why "preoccupation" causes so much internal distress -- trying to occupy some future place while still here. Resolution is fruitless and frustrating.

But what if another option is found in holding, and living into, and learning from ambiguity? Perhaps wisdom can be found in difficult ambiguous situations.

One interpreter of the parable suggests two deeper learnings. One is that it is not your table. Someone greater than you is host; you are a guest among many guests. A second learning is that you have a place! Your ticket to the banquet, provided by the host, guarantees a place at the table. Where you sit is not yours to decide ... but you do have a chair with your name on it ... so relax!


Seeking wisdom within life's ambiguities can free you from "binary thinking": either/or, only one solution, this or that. Some wisdom traditions call it "seeking a third way."

Part of that wisdom is simply accepting the reality that this particular situation is ambiguous. It can't be resolved but it can be lived into and learned from.

I constantly live in respect for my father-in-law and his family's incredible journey of recovery from loss, and in gratitude for the privilege of sharing life and family with her.

Yes, I believe that acceptance, respect, gratitude and many such learnings from ambiguity contribute to wise living ... among other things.

About The Writer

Timothy J. Ledbetter, DMin, BCC serves as a Board Certified Chaplain helping persons in crisis effectively cope and find their hope in hospital and hospice settings and is a Tri-City Herald Spiritual Life contributor. He is married and delights in their children and grandchildren. He also enjoys camping and boating. email:

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