We human beings long for certainty. We’re convinced that if we had all the answers that we’d be happy, fulfilled, and safe. We’d know what to do, what to expect, how to relate, and how to prepare. We could handle it.
Yet, we live in an uncertain world. The philosopher and author Peter Rollins describes this reality quite well. He says that there is a lack between what you have and what you’d like to have, who you are and who you’d like to be, and having to act but not knowing how to act. This lack, or nothingness, becomes a problem for us when we think we can fill the gap.
We experience this nothingness negatively and painfully at first, and we try to do all we can to protect ourselves from it. Often, our primary pursuit becomes to correct the nothingness with wholeness or completeness. We wind up holding onto absolutes so tightly that they turn into symptoms in our bodies. They resurface in our reactions of anger, in our tension headaches, in our mistrust of others. The lack discomforts us so that we become obsessed with ending it. When we repress the doubts, curiosities, and quirks of this lack we sense, we fool ourselves into the plausibility of a world of absolutes.
But here’s the thing: nothing is something. The gaps or lacks between who we are and what we want to be, what we have and what we want, needing to act, and not knowing how to act … they don’t need to be experienced as pain or negativity. The lack of certainty can actually be accepted and celebrated.
Try a little thought experiment with me for a minute. Let’s pretend that you knew all of the answers to the mysteries of life, that you knew exactly how your relationships would end up, what jobs you’d get, and whether your beliefs in religion, science, and politics were the right ones. You might finally feel complete or whole. You’d be certain. But at what cost? You’d lose spontaneity, you’d lose purpose, you’d lose hope. You’d lose curiosity and a sense of wonder. You wouldn’t pursue anyone or anything because you would already know the outcome. You’d stop striving or trying because you would experience life as predictable. The idea that you can be whole or complete is actually bad news. It is destructive and oppressive. Is certainty really what you want?
In my opinion, what this thought experiment proves is the need to learn to live contentedly in the lack. So how do we go about viewing the nothing as something; how do we move past the pain and negativity toward acceptance and celebration? I think it starts by giving yourself permission to doubt and question - by embracing the unknown. By beginning to loosen the tight grip you have on absolutes, you can still hold onto your story as a way of understanding the world, but also recognize that it is full of cracks. And those beautiful cracks? They let the light in. They allow you to remain humble, driven, and open-minded. They permit you to take risks. As you do this, you slowly begin to become satisfied in your disatisfaction. You find peace in your questions and harmony in the midst of chaos. It is not an easy thing to do, but it is wonderful because you learn to hold it all.
Rollins cleverly points out the the words unravel and ravel mean exactly the same thing: to pull apart or disentangle. And yet, these two words have a drastically different application. When we seek wholeness/completeness/certainty, we unravel. This looks like pain and negativity. But when we accept the nothingness and celebrate the lack of certainty, we ravel. We can be content in the not knowing because we the disentangling here permits curiousity, growth, and groundedness. We can thrive in the nothingness because we know it is something.
Therapy can be a great way to learn how to ravel from a place of rootedness and heal from unraveling due to rigidness. If you’d like to learn more about how to get started, please give us a call.