I have a bit of a reputation amongst my circle for being someone who knows. Friends reach out to me for advice. Strangers ask me questions. Colleagues trust.
And, for the most part, I have an answer. While my mind feels more bric-a-brac-come-room of hidden things, it’s astonishing the amount of half-helpful stuff my intellect has acquired.
(I’m not being modest about ‘half-helpful’; I generally only remember enough to trigger a lengthy Google-Fu session.)
But intellect can only take me so far. I know this. Hell, I’ve felt this at times, when I find myself coming up with stuff in conversation that makes me think “Wow, where did that one come from??”
And yet, like most people, I’m wedded to the idea of control – and that I have any. I’m a smart person, right? I can work out what to say to someone I feel disconnected from, make the right decision to ensure my future happiness (don’t look at me as if I’m the only one who has that hidden assumption), I can absolutely get it ‘right’ (whatever that means in the moment).
So I’ll wrack my brain, trying to come up with an answer like a dog wrestling marrow out of a dirt-dry bone, stuck in a fixated ‘doing’ mode, completely forgetting that giving up is a key process in having an insight.
Because giving up on finding an answer is powerful. Saying, nay, admitting “I don’t know” creates space for something new to occur; a new thought, a new idea, a new understanding. A shift which means that while nothing has changed, we see everything with fresh eyes.
A space for a deeper kind of intelligence to pat our intellect on the back and go, “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.”
Saying “I don’t know” is hella difficult for most of us. For small stuff, sure, it’s generally easy. But for the big things that we care about? I’ve been privileged enough to have a couple of my friends confess their dark nights of the soul, when they’ve cried out – literally – for an answer, in circumstances very similar to the one shared by author Elizabeth Gilbert:
“God waited me out. I pulled myself together enough to go on: “I am not an expert praying, as you know. But can you please help me? I’m in desperate need of help. I don’t know what to do. I need an answer. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do…”
And so the prayer narrowed itself down to that simple entreaty – please tell me what to do – repeated again and again. I don’t know how many times I begged. I only know that I begged like someone who was pleading for her life. And the crying went on forever.
Until – quite abruptly – it stopped.
Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying any more. I’d stopped crying, in fact, in mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would now see some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence – a silence so rare that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness.
Then I heard a voice. […] This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experience love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the warmth and affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?
The voice said: Go back to bed Liz. I exhaled.
True wisdom gives the only possible answer at any given moment, and that night going back to bed with the only possible answer. Go back to bed, said this omniscient and interior voice, because you don’t need to know the final answer right now, at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday in November. Go back to bed because I love you. Go back to bed, because the only thing you need to do for now is get some rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer.
Go back to bed, Liz.Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
Now, I haven’t found myself sobbing on my bathroom floor this past November. But I’ve been grappling with a couple of disconnections that seemed to have no clear resolution: feeling detached from my studies, unsure about what aspect I want to call my own; a disinterest in my personal projects; a sense of distance from a friend.
I tried to shake-out an answer from my rather full head, but the results were stubbornly unhelpful; not unlike tipping out a kitchen drawer full of once-useful but now rather neglected odds and ends.
But each time I’ve admitted that “I don’t know” and put the matter to one side, a little answer – not a great revelation, but a quiet word – arises when I, too, am quiet enough to hear it.
I still don’t have complete answers yet, but a different insight has left the soul more fertile for answers to germinate.
I don’t know what they’ll be. But maybe I can relax, knowing that’s the point.