When You Don’t Know, Then You Know

The Impostor, paper collage, 2021

It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

A. H. Maslow

How easy is it to answer the question, what do you want? My answer: not easy. If I’m being asked what I want for dinner or what I’d like to do over a long weekend, I might respond quickly, decisively. But in regard to the big stuff, the stuff of soul-searching expeditions—that is, what I want out of life—I might be inclined, without serious and lengthy contemplation, to say I don’t know

We can (and many of us do) spend much of our lives in a state of not knowing. We may move through life as if directionless, detached, or along a trajectory that it feels as if someone else has chosen for us (even if we were the ones who did the choosing, perhaps a long time ago). We’d might as well be half-asleep, going about our daily lives, fulfilling our outward responsibilities, all the while in a state of not knowing. Not knowing what we really want. How we really feel. What sets our souls on fire. And worse—much, much worse—all that we are doing to prevent ourselves from knowing.

So, I’ll ask again, what do you want?

I don’t know. I just don’t know. I will remain as if frozen in time, as if paralyzed, for as long as my answer to that very important question is I don’t know

But I must ask myself—I am obligated to ask myself—do I really not know? Am I really that un-self-aware? Is there not a tiny voice, a gut feeling, a quiet inner urging that, in fact, knows? And is keenly aware that it knows? That’s always known? And that rebels—that grows stronger and progressively more disquieting—every time I think or say, I don’t know what I want! I just don’t know!

Indeed, it is often easier not to know what we want than it is to know. At least, it sometimes feels that way. To live in a state of not knowing is, to my mind, to live within very narrow limits. It is to feel comfortable. It is to feel safe. To feel insulated from risk. From my own desires and what it might mean to actually achieve them.

Because if I don’t know, I am not required to act. I am not required to take the leap into a new career or change a bad habit or end a relationship or otherwise give up what I have grown attached to. 

It’s All We Ever Knew, mixed media collage, 2021

But, it is my experience that to live in a state of not knowing, of self-induced ignorance, actually takes a tremendous amount of work. Of time, energy, and dedication. Energy that would, undoubtedly, be much better spent working to achieve our goals and desires, rather than thwart them. 

To be sure, of all of the ways in which I have (and sometimes do) act against my better judgement and my own best interests, this is, without a doubt, The One. My single most self-sabotaging tendency. To not know. The irony, of course, is that I not only know that I do this, but if I am to be honest, I know exactly where I learned how to do it. 

The good news is I’ve been aware of this tendency within myself—this desire to not know—for a long time. That doesn’t mean I’m always great at combatting it, mind you, but I am better at it than I used to be. And a lot better at being honest with myself about what not knowing is covering up. At unearthing the desire that lies beneath and—even worse—at all that I’ve been doing to cover it up, to sabotage it and myself.

The urge to not know, I think, becomes less potent, less virulent when it becomes fully conscious. That is, once we face the uncomfortable reality that, somewhere deep within, I really do know what I want. There is a voice that’s telling me. And that’s been telling me, perhaps, for a very long time. That, to my mind, is the psychological achievement Maslow’s talking about in the quote above. To become so self-aware that you are acting as a fully-integrated person. Not as one who chooses to not know (with a quiet inner voice that urges me to act differently). But as one who knows and acts as one who knows, for better or worse.

10 responses to “When You Don’t Know, Then You Know”

  1. Your entire reflective post was interesting and gave me a lot to ponder.
    This paragraph stood out to me:

    But, it is my experience that to live in a state of not knowing, of self-induced ignorance, actually takes a tremendous amount of work…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sometimes we all want what we can’t have. Regardless, I think we are always weaker when we’re working against ourselves. When we say, “I don’t know” in order to mask our true feelings and desires, we’re not being honest with ourselves and that makes every situation more difficult.

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  2. This is a great entry. I love this paragraph.. “Indeed, it is often easier not to know what we want than it is to know. At least, it sometimes feels that way. To live in a state of not knowing is, to my mind, to live within very narrow limits. It is to feel comfortable. It is to feel safe. To feel insulated from risk. From my own desires and what it might mean to actually achieve them.” I think as human beings we are constantly battling the urge to always feel safe, to feel comfortable..when honestly, to live is risk..always..and this idea that we can insulate ourselves by claiming ignorance to what we really want comes with consequences that can be devastating..and when reflected upon, this “not knowing” puts us in harms way, more than becoming self aware ever could. Living this life, no matter the way you choose to live it, comes with risk. Period. So it seems to me, to really connect with who you are and live with intention and thought not only activates the achievement of goals, it activates the full achievement of “you”..the action we take when truly, fully aware and integrated begets not only exceptional creativity/art, it also drives life forward in a way that “safety by standing still in not knowing” ever could. Life explodes around us everyday. We will be blessed by it and broken by it. To travel the road with your soul wide open and known is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and this world..and ultimately, I believe, provides the peace that we all seek..because actually knowing what we want and acting on it is precisely why we are here and this illusion of safety cannot stand against the truth of peace..well done, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very beautifully said. What you say here about the risks of living and the illusion of safety is very powerful–especially in these times. And I couldn’t agree with you more: the illusion of safety can be devastating. To prefer “not knowing,” I think, is to not want to make difficult decisions, not have to do what seems hard. But this, too, is an illusion. It is much more difficult to live with oneself–to have flourishing relationships, a full, satisfying life–if we shy away from taking risks and making hard choices. From tapping into the source of “knowing,” even when we learn frightening and disappointing things about ourselves. These can be the foundations of growth and transformation. Thank you, as always, for the wonderful feedback!

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