The relief of not knowing

“Lean into the tension,” I heard my professor tell another student last night.

It was around 9:00pm and we had just concluded an almost three hour class. This particular course delves into the divergent philosophies and approaches to the study of people and society. In order for us to determine the researchers we will be, it requires that we look first at ourselves.

What do I believe to be true about the world? What is the nature of truth? What is the nature of reality? What counts as knowledge?

I’m being asked to examine, closely, the implicit truths that have guided my life.

Why do I believe the things that I believe? Why do I have the aspirations that I have? Where do I want to go? And most immediately, what do I want to do with this insanely amazing opportunity to spend some years seeking to better understand the world around me?

I’ve always thought I had most of my answers. I chose my primary undergraduate major when I was 12 years old. It wasn’t a generic major then, and it still isn’t. I didn’t mind because I had a plan. I wanted to do this, then do that, so that one day I might arrive there. But now I’m not so sure. The things that once seemed so consequential to me no longer do.

There is more than one way for me to live a meaningful life.

This might seem like a basic idea that most people intrinsically understand, but I didn’t entertain it until now. I didn’t realize that my aspirations, both the self-centered ones as well as the altruistic ones, had become the organizing logic for my life. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t actively working towards getting there. And there was one location, where I was doing one type of thing, with all of my heart, making a specific type of difference that would mean that my life had been worthwhile.

That was the plan, and it was working, until I realized how empty, how self-driven (not in the good way 🙂 ) it was. I briefly encountered a book some years ago called “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness”. I didn’t finish it then, but the title alone keeps on coming back to me now. Self-forgetfulness. To even momentarily, ignore the wants of the “I”, no matter how compelling.

What does this have to do with a class? Honestly, it mostly doesn’t.

It mostly has to do with events in my life and my relationship with God and how they’ve challenged the way I’ve grown accustomed to thinking about myself. But, I keep coming back to this class because it invites us to reexamine our taken-for-granted notions about the world. And one of mine is that there was only one way for me to live a meaningful life.

For maybe the first time in my life, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I’m in a very specific and intensive program, doing a very specific and intensive thing, and I don’t know where I want it to lead. I still know that I’m passionate about making a difference, helping to alleviate poverty and challenge structures that create inequality. I know I want to spend the next few years doing participatory research to further health equity. I know I will continue my creative writing.

But there, that destination that has been so real, that has compelled me almost all my life, is a place that I can’t even visualize anymore. And this is a difficult truth, but also a great relief.