on not knowing

by Emil Nolde

This past week I realized that I’m spectacularly unreassuring in my personal life. As in, whenever someone tells me they’re worried about something, I’m usually like, “Eh, it’ll probably be fine.” When I say that, S pointed out, I usually mean, I believe in your/my ability to deal with the situation so that it’ll be resolved efficiently and without anyone involved incurring significant bodily harm. I do not mean, you will get the outcome you want. I do not mean, you will not be in discomfort or some amount of pain. I definitely do not mean, you will be forgiven, or I love you forever, or there will be no consequences for your stupidity. In short, I don’t say any of the things that the other person actually wants to hear.

Now, I fully acknowledge that this is an annoying quality and I should (and will) try to fix it. But I was also thinking about why I don’t tend to offer more verbal validation. I think it’s because I generally find it unconvincing when other people try to reassure me by asserting certainty where I’m pretty sure there’s none. It feels like thinking in narrative—projecting the future, treating time as a story with a narrative arc.

Of course, you could say, reassurance is not really about the future. It’s about an honest, empathetic assessment of the now. But maybe I’m also not very interested in making definitive statements about the now? As far as I can tell, I view many things as murky and unclear. I don’t always know how I feel, I don’t always know what I want, and many things around me feel nebulous and uncertain. When I write, I do search for clarity. But writing is not the same as living. I don’t think I try to live in a definitive way.

By that, I don’t necessarily mean that I’m super wishy-washy. I do make decisions all the time, and I make them without too much fuss. I occasionally try to force certain outcomes. I have preferences and beliefs. But I struggle to endow the things that happen to me—and maybe to some extent the things that I do—with meaning. It feels more like a relentless kind of flowing, where I’m naturally drawn in certain directions but I don’t know why. You could say that I’m fatalistic. I’ve noticed that many other people tend to think about their lives in a much more top-down, narrative-driven kind of way. Which—I don’t know. One piece of advice I was given about storytelling is that you often don’t know what the story is really about until you finish it. Similarly, I think most people’s narratives are different from what they think their narratives are. The real story only becomes clear in hindsight.

I was talking to a friend two nights ago about how many people I know suffer from what I call save-the-world syndrome. This is when you believe (and moreover need to believe) that what you’re doing is the most important, special, meaningful thing in the universe. All of your motivation and energy rests on this premise; if it collapses, then your interest in what you’re working on collapses with it. It is, of course, very admirable to want to do good for the world—even admirable to be pretty utilitarian about how you allocate your time and resources—but I think it’s pretty dangerous to slip into the belief that you Know What It Is Important. In my opinion, people develop this brainworm because they’re obsessed with reassurance. They want solidity and certainty: the validation that they’re working on the right thing, loving the right person, not wasting time. That the outcome will always be good, will always get better. That they have not lost the plot.

It’s true that there’s something unbearable about the feeling of not knowing. There are many people who would rather turn to cults and fanaticism than exist untethered with no one to tell them what to do, no promise of redemption and safety. I’m pretty comfortable with ambivalence, but some days I wake up and am like, I would not mind being more tightly anchored. On some level there’s nothing more seductive than the promise that there’s a moral to the story. But I believe that real life begins when we give up certainty—it’s easier to lose the plot when you realize that you never had it at all.