Transposing emblem by Verónica Lassa

There is a book that has been around for 3,000 years or so. It seems to have taught princes and emperors – as well as guided the folk – in the East for millennia. In the West, we had to wait until a couple of centuries ago to find translations in our languages and gain a unique sort of richness, a well of metaphorical answers. Of course it is an oracle; of course it is about divination. I am talking about I Ching, yes! Despite its old-age the book seems to be still in very good health today. Many people all over the western world are using it and studying it at present. I am one of these people. What is it that we look for when we pose a question to an oracle? What is it that we get when we receive an answer from one? My idea is that for both questions the simple answer is “uncertainty.” In the former we put it into words; in the latter we define it (in the sense of specification). I guess we use the book not because we want to wipe uncertainty out of our lives, but because we need to define its place at a certain time, regarding a certain matter. This is something I have been thinking about for quite a while now: What do I use the book for? And I finally asked I Ching: What is uncertainty? And my reading of the answer I received is what follows here.

I will not go into particularities regarding how the book works; there is plenty of material for that online. I Ching says that uncertainty is hexagram 37 with a changing sixth line to 63. It makes no sense, I know. But it is full of meaning. Among other similar concepts, hexagram 37 means kindred people, people sharing a common living space (mankind?). The sixth line represents someone like a patriarch, a much respected, “impressive” person, someone who knows and can go back to their own truthful style. Hexagram 63 means “already complete,” already across; and its sixth line warns about a danger: the danger of drowning in the middle of the river we have decided to cross. I will risk some interpretations here. Uncertainty means being human among other humans on Earth, and uncertainty is to know. Something like: the more we know, the more we know we do not know. We turn into “impressive” beings when we know our own truth, when we choose the way we want to be among an indefinite and unknown number of choices. Then we come to know that our truth is never “already complete”; there is always the risk of finding our heads under water or falling. As if truth were something like a fence we are indefinitely balancing on. The aphorism could read: Uncertainty is what makes us human and turns us cautious. It is what defines us and protects us at the same time, because uncertainty is change.

There are scales for the readings, and we can also include our religious beliefs in the answers, our own worldview in terms of life and death, love, loss, freedom or happiness. I have a confession to make: I sent the question and the answer to some friends of mine who share I Ching readings so as to see how they dug into the answer and what scales they could give to it. Religious friends read something completely different; they read their own uncertainties (much as I read mine in the first paragraph). For Christian friends, the “patriarch” was God, and “already complete” meant “after life.” This also makes a lot of sense. Uncertainty for them is: not knowing if there is a God (on the other side) once we have already crossed the river of life. Maybe, uncertainty here could mean fear that this life might be all, and that the river is there only for us to drown (and go back as a drop into some eternal current).

It is a fact that humans have dealt with uncertainty in many different ways and with many different results throughout history. None of the answers were even close to solving the issue. Some have even turned their provisional responses into powerful institutions. However, the way we address uncertainty does make a huge difference. A Delphic oracle can give us a clue as to what we can expect from an oracle when we use a question mark for our uncertainty. There is a dimension we all remember well in Delphi, that of “know thyself.” However, there is also another dimension here that is not recalled as well: “care for thyself” could be a translation for the phrase epimeleisthai sautou. Oracles could be a great way of dealing with uncertainty. Turning uncertainties into questions helps us both to define them and to find creative ways to act on them (not to deny them or find absolute solutions). I may say the book is still in good health because it brings us good health. When we do not feel the need to abolish anything – or to have the illusion of it – we find that everything that exists has its place, and even if we do not know it or we do not like it, if we can specify – somehow fix – our uncertainty, we can be ready to learn something new about ourselves or we can be willing to take better care of ourselves (and others) when confronting the unknown. Uncertainty could then become a technique of existence, a process during which we transform ourselves, a program, right, but one with an open end.

Verónica Lassa