I heard a movie plot a while ago that got me thinking about the value of letting ourselves not-know.
In the movie we see a married man and woman living in the countryside. One day, in the midst of a furious argument, the husband storms out of the house. He never comes back.
The woman grieves and rages. As the years pass she becomes bitter. The betrayal of being left, deserted, abandoned shapes her life. All her interactions occur through a haze of resentment. She doesn’t trust people and constantly expects to be let down. She never moves from the home; how could she when everything will just turn out badly?
Years pass, and then some more. As an elderly woman she’s walking in a field near her house. She comes across a covered well that has partially collapsed. Inside the pit she finds the remains of a body. The authorities examine the body. It’s her husband.
The way we understand the world is through stories and narratives. These stories inform what we see when we look at the world, how we interpret interactions, how we make decisions, and how we react emotionally to events.
Our narratives bring order to an inherently chaotic existence. They’re incredibly helpful.
But sometimes (usually) our stories are imperfect. They feel to us as if they’re as solid and real as rock. We don’t question them.
Yet our stories are limited by what we actually know.
In the movie, the woman knew her husband left her in the midst of an argument and never returned. She didn’t even have to think about what happened. It was clear that he left her.
In the end we find out that her whole life had been consumed by something that never actually happened.
On the Peace of Not-Knowing
Thankfully, most of us won’t have an experience like the woman in the movie. Yet we still constantly fill in the gaps in our knowledge and often feel upset as a result.
- Somebody drives in a way that seems dangerous and we get upset and think they’re stupid or a jerk or a bad driver.
- We have an unpleasant interaction with a cashier and are left feeling frustrated and angry. In our mind the cashier becomes incompetent, disrespectful, somebody who should be fired.
- Our partner is in a mood or makes a comment and we react to it as if we understand perfectly what they meant and how it shows how selfish, or thoughtless they are.
In all of these moments there’s a gap in our knowledge: why the driver did what they did; why the cashier acted as they did; why our partner said what they did.
We fill in those gaps with ourselves: our understanding of the world, our beliefs, our fears, and our experiences.
When we’re depressed we see the justification for depression everywhere. When we’re anxious we see the reasons to be anxious everywhere. When we’re distrustful, we see betrayal everywhere.
But what if you could slow this down? What if you could step back a moment and just see that something happened that you don’t understand? What if you could see your reaction and let it be, but also try to make some room for simply not knowing why this thing has come to pass?
And what if you were okay with not knowing? What if you didn’t have to understand every moment, every interaction? What if letting yourself not-know actually felt better sometimes?
Sometimes this creates an opening for a different experience. Sometimes this creates an opening for finding peace.