“I don’t knows” small, life-stopping, and life-giving

The small I don’t know

“I don’t know” surely ranks as among the most difficult phrases for many of us to utter. Our families and culture indoctrinate us, implicitly or explicitly, in one or another story of the associated dangers. Test anxiety, performance anxiety, terror of public speaking are some of the common ways this shows up in our lives: the unknown is an enemy.

I grew up shaped by an absolute certainty that personal calamity would result from not knowing. My very existence depended on knowing. Knowing what was in family members’ minds and hearts but was taboo to speak. Knowing when I was needed where and for what without being told. Knowing the right answer. Knowing with precision. Anticipating what I needed to know and maintaining a constant state of readiness. Exhausting. No wonder I had bags under my eyes even as a kid.

Eventually I found that when I could let go of the certainty of calamity, I was not an irredeemable failure. Instead I might learn something about myself, another human being, or the world. Being open to learning and possibility sometimes serves me as inspiration, other times as aspiration. It is a practice that I have at different times pursued cheerfully, doggedly, grumbling to myself.

And if I don’t garner new information, I have the chance to practice something else: patience, and humility.

 

The life-stopping I don’t know 

Being recalled for a mammogram. Knowing a loved one is in harm’s way. A sudden loss of security, health, relationship, function. I find this I don’t know mixed with bargaining prayers, grief, courage, urgency, helplessness, trust, terror. The very quality of time and space shifts. It seems odd if the sun is shining and the weather perfect.

I may have to mobilize my inner resources and outer supports. I may spend a lot of my energies figuring out what is the next right thing to do. I may need to weep or howl or break plates.

Yet somehow the quality of persistence pervades such times. The persistence of sunrise and sunset, sleeping and waking, breath.

 

…somehow becomes the life-giving I don’t know

The small I don’t knows have been swallowed by the mother of “I Don’t Knows” – which I can only call Mystery. I can make no sense of my life, of the world, of Life. My sense-making mechanisms don’t function normally. It’s not exactly that I lose my senses, my mind, and the defenses that I built upon them.

They are just not the right tool for this I Don’t Know.

 

What does seem to work is this: I rest my head up against the unknown

This unknown is so solid that as I do this, I can actually rest. I am comforted. I relax, physically. There is nothing for me to figure out. I do not need to listen in the way I’ve thought of listening. I do not need to open my heart or even be concerned about whether it is open or closed. There is neither pattern nor meaning to seek out. An open mouth. No words. Neither are words precluded nor actions hindered. Just my head resting up against the unknown, on the shoulder of a rock-solid friendship.

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