Mind Games

The Art of Not Knowing

The humbling power of ‘I don’t know’

Photo: Gary Yeowell/Getty Images

ItIt snowed yesterday, even though it’s the middle of spring. Flurries are working themselves into a tizzy today, too. I packed only a single sweater in the two suitcases I lugged across the country with me.

I’ve worn it every day for the past week.

I am unemployed, with absolutely no idea what sort of employment I’d like to pursue. My bank account is a wasteland, and I’m sniffling into my phone outside a cafe where I just purchased a $7 macadamia-milk latte. I am having a meltdown.

“I just want someone to tell me what to do!” I sob, overdramatic as always.

“I’m hearing that,” my mother responds, perpetually patient with my petulance. She then leaves the airspace between us infuriatingly vacant, waiting for me to fill it.

Reluctantly, I collect myself and sigh, “They’re not going to, though.”

“No,” she confirms.

Some days, I really wish they would.

Succulent is the satisfaction of having the answers. To know, and to have known — all along, perhaps — is our baseline of control. If we know something to be true, or if we make it true in our minds, we then hold power over it. Depending on our will, we can shape it, shift it, or even break it.

Knowledge is power, they say.

Knowledge is the hand grasping at the perception of power, I say.

As much as we would like to, I don’t think we alone dictate the endgame of our universe. There is a certain balance of chaos to the world, created, largely, by the presence of other humans. Each of us is moving freely through our own spaces, flapping our butterfly wings and sending tsunamis crashing up against one another’s worlds.

For most of my life, I operated under the assumption that I knew just about everything. At least as it concerned my own life. I knew what I was doing, and where I was going.

I progressed through life’s checklist with systematic proficiency: I graduated high school and went to university. I graduated university and got a job. When I didn’t like that job, I went back to school. I got another job and worked my way upward, climbing from rung to rung. I pursued relationships — because I wanted to, but mostly because I thought I needed to. I had roommates, and then my own apartment. I bought things, and I paid my bills. Check. Check. Check.

Had someone asked why I was approaching life like a shopping list, I might have been a tad stumped — but no one asked. Most people don’t.

Whenever my life felt untethered and crazy, I was able to fall back upon the cushion of my checkmarks, and look toward the empty boxes ahead of me. They reasserted my sense of control, making it feel as though I knew what I was doing — even if, deep down, I suspected I didn’t.

And then, last year, with the same meticulous ease with which I’d ticked off all those items on my list, I began to erase them entirely. First, I got rid of all my things. Then, my apartment. Next went the relationship (though that one was unintentional). And, finally, my job.

I undermined my own control with such a quiet preciseness that even I did not notice. So careful was I in the erasure of the neat little life I’d built for myself that I didn’t shy or spook; I barely noticed what I was doing at all. And then, on my last day of work, in a deep, dark Gastown bar, one of my ex-colleagues asked, “So, what’s the plan?”

“What?” I responded, ever-eloquent, yelling over the post-happy hour racket.

“What’s next? What’s your plan?”

“I… don’t know.”

Up to and including the precise moment that “ow” left my mouth and ceased to bounce around my brain, I hadn’t noticed that I did not, in fact, know. I didn’t realize that actually, I had no fucking clue.

Oh, I knew I had purchased a plane ticket that would fly me across the country to a city I’d never been to before. I knew I wanted to pursue my art, fully, and I knew I had taken certain steps in an attempt to facilitate that — but a “plan”? Nope. Nothing. Not-a-one.

The way in which I was able to unconsciously release control over my own life would be an admirable feat of mental trickery, except for the misery and discomfort of those three little words: I. Don’t. Know.

I did not care for it, this newfound not-knowing. I resented the continued question of this ineffable thing everyone referred to as “a plan,” and I grumbled over the necessity of one. My surliness was, of course, a shield against the very real fear I felt.

I had uprooted my whole life and landed in a city where I knew two whole people. I moved into someone else’s home and life. The purpose I had derived for so long from my profession had evaporated and, to make matters worse, the east coast was fucking cold.

For what felt like the very first time, I was in free-fall. I was scared, confused, and often ashamed.

Many times, friends and family reassured me that it was okay to not know — for a little while, at least. They pointed to all those years I’d spent doggedly pursuing what I was supposed to (or, what I thought I was supposed to) as evidence that I would be able to find my way back into purpose. They offered me the kindness of a pass — one I did not want.

What I wanted was to know. And what I really wanted was control.

On that snowy spring day, I felt helpless and impotent and clueless — just like Cher, except I was in no position to take my frustrations out at Fred Segal. There were no distractions and no outs. No one to tell me what to do, and no checklist to fall back on. I couldn’t stand outside that coffeeshop forever, crying on the phone.

I had to move forward; I had to move through.

What do you want to do today?

That’s where I started. It was small and it was simple, but it was something.

In the daily simplicity I cultivated, I slowly let go of knowing.

Some days, I wanted to read on the couch for hours, digesting massive tomes of historical fiction. Others, I wanted to be disciplined: exercising or meditating or cooking or cleaning or all of the above. When the weather eventually improved, I wanted to be outside as much as possible, preferably with a pup. I wanted to take myself to a movie or a play once a week, and I wanted to watch Netflix’s Someone Great well over 25 times.

More than all those things, I wanted to write.

By waking up every morning with the question of what I wanted, I unearthed that long-buried why. Through the creation that I craved, I worked my way back toward a purpose. In making time for my own needs, I became aware of them. And in the daily simplicity I cultivated, I slowly let go of knowing.

There is no way to know: not really, not fully. We can believe, yes. We can take in empirical evidence and, best of all, we can make choices.

It is scary to admit how little control we actually have. Harder still to let go of the need to know. So start small. Start simple. Give yourself permission to want, instead. Allow yourself to ask why instead of what and where. Use the humble mantra “I don’t know” to list all the things you don’t. Fall in love with all the possibilities that not-knowing hands you.

Here are some of mine:

I don’t know if recycling or composting or always carrying a reusable cup or taking cold showers really helps save the world. I don’t know if these are the end times, or just a change, or something in between. I don’t know if things are on their way to worse or better. When I watch the news now, I do it by listening to late-night hosts’ opening monologues. At least then I can pretend it’s all for the story. The joke. The punchline.

I don’t know if I’m particularly smart, or knowledgeable, or just pretending to be. I don’t know if people should take my advice, but they do. I don’t know if I should stop them. I don’t know if I’ll get into grad school. I don’t know that the end of Game of Thrones was really as bad as it’s made out to be.

Sometimes, I don’t know if I’m kind enough to others, or if I’m kind for selfish reasons. Some days the former; some the latter. I don’t know if the boy that currently preoccupies my mind returns my feelings, or if he even thinks of me at all. (This is perhaps the most frustrating thing not-to-know.)

I don’t know if the choices I’m making are moving me forward, or into the familiarity of backward, or if it’s a bit of both.

I don’t yet know what the rest of this year looks like.

There is so much I do not know, and only one thing that I do.

I know that my state of not-knowing is okay. It’s wonderful, in fact.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

storyteller | feminist | guide || Sasha offers teachings from her multitude of stumbles, bumbles, and breakthroughs || she/her || follow @sashamduncan

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