Why not knowing the answers to all questions is normal and even useful

Today, at any time, you can google and find out a bunch of information: at least how long it takes to fly to Mars, at least who are the naked diggers, at least which countries are members of the UN. We are so used to it that we take it for granted. But life is much more complicated than dry facts, so people have not found answers to some questions so far. Psychotherapist Nancy Collier is sure: this is normal. And it doesn’t matter what area we are talking about. In his book Obsessions, co-authored with Stephen Bodian, the expert tries to understand why not knowing makes us uncomfortable and what happens if we accept it.

“Obsessive Thoughts” was published in Russian by the MIF publishing house. And Lifehacker publishes an excerpt from the ninth chapter.

Why do we feel uncomfortable not knowing something?

“The only true wisdom is in the realization that we know nothing,” Socrates argued. Twenty-five centuries have passed since then, and much has changed. Modern society clearly does not share the approach of the ancient Greek philosopher . In the 21st century of our era, we are sure that we should and can know everything. Our relentless desire to know the answers, coupled with our unwillingness to accept the unknown, is at the root of overthinking.

In our society, riddles and secrets have moved into the category of something eccentric or pseudo-esoteric. The phrase “I don’t know” is no longer considered an acceptable response. From birth, we are taught that knowledge is good, that we are good and worthy only if we have an answer for everything. “You should have known better,” we hear in childhood when we do something wrong. If we do not know the answer, we are ashamed and anxious: we feel weak, inferior, vulnerable and lost. Ignorance is tantamount to error. And knowledge, on the contrary, is considered a safe territory, with it we feel confident . As a result, we often try on the wrong role when it comes to knowledge, and are ready to accept even dubious answers.

But no matter what we convince ourselves, life always throws up situations in which we do not know the answer and cannot get it. We do not know where to go next, not to mention a more global ignorance: first of all, about what we are doing here and why we exist . Given how often we face such situations, it would be wise to learn to live with them, and even wiser to learn to accept them with peace, and not with condemnation.

It seems to us that it is strange, stupid and even dangerous to remain in a difficult, uncertain situation, not understanding what it means, what to do with it and how to get out of it. However, as uncomfortable as we may feel, this is how we learn not to know, experience what it means to be in not knowing, and wait for things to become clear. If condemnation is discarded, then life under the question mark can become a new way of being. Over time, you can get used to the lack of answers and even enjoy it. When we allow ourselves not to know the answer, we allow life, in its own time and without any compulsion, to reveal its secrets to us. The questions themselves become the end goal. Moreover, we understand that in ignorance there are deeper and wiser decisions that can actually make a difference, as well as paths much more reliable than any that we can cut through for ourselves, pushing forward with rational reasoning. But in order to find them, you need to have the courage to trust ignorance.

Why Not Knowing All the Answers Can Be Helpful

When I was first suggested to stop looking for a solution to a situation that I was struggling to understand and clarify, I really liked this advice. But I had no idea how to implement it. I have always believed that solving the problem means understanding what is happening, why it is happening and what I should do about it. Decision was inseparable from overthinking. In order not to live in chronic anxiety and uncertainty, it is necessary to solve everything that I have not yet decided. I should reflect more, not less, on my difficulties. It seemed unnatural to me to live quietly without any answers, I needed a plan how to get out of the situation, and not an easy chair inside it.

But over time, I realized that no matter how carefully I tried to think everything through, there will always be serious questions in life that I can’t answer, at least right away. This is an inexorable, immutable truth. I had to admit and accept that with all my pseudo-knowledge , with all my deliberate decisions, I didn’t get anywhere. All my knowledge turned out to be illusory. The more I tried to find out, the wider my ignorance became. But with that acceptance, something unexpected dawned on me—a true relief.

When I gave up and allowed myself to live under the question mark, it was as if I fell into a hatch. I suddenly found myself in the present. I could be here and take life for what it is, right now. I could be interested in this reality and receive answers in the time appointed by life. Now I didn’t have to do everything myself, I didn’t have to push forward with the help of thoughts, as I had been instructed before. When I learned to relax without getting answers to my questions, my boundaries of perception suddenly expanded and I found myself only part of a larger process in which, fortunately, I did not have to control my life at every slightest change. Finally, everything depended not only on me.

Truth is truth

Living under the question mark may be uncomfortable, but in this case, we choose to live in the truth, where in time we will also be safe and secure. In the truth, we feel safe not because we know all the answers, and not because the truth is convenient for us (the usual security markers), but rather because you can’t argue with the truth … truth is truth. Opening to ignorance means stepping on shaky ground and accepting that we are engaged in a process whose outcome we do not know, and that for the moment the process itself is our goal.

You can give up control

When we accept the fact that we cannot know all the answers, we simultaneously open ourselves to humility, we give up our identity that knows and controls everything. We admit that we cannot control everything, and this requires remarkable strength and courage – courage that allows us to honestly face the truth. Such personality changes may cause fear or anxiety, but ultimately they give the freedom to be in the present, and then we are presented not only with ignorance, but also with a new, more sincere version of ourselves.

Ask yourself: “In what cases do I try to collect answers before they are ripe? Right now, can I give up knowing and allow myself to relax in not knowing? Can I be someone who doesn’t try to control everything?”

You may want to answer these questions in writing.

This allows you to be kinder and easier

Contrary to our belief that with the help of thinking we can overcome any difficulties in life, most of us agree that thoughts more often complicate the situation. In fact, thinking strengthens and multiplies problems, makes them even more “problematic”. And if in reality we want peace, tranquility and happiness, then it is more logical to simplify the problems, rather than complicate them. In a difficult situation or when dealing with people with a difficult character, you will act wisely if you begin to think less about them, not more (oddly enough).

In addition, it is in our interest to replace the intricate strategies and analysis with something simpler, namely compassion. For example, when someone disturbs us with their behavior, we can remember the simple truth that such behavior stems only from ignorance. No matter how unpleasant or annoying their actions may be, this is the best that these people are capable of with the level of wisdom and awareness that they have at the moment (although this does not mean that they are doing the right thing). If most of all we want to feel better and calmer, then it would be most logical to put aside the analytics and instead bring a little compassion into our state and response. We can remind ourselves that the other person—who is causing us problems—wants exactly what we want: happiness, security, no suffering. In our aspirations, we are no different from those who are the source of our discomfort. The other person wants the same thing, even if he is behaving ugly or inappropriately. Surprisingly, our suffering subsides when we respond to external stimuli with the utmost simplicity and compassion and open our heart to humanity.

Even if we do not find in ourselves empathy for others, we will show true compassion for ourselves if we stop analyzing and correcting everything that we do not like, and convincing others of their wrong. By focusing on kindness and simplicity, resisting the urge to return to thoughts and judgments, we improve not only our well-being, but the situation as a whole – in a way that no tricks of the thinking mind can do.

Obsessive Thoughts is a must have for those who are constantly anxious and very tired of it, as well as for those who want to be more conscious of themselves. Nancy Collier offers tools and exercises to help you separate yourself from your thoughts, analyze them from the outside and stop criticizing yourself all the time. And the book will teach you how to manage such complex feelings as resentment and shame.

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