We live in a culture obsessed with certainty. We are in love with round and plain answers. We are a generation looking for clear solutions, devouring self-improvement books, pushing science to its limits, and always wanting to know more. We pump into our veins the best practices and the productivity hacks from wherever we can find them. We want to know everything. Many of my peers would identify with a statement that goes something like this: I hunt everywhere for a life worth living and a knowledge worth knowing.
Obviously, it is not only us. If there is one common denominator across the entire history of human culture, it is the insatiable hunger to know the unknowable — that is, to know everything, and to know it with certainty, which is itself the enemy of the human spirit.
“We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”
… But it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more. My favourite Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, stated beautifully in her Nobel prize acceptance speech: “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know.”
Yet, we want to know everything. Sitting with uncertainty requires patience. We don’t have patience. We have algorithms and search engines that filter tons of information and do their best to help us with this impossible struggle for never-ending wisdom. I am afraid nobody is counting sheep these days. We’re all counting data.
Within my search for universal knowledge, I stumbled upon the Slow Thinking Movement. And their answer goes more or less like this:
The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on, you better speed up. That is the message of today. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. The need to be seen and appreciated! It is the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love! This is given only through slowness in human relations. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal.
So I am trying to recover the slowness somehow. I am trying to imagine the course of life differently than through speed or milestones. I live surrounded by uncertainty. And the chances are, you do too. I don’t think we should stop searching, finding, not-finding, searching again. But maybe there is a middle ground between knowing everything and accepting that there are many things we do not know, and do not control. It is perhaps ok, and just human, to feel anxiety and be unsure of where we are going.
Probably there are days when you feel like you know everything. You are proud of your skills and brain, convinced of the ways you are choosing. But there are also days when you feel like you know nothing. You have no idea what the purpose of life is, why you feel so lonely, and which yoghurt to buy. You don’t know what your needs look like, you just know that they are not being met.
Life is about balance, and it’s also about embracing the uncertainty around you. Sometimes you do feel like a little lost Sputnik, even if on the surface you seem to be the most independent and strong human being on earth.
It’s actually said more beautifully by Dave Eggers in his novel, “The Circle”:
“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive. There will be no time to reflect, to sleep, to cool.
Did it occur to you Circle people, ever, that we can only contain so much? Look at us. We’re tiny. Our heads are tiny, the size of melons. You want these heads of ours to contain everything the world has ever seen? It will not work.”
You don’t know that you’ve been holding your breath until you let go. You can’t release tension that you’re not aware of. A world of ever-present daylight sounds like a horror movie. A world of night and day, learning and rest, knowing and not-knowing, sounds like a habitable place for me. Because as powerful as we think we are, we are really only melon-size heads wearing fancy watches.