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  • Heidi

Navigating Uncertainty

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

When in the Middle East, there are a few words you pick up simply because they punctuate conversation, regardless of faith background: as-salamu alaikum (peace be upon you), alhamdulillah (praise be to God), mashallah (as God willed). But the winner has to be inshallah (God willing).

Me: When will you finish school? 

Answer: Next year, inshallah.

Translation: I’m supposed to be done next year, but it’s possible that won’t happen.

Me: Looks like good weather tomorrow.

Answer: Yes, inshallah.

Translation: I sure hope so, but who knows?

Me: Okay, I’ll see you again next week.

Answer: Inshallah

Translation: Yes, I want to - but no promises.

(Or, Okay, sure… but actually I don’t want to see you.)

Perhaps it’s a reflection of how deeply faith and life are enmeshed here, or perhaps it’s a result of living in a very volatile region. But there’s almost this acceptance that things hardly go as planned. After spending a bulk of my life in a country that thrives on planning things to a tee, this has been both frustrating and refreshing. On one hand, it seems to have bred in some a fatalistic or laissez-faire attitude towards life. Yet at the same time, I’ve also observed a greater resourcefulness, flexibility, and ability to adapt fast as things come - traits that all of us could do well to develop too.

It’s definitely human to desire certainty and control over situations; we always wish salam upon people rather than instability. Planning is also essential for the success of any organization, including those geared toward doing good. But regardless of whether you believe in a God or not, we would probably all agree that even the best laid plans can never be totally guaranteed to succeed. We must understand this now even more than before, as the world as we know it has been upended - and will likely continue to remain so for a while.

With various upheavals both familiar and novel (no pun intended) to this part of the world and in just living here, I’ve had to constantly make adjustments to plans both personal and organizational. In the process, there are a few lessons I’ve been mulling over:

The secret lies in how much you PREPARE

Before I got here, my safety awareness training 101 taught me that these days, it’s not if a crisis happens, or even when, but how fast it happens. And when things happen fast, our instincts kick in. The trick then is to hone our instincts so that we respond appropriately even when there’s no time to think. 

But I’ve found that this applies beyond personal safety. In situations of rapid change, how we react is indicative of what we have been cultivating consistently during peacetime; crisis is the best litmus test for the presence of strong personal and organizational foundations. So before anything even happens, we need to be thinking about the habits and relationships we are building, and systems and processes that need to be put in place.

What are you intentionally cultivating during peacetime?

Photo by STIL from Unsplash

Remember to PAUSE for perspective

Unfortunately, most of us tend to neglect preparation. When a change or crisis occurs, it’s thus good to pause before we leap into action. Panic and anxiety often cloud judgment and lead to hasty actions, or worse still, actions we may regret. 

When rumors of a Covid-19 case in the city I’m currently in first surfaced a few months ago, emotions ran high and a number of internationals immediately upped and left, putting an abrupt end to some good work that had just started, while leaving many others remaining in limbo. To date, no positive cases have been reported here, alhamdulillah. Perhaps there was good reason for people to leave so quickly, and it was certainly a tough judgment call that had to be made with limited information. But I can’t help but wonder if pausing for a moment for perspective might have helped to lessen tensions and smooth out transitions.

Pause, breathe and consider what's actually going on. Are you reacting or responding?

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

Pausing after the fact also presents us an opportunity to evaluate how we’ve reacted and where we may have fallen short. Once we are out of crisis mode, we can then work to address any gaps before the next crisis hits. 

Always return to first PRINCIPLES

When everything around us is in flux, we also need to be sure of what doesn’t change. What are our fundamentals and non-negotiables - our values and mission, our “who” and “why”? These are the things we must dig deeper into so that we don’t get tossed around too. 

Crisis or change also has a way of shining a spotlight on any mission drift or disjoints between our plans and ground realities - something organizations with social missions should technically always be paying attention to but may lose sight of because of the busyness and day-to-day firefighting.

When my work here slowed because of health-related restrictions from the government, I found I could have a lot more hang-out time with both my local co-workers and the people I was hoping to serve, outside of a work setting. Through this, not only was trust and camaraderie strengthened, but I was also able to check assumptions and blind spots, and uncover more insights into the culture. All this, in turn, helps us to better journey with people.

Learn to PIVOT

But while we hold tight to some things, there are others we may need to let go of. As things around us shift, we need to identify what our negotiables are that can be tweaked or shed if necessary. In fact, remaining true to the people we serve may actually mean varying our methods and timelines, our “how” and “when”.

Where can you pivot to while remaining true to your mission and core values?

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

This is all the more so because crisis and change often reveal new opportunities or opportunities that had been there but that we had been oblivious to or chosen to ignore. When the world went into lockdown and stocks were plunging, the shares of one company bucked the trend - Zoom. Suddenly, everyone realized that video conferencing technology held a world of possibilities that could be tapped into, or accelerated organizational digitalization plans they had been dragging their feet on. I myself started rethinking service delivery here and experimented with various forms of technology to do so - something I might never have done or seen an urgency for without a lockdown.

Protect your PEACE (and rest)

But finally, what needs to undergird everything is maintaining an inner fortitude. A local proverb that I love sums things up nicely: ناجار بنڤە واکي هەر جار، خودێ يێکي داليل هزار (Najar, binve wakî her jar, Xwidê yêka dalîl hezar). Don’t worry, it comes with an explanatory backstory:

There once lived a poor carpenter, Najar, with his wife and only son. At that time, a wicked king ruled the land and decreed that he would eat the liver of a child from a different family every day. 

One fateful day, the lot fell to Najar’s son. Najar was devastated and couldn’t sleep that night. Seeing this, his wife told him: “Najar, binve wakî her jar, Xwidê yêka dalîl hezar.” (“Najar, sleep like how you would every night. God who is One has a thousand solutions.”)

The next day, there came the dreaded pounding on the door - the king’s guard. Najar’s wife answered.

“Where is Najar?” the guard barked. “He needs to come with us at once! The king has died and we need Najar to make his coffin!”

While on one level the story seemingly revolves around Najar, I’d like to think the deeper lesson really comes from his wife: We can still rest and find clarity in tumultuous change and crisis when we have peace. And this really isn’t just for yourself - calmness leaks to everyone you’re working with and serving, and gives them the confidence to press on. 

As we continue to pull our organizations and ourselves through change and uncertainty, inshallah, we too will be able to weather - and sleep in - any storm.

Can you sleep in a storm?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Navigating Uncertainty is the last instalment in a series of six articles. They are perspectives written by the Solve n+1 team and volunteers on how we can do good, better. Many of Solve’s projects are a fruit of the way we understand these issues. If you would like to find out more about the projects and issues we deal with, feel free to contact us . Stay in touch with our latest projects and blog posts by following us on Facebook and Instagram.


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