Diminishing Certainty

Being comfortable with “I don’t know,” is a masterful skill to have.

After putting a little over two years under her belt, my niece has learned to ask why, about everything.  So I assume the role of the prototypical adult-type.  I’d give her the best answer I could and if the question was real tough I’d make something up.  You know, to make the world seem like an understandable place.  And that’s how it should be for a two year-old.  The clean simplicity of childhood reminds me how certainly fleeting certainty is.

We find out that “work hard and you’ll go far” doesn’t always pan out if you’re making minimum wage.  And that grandpa was spot on when he told us the world didn’t owe us a goddam thing.  We learn to focus on the bright moments to outshine the dim ones.  We find that love is always followed by heartache of some sort, at some point.  And that no moment is static, loss is inevitable, and change is unquestionable.  So marks the sunset of comfort, and the rise of the waxing unknown.

Where does the path go from here?  And where does it all end?  Life is a fluidly complex, discombobulated mess of indifferent chance and unsympathetic consequence.  So we ignore it and we drink to it. We bury ourselves under newspapers to hide from it, or just plain grow numb to it.  Or we face it.  And embrace it.  And let it free us.  Because the answer, to it all, is I don’t know.  You don’t know.  We don’t know.  The better question is can you accept it?

My least favorite parts of my own writing, the ones that make me cringe to reread, are the parts where I catch myself trying to smush the unwieldy mess of real life into some neatly-shaped conclusion, the sort of thesis statement you were obliged to tack on to essays in high school or the Joycean epiphanies that are de rigueur in apprentice fiction — whenever, in other words, I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about. Real life, in my experience, is not rife with epiphanies, let alone lessons; what little we learn tends to come exactly too late, gets contradicted by the next blunder, or is immediately forgotten and has to be learned all over again. More and more, the only things that seem to me worth writing about are the ones I don’t understand. Sometimes the most honest and helpful thing a writer can do is to acknowledge that some problems are insoluble, that life is hard and there aren’t going to be any answers, that he’s just as screwed-up and clueless as the rest of us. Or I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

Tim Kreider, The Power of I don’t Know