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Beauty In The Unknown


Adriano Brodbeck, 2020


Picture this.


You're standing on a rocky ledge, forty feet above a picturesque swimming hole, surrounded by crumbling camel cliffs. As you look down, you try to gauge the depth of the water. It's deep enough. You know that. But you don't know how deep; you can't see the bottom. You see the turquoise of the water seamlessly meld into a rich cerulean blue and then into an ever-darkening navy. What's down there? Your mind wanders. What are you going to be launching yourself into in a mere minute?


You take one step forward, sliding your back foot across loose, sandy rock to meet your front.


Then, you dive.


A couple days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about purpose. As one of my main drivers, and simultaneously, one of my chief sources of frustration, the search for the elusive notion of 'purpose' has been fruitless thus far. It's almost as if looking for an answer to an unanswerable question (that only serves) only served to garner a new series of novel questions - imagine that!


But, as is the curious nature of man, the conversation soldiered on. During a moment of hopelessness, I expressed the desire to, 'jump seven years into the future and see what my life is like.' I sighed, 'I just want to know where I'll end up.'


'You do?' said my conversational companion with unmatched perplexity.


But, Do You?


After we wrapped it up, I thought about his response. Is it strange to want to know? As humans, we have the innate desire to want to know everything. From the origins of mankind (age old), to the truth about aliens (who doesn't want to know, right?), to the meaning of life itself. And, like Courtney Griffin says, it's not uncommon to be freaked out by the unknown.


"When Christopher Columbus sailed across the the ocean, people were frightened he was going to sail right off the end of the earth. There is a stigma of the unknown for the obvious reasons that we are not sure and we do not understand the consequences. Psychology research suggests we generally like to be able to anticipate consequences. That's why the act of falling can be so frightening; we don't know what to expect when we land." [1]


As creatures of habit, most of us want access to basic knowledge that makes our day-to-day more comfortable. We like knowing where we'll wake up tomorrow, what the location of the nearest grocery store is, and how much money we'll have in the bank at the beginning of each month. That's totally normal. But maybe it's also OK not to know - maybe it's OK to sit with the discomfort.


When And How


I recently read a BBC article where the classic existentialist question with respect to the time-frame and means of death is examined. Despite what a psychic might tell you, there's no way to know, with 100% certainty, how any one person's time on Earth will end. However, examining the responses of those who have experienced trauma or are terminally ill can shed some light on man's natural tendencies, and can serve as an accurate prediction of behaviour in a comparable situation.


According to Nuwer, "Those who go the route of accepting their death sentences may react in a variety of ways. Some would be energised to make the most of the time they have, rising to greater heights of creative, social, scientific and entrepreneurial achievement than otherwise would have been possible." [2]


The opposite, however, is also true. Many would likely "check out of life and cease to contribute meaningfully to society – not necessarily because they are lazy, but because they are overtaken by a feeling of pointlessness." [2] Since none of us are perfect, fully actualized beings, it's safe to say that we would seesaw back and forth between these two states. I can also say, with confidence, that no matter which camp you fall in, learning the exact conditions of your death would impact your life in wholly unprecedented ways.


More On Purpose


The equally elusive pursuit of purpose raises similar issues. What if someone told you that the purpose of life - the answers to the questions, 'why am I here? why are any of us here?' - was to make silicone? [3]


"Oh pfft! Irina, that's easy. The purpose of life is to make silicone."


Right, of course.


If that was true, if the purpose of centuries of human existence was to create silicone, what would that mean for you? Would you be happier if you had this information? Would you feel more fulfilled? Would knowing this 'ultimate purpose' cause you to alter your own actions and behaviours to better serve your purpose?


If the defined purpose was anything that conflicted with your existing worldview, collection of values, and self-defined priorities, I can bet that the cognitive dissonance would be shocking. I can't speak for you, but I know that if I was presented that information with certainty, I'd be likely to reject it and explore a purpose for myself outside of that box.


Unknowable Unknowns


There are questions in the world that we just don't have answers for right now, and questions we might never find the answers for. Ultimately, it's my belief that the unknowns, the moments of uncertainty, the unanswerable questions, make life, intrinsically, life. It's like Eckhart Tolle says, "Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you." [4]


So, I pose a series of acceptable unknowns to you - you decide if you agree.


It's ok to not know:

  • how many rotations until your chapstick ends. An air of mystery and mild inconvenience is sometimes welcome.

  • how many spiders there are in your yard. I accidentally discovered I had interdimensional access to the spider-verse when I walked home one evening with my headlamp on and saw every single spider scintillate. It's neat, until it becomes evident that you're surrounded by spiders. Surrounded.

  • where you'll be in five years. what you'll be doing - or who! Would you change what you're doing now if you knew? Would you change the choices you made in the past knowing you are where you are today? Realities in your past, the potentialities you have actualized, have led you to where you are in this moment. [5]

  • what the purpose of life is. One of my favorite quotes from a recent read, 'Man's Search For Meaning,' is this: "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life." [5]

There's beauty and mystery in the unknown, but one of my favorite things about 'unknowns' is opportunity. Sometimes, we think we would be better off if we knew where every decision would lead, what each step of our journey would look like. But if you knew that the purpose of life was not cohesive with your current worldview, would that change your choices? If you knew how many millions of spiders were surveilling you, moment-to-moment, would you be afraid to step outside?


Not knowing is your ticket for crafting an intentional, thoughtful life. It can be anything you want it to be, take any form. Whether you want to be an inventor, a world traveller, or a loving spouse, you make the choices. No defined purpose or predetermined circumstance can change that. It's up to you to discover beauty in the unknown. I'll leave you with one final quote from Viktor E. Frankl: "Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man's world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?"


Chew on that.










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References

  1. C. Griffin, L. Hoffman. The Fear of the Unknown. HuffPost Communities, 2016. [Online]. Available from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-fear-of-the-unknown_b_7554386. [Accessed 25 November, 2021].

  2. R. Nuwer. What If We Knew When And How We'd Die? BBC Future, 2018. [Online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180618-what-if-we-knew-when-we-were-going-to-die. [Accessed 26 November, 2021].

  3. A. Douglas. Discussion. November 1, 2021.

  4. B. Thompson. Easing into the Bliss of Not-Knowing through the Practice of Self-Inquiry. Zen Thinking, 2016. [Online]. Available from: http://www.zenthinking.net/blog/easing-into-the-bliss-of-not-knowing-through-the-practice-of-self-inquiry. [Accessed 26 November, 2021].

  5. V. E. Frankl. Man's Search For Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

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