Strength Found in Not Knowing
"Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds–justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answers may annihilate the question and the questioner.”
Perhaps it is because I have anxiety, but my whole life I’ve always been one to search out the stable, the dependable, things I could count upon, things I knew to be true. I think it is more than fair to say that for most human beings, especially those with anxiety, there is nothing more horrifying than the unknown, the uncertain, the things we cannot control, the situations with no clear escape route. We are plagued by the “why’s” and the “what-if’s” of the world. The more I think about it, anxiety is more or less entirely based on the fear of not knowing, the fear of being out of control, the fear of the irrational, the fear of anything and everything that is not right here in this exact present moment where we can see it and try to understand it.
In just a few short months, I will be twenty-two years old; I have spent way too many years of my life bound by fear, trying to find solace in facts and “understanding” things. It was not until the past year or two of my life that I got to a place where I really began to change and evolve as a person. After many years battling anxiety, I finally know how to live with it, rather than letting it imprison my mind and hold me back from doing the things I love most in life. In the past year and a half, I have become more adventurous, more brave, more bold; I am not as afraid of risks as I once was (and I am actually starting to take them). Perhaps one of the most important changes I have made is that I am not afraid to question things, I am learning to be unafraid of the things I don’t know. I have found a certain strength in uncertainty, a newfound bravery that allows me to live comfortably in a place of not knowing. I am learning that you can draw strength on being able to exist in that space, a space where you don’t know things for certain, a space where certain things may always be a mystery.
One of the biggest areas of uncertainty in my life in the past few years have revolved around what I believe in, my faith, and my spirituality. I did attend church for a little while with my family when I was fairly young, but that is not something we continued throughout my childhood. We attended a Presbyterian church. My sister and I were never baptized. I feel like we were more spiritual than religious, or maybe we were religious, just not as strictly religious as other families. I grew up praying at night, just by myself. I know that both of my parents pray too. I don’t think this was anything that was ever forced upon us, something we were told we had to do. I can say that more often than not throughout my life, I have prayed daily. My own personal faith and beliefs changed a lot as I grew up, through middle school, high school, and then college. I would go through different periods of time where I would be more “faithful” than others, it just sort of depended on what was going on in my life. I attended a private Catholic high school, which opened my eyes to an entire other sector of religion. I think attending that school really shook up my own thoughts and beliefs, especially when I had my beliefs questioned, judged, and sometimes berated by my own educators.
In my second year of college, in the month of August of 2010, my best friend Ann was diagnosed with cancer, and later that month, on August 31, 2010, both my grandma and my little brother were also diagnosed with cancer. Somehow I went through the motions of the next year or so (during which I lost my best friend Ann), in a sort of protective shock. Somehow you just get through the most difficult times. You brain protects you from the pain, from the hurt, by numbing you just enough to deal with it all. The thing is, your brain cannot protect you forever. Sometimes it is months after a hard time, and sometimes it is even a year or more. Eventually, the numb starts to wear off, and slowly but surely, you begin to regain feeling and suddenly the floodgates burst open, you are inundated with thoughts and feelings and questions and fears and emotions and you wonder how it was possible that you managed to keep all this at bay for the time you did.
I think my own personal floodgates burst open in the past year and a half of my life. I started to wonder about certain things more than I had ever before. I questioned things I thought I solidly believed in. At first it wasn’t just scary, it was downright terrifying to question some really huge things, like what happens after we die and if there is even really a God out there, but after awhile of being in this intimidating place of not knowing, I began to realize that it didn’t have to be scary or nerve-wracking. I’d assumed that being unsure and not knowing was a negative thing, because that’s what the world has taught me. That it’s bad to question certain things, and that not knowing something as important as where you stand on religion most certainly means your soul faces impending eternal doom. This revelation of mine got me thinking about how, as human beings, we seem to fear the unknown so much, that most of us dare not question anything. We have this almost primal need to cling to a set of beliefs, and we cling to them desperately, even when we are uncertain about our beliefs or have questions about them. Surely having certain beliefs that we hold true even if we are unsure of their validity is better than having no beliefs at all and being completely uncertain, right? Some time ago, I may have answered that question with “right”, but today, I would answer, “WRONG”.
I feel like maybe society has taught us that inviting skepticism is wrong; that all skeptics are bad people whose souls are “lost” and are surely headed down a very treacherous path. I feel like we’ve been taught that we must been incredibly defensive about our beliefs, and that if someone asks questions, they must be trying to destroy and devalue your entire belief system; we’ve been taught to go on the defensive when someone asks even the most innocent question where religion and spirituality are concerned. This doesn’t make sense to me. Asking questions doesn’t mean you are challenging someones beliefs, more often than not, questions are asked because the person asking wishes to know more about something they don’t know everything about. Are we afraid that our beliefs won’t “sell themselves” and stand up to scrutiny? Do we feel that our beliefs are so carefully and precariously fitted together that the least amount of doubt will cause the whole system to tumble down and fall apart? If that is what a certain religious belief is all about, I am not sure it is a belief I can stand behind. I don’t want to stand for a set of beliefs that cannot tolerate questioning, skepticism, and scrutiny. I don’t want to stand for a set of beliefs that discriminate against others and claim to be the only, the final, and the complete truth, above all others. For me, that is not what beliefs and spirituality should be about.
For me, spirituality should be personal. It should be something that can withhold lots of questioning. Something that can change and evolve and grow as you do. It should be something that you don’t always have to know, that you don’t always have to be certain about. My own spirituality is something that I am still finding. Truthfully, I still have many more questions than I do answers, but the more I grow, the more I am coming to realize that maybe that is the way it is supposed to be. Maybe life is all about living in the now. Maybe it is all about curiosity and adventure. About bravery and being bold and asking questions, even if the questions you ask are the kinds that don’t come with clear-cut answers. The only thing I know for sure about my own personal spirituality so far is the importance of possessing a relentless sense of hope, no matter how many punches to the gut life gives you; to possess a relentless sense of hope while living in uncertainty is the ultimate test. A relentless hope and an unending sense of wonder are the two prominent aspects of my own spirituality. To never cease to be amazed by both the big things and the small things in life. To never stop asking questions, even if people will belittle and judge you for asking them. To never give up hope in this life, even when life has shown you how incredibly cruel it can be.
Relentless hope. An unending sense of wonder. With those two things, I navigate through this life. With those two things, I have found strength in not knowing.