Living in Mystery

There are things we don’t know. Some of you will feel that I am stating the blatantly obvious. Others will feel that my claim is patently false. Hopefully, the majority of you are willing to consider at least that we as individuals don’t each know everything there is to know. Our culture often seems to treat not knowing as a problem or a deficit to be overcome. Sometimes it’s true that things like not knowing how to cure cancer is a deficit we would very much like to overcome. Few people would disagree when I say that overcoming disease is always a valid goal.

Not knowing drives scientific progress and other legitimate curiosities. We wonder what is at the edge of our current knowledge, just beyond our reach at the moment but perhaps tomorrow’s discovery that changes lives. The quality that drives us in these situations isn’t a discomfort with not knowing but rather curiosity. When we are curious, we don’t feel we need an answer right away because we understand there are things to be learned along the way. When we experience dissatisfaction with not knowing we tend to want answer right now, even if it’s the wrong answer, because we can’t tolerate uncertainty. If what I have described sounds a lot like living in 2020, you are correct! It’s not just 2020 or pandemics that raise these questions, but they do raise them in a more intense fashion that we are used to.

Do you prefer to do things you have done before, things that are known commodities rather than things that may or may not turn out as you expect? When is the last time you tried a new food or a new recipe? How about a new author or a book or movie about a new subject? People who enjoy working large jigsaw puzzles understand that there is a time or varying length between starting and completing a puzzle when they dwell in uncertainty. Gradually, over time, the image starts to come into focus. That place between scattered, seemingly disjointed pieces and completion is a kind of dwelling in the unknown.

Dwelling in the unknown can be a time of great personal and spiritual transformation, but it can also be a time of discomfort and uncertainty. We need to be able to tolerate all of it, but that can be a hard sell in a world of microwave ovens and instapots. “I want it now” is the motto of a very shallow person, indeed, one who will have to settle for the mediocre because they cannot wait for the more complex, nuanced experience. You can yell “I want it now” until you are hoarse, but at the end of 2020 we are waiting for many things and intolerance of the waiting will not shorten it. As long as we are in the middle of waiting, why not explore it? Notice what it feels like. Notice how your choices in the past are challenged by this new future. See again that some things that work quickly, like instant men’s hair coloring, aren’t necessarily of the highest quality. Consider craftsmanship in every human activity, and find places in your life where slowing down and doing things the old way is actually beneficial to the outcome. If you have the courage to take these steps, this time of reduced frenetic activity may surprise you by revealing some appealing new habits!

Moving Beyond Fear

Fear isn’t a bad thing. In fact, when it pops up appropriately it serves an important function – it keeps us safe. When you are crossing the street and hear the sound of a bus bearing down on you, fear arises and helps kick your body into action to avoid becoming road kill. That’s good fear. When you are driving down the street and notice a flooded intersection, good fear tells you to turn around rather than try to drive through. False bravado encourages you to forge ahead into the intersection and the sink hole hidden under the water. Even if we could banish fear from our lives, it would be unwise. Many of us, however, experience fear that isn’t helpful. One of those is fear of the unknown.

We live in a time unlike any other in our lifetime, unless we happen to be over one hundred years old. Our lifestyles have been suspended by a world-wide pandemic. It seems like nothing about our lives is the same as it was just six months ago. We don’t know what life will be like once the corona virus is under control, but there is at least a chance that there will be a new normal. We have seen that Americans are poorly equipped to respond to this kind of a crisis. Our obsession with what we incorrectly assume is independence – it’s really selfishness – leads us to make awful choices because we don’t seem to realize we live in a society and selfishness is maladaptive. To cite but one example, people in other parts of the world have worn face masks for years. In those cultures they understand that not wearing a mask is rude and inconsiderate. In America some of us believe being rude and inconsiderate is something to wear like a badge of honor.

So many of our maladaptive behaviors emerge from fear. In uncertain times, fear lurks around every corner. It can help, when we feel fear arising, to ask ourselves about that fear. Is it present to alert us to danger, or is it the result of uncertainty? If it’s uncertainty that is the issue, can we recall other times when uncertainty arose and everything worked out well? Can we see that only rarely does uncertainty lead to problems that can’t be resolved? Even more importantly, can we see that quite often what lies beyond uncertainty is an opportunity for growth? The truth is that uncertainty and growth can help us to move beyond fear into opportunity. We may need that ability now more than ever.