There was a time in my life when I was certain of everything. Life, love, god, and country… I had it all figured out. I had a plan, an agenda. I didn’t just have beliefs or opinions, mind you. Any smart-mouthed teenager could have those. I had serious convictions. I knew things.
I’m not sure where such certainty came from, much less at such a young age. Part of it was my personality, I suspect. Even to this day, I don’t belabor decisions and I don’t get lost in the what ifs. It’s just not part of my temperament. Religious instruction played a part, I’m sure, because we’re taught to know, to believe, and not to doubt. More than a little of it was a defense mechanism, too, because with my unwavering certainty came a sense of strength. Sometimes, especially in my teenage years, it was my only sense of strength. Eventually, though, that certainty became more important than the convictions themselves. The knowing was powerful even when what I knew was not.
Uncertainty can seem like a thief when you’re first becoming acquainted with it. It steals not just your convictions, but it challenges the veneer of confidence cloaking them. Doubt makes us vulnerable, we’d been taught, and it exposes our weaknesses. It is weakness. And so, we resist. We double-down. We fight.
At some point, years later, I began to make peace with the not knowing. Maybe “make peace” is a bit of stretch. At some point, at least, I became less fearful of it. I’m not sure this was a conscious decision, but rather one borne out of necessity. I’d been through a few life experiences that were not a part of any plan I’d made or agreed to — a wife in the throes of addiction, a failing heart requiring a couple surgeries — and it was soon clear to me that for all my plans, for all my knowing, sometimes life just unfolds differently. Sometimes, brilliantly.
It’s a slippery slope, the not knowing. When you allow yourself to first question, you find yourself questioning everything — things you’d always believed, things you assumed about yourself and others, and the futures you planned — it all finds its way under this newly-discovered microscope. My first instinct, of course, was to alter my previous convictions and plans to fit what I now thought I knew. Shifting beliefs were okay, I’d decided, as long as I still had them. There was strength in that, right?
And then, several years ago, I was reminded of a Rainer Maria Rilke quote that, as I like to say, hit me sideways.
“I beg you… to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
What a novel idea… living your way into the answer.
I still am a plan maker. I still have beliefs and convictions. Some of them are the same as they were thirty years ago, while others don’t even share a passing resemblance with their youthful counterparts. But there is also so much that I don’t know for sure — about life, love, god, and country — and I find myself being remarkably okay with that, too. I’m continually learning to embrace the not knowing.
There’s a certain power in it.