“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” —Wendell Berry
The other day, my mom taught me a lot about facing up to the uncertainty in the world. She had just got word that she had a cancerous tumor in her breast. It was small, had not spread at all, and was designated “1A.” If you are going to get cancer, this was the kind to get. Still, she was understandably scared, and we had an ongoing conversation about it via text.
One morning I wrote, “How are you feeling today: mortal or immortal?”
She wrote, “Not so immortal.”
I asked, “No part of you?” Did she believe there was any part of her that would survive her body?
“Wondering,” she replied.
I thought that was so brave, that she could sit in existential ambiguity without clinging to a story, one way or another, without pretending to know the unknowable answer to a question that for so many of us—and certainly me—can be unbearable. What will happen to me when I die? What happens to us?
For me that same existential uncertainty has, at times, become nearly unbearable since the election in November.
I work, more or less, as a freelancer. I am, like 40 percent of the American workforce, a “contingent worker”—someone who doesn’t have what used to be considered a secure job. And as I write, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives is trying to round up votes for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It is unclear to me that I will be able to afford my health insurance moving forward. At 53, with equally shared responsibility for a 12-year-old daughter, that feels frightening. (So too does the current administration’s decision to roll back the small number of hard-won safeguards against climate change. And so much else.)
Like my mom, but for different reasons, I feel scared and uncertain.
“How are you feeling today?” I might ask myself. “Mortal or immortal?”
In the face of the uncertainty, I have a desire to grasp at a story that will make the insecurity go away and stop the wondering—an optimistic story that says everything will be fine in the end. But another part of me wants to explain everything away by saying human nature is ultimately selfish, and there is nothing to be done.
Both stories have the effect of letting me go back to sleep. If everything is going to be OK, I can ignore the problems. If the evil of human nature makes the problems insurmountable, I can ignore the problems.
Here’s the issue: Those stories don’t actually bring me much comfort. Clinging to them, whistling in the dark to keep up my spirits, I still have a knot in my stomach.
Other stories I come up with that involve anger and hatred also don’t bring comfort, though perhaps brief moments of righteousness. In these stories, I create enemies out of other groups of people, then seek ways to win advantages over them. This feels out of line with my values—a self-betrayal.
As an activist, I ask myself, am I fighting for my side’s turn at the top? Or am I working toward the worthier goal of there being no top, of saving all sides from error?
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” That means finding a path to victory for all sides. On the other hand, Gandhi said that passive submission to brutality is itself a sin. Nonviolence must not be equated with passivity; even a violent response is better than no response, he believed.
All of which leaves me wondering. Kind of like my mom.
Perhaps the truth is that there is no story, no way of explaining today’s realities that doesn’t betray my values and keeps me responsive. Perhaps Wendell Berry is right that the real work begins when we don’t know what to do.
Not knowing is the fundamental human condition. There seems to be something holy or sacred about it. Maybe this is why so many of the faith traditions abhor idolatry; our ideas or representations of reality are not the same as reality. If we react to our stories of the way things are instead allowing ourselves to react to the way things really are, we find ourselves fighting ghosts and have planted the seeds of future violence.
I have to believe that not knowing will lead to the real work, as Wendell Berry says. I’m not going to sit still. But maybe the not knowing and the confusion will finally allow us to arrive at a true beginning. If you ask me what happens next, maybe I can be brave like my mother. Maybe the path will better reveal itself if I put down my stories and allow myself to wonder.
I originally wrote this article for YES! Magazine.