The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)
Part III. MEDITATIONS
Chapter 17. Tenth Meditation: Knowing and Not Knowing
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
We fear the unknown. We desperately want to know what happened last summer, or last night, or in prehistoric times. We want to know what will happen next week and what the world will look like ten or a thousand years from now. We seek certainty in the present, to know what our life is really about right now. More than bad news, we fear no news; an uncertain diagnosis often feels worse to us than a certain, albeit negative, one. Beyond mere curiosity, our desire to know is a deep existential need—for if knowledge is power, then its absence implies weakness.
The discovery—or, as some would argue, the invention—of God alleviates the anxiety that comes with not knowing. Mortals who promise certainty are crowned kings. When our future is threatened, as in times of war, we follow the leader who promises us the comfort of definitive knowledge. When we are sick, we put the doctor on a pedestal. As children, we look to seemingly omniscient adults to reduce our anxiety. Later, once our parents’ imperfections are revealed, they are replaced by God, guru, or guide.
And yet deep down we experience anxiety, because deep down we know that we do not know. History, archaeology, and psychology cannot fully explain our collective and private pasts. Vivid descriptions of the afterlife, next month’s horoscope, and, alas, even fortune cookies do not provide us with a clear picture of what tomorrow, or the day after, will bring. And when we really think about it, we have no clue even as to what the present is all about.
How do we overcome this fear? Religion certainly helps, which explains why believers are generally happier than nonbelievers. Belonging to a group that has clear rules and boundaries can also bring some clarity to our confusion. Reading the New England Journal of Medicine, Psychological Bulletin, the European Journal of Archaeology, or the latest issue of Science Magazine can help us sleep better at night, for while these scholarly journals may not have all the answers, they surely have some of them. But usually, ultimately, these are not enough.
So what can we do? We need to accept that we sometimes do not and cannot know. We need to embrace uncertainty in order to feel more comfortable in its presence. Then, once we feel comfortable with our ignorance, we are better prepared to reconstruct our discomfort with the unknown into a sense of awe and wonder. It is about relearning to perceive the world—and our lives—as a miracle unfolding.
The word miracle stems from mirus, Latin for “wonder.” Miracles, if taken to denote an event “that excites admiring and awe,” do not just happen in fairy tales, to past generations, to saints—in the supernatural realm. Nature itself, in its entirety, is a miracle. As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
The stars, the trees, the animals are, in fact, a mystifying phenomenon, a miracle. The fact that we write, that we see, that we feel and think—that we are—is a miracle. The thread of time that links past, present, and future is inexplicable, a miracle. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Miracles, in the sense of phenomena we cannot explain, surround us on every hand: life itself is the miracle of miracles.”
There is nothing defeatist about accepting, and embracing, our own and others’ not knowing. In his essay “Leadership as the Legitimation of Doubt,” organizational behaviorist Karl Weick argues that the most successful people embrace uncertainty and are not afraid to admit that they don’t know.1
Healthy acceptance of uncertainty is not, quite, to go as far as Socrates did when he declared that he was the wisest man alive “for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” There are, of course, things that we know with a high degree of certainty, for while the stars are awe inspiring, we know that they will shine again once day turns to night; while we do not really know why, we do know that trees will continue to grow given sunlight, water, and air; and while I have no control over my mortality, I know that right now I am alive—that the present certainly is, and in the here-and-now I know that I think, and I know that I am.
The healthy approach to take toward our pervasive, yet selective, ignorance is a realistic one—one that embraces our not knowing as it does our knowing. We need to accept the things we cannot know as well as the things we can. Then, the next time we face a fork in the road—which is right now and at every other moment in our life—rather than approaching it with fear over not fully knowing what lies ahead or behind or right in front of us, we can learn to approach it with awe. We are, after all, living miracles.
The late Phil Stone, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, was much more than my teacher. Beyond sharing his vast knowledge of the social sciences with me, he was extremely generous with his time when it came to counseling and supporting me. He is my role model for the kind of teacher I try to be to my students.
In 1999 Phil took me with him to Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend the first-ever Positive Psychology Summit. The second day of the conference was a clichéd September day—the sky was partly cloudy, the breeze warm and pleasant. After the morning lectures Phil said to me, “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Walk where?” I asked.
It was one of the most important lessons I had ever learned.
Go for a walk outside, without a specific agenda other than to slow down—to experience and savor and appreciate the richness of our world. Simply take your time, as you sense the pulse of the city, the calm of a village, the expansiveness of the ocean, or the richness of the woods. Make just walking a regular ritual.
Helen Keller tells a story about a friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods. When Keller asked her friend what she had observed, the friend replied, “Nothing in particular.” Keller writes:
I wondered how it was possible to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing of note. I who cannot see find hundreds of things: the delicate symmetry of a leaf, the smooth skin of a silver birch, the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. I who am blind can give one hint to those who see: use your eyes as if tomorrow you will have been stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the songs of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never taste or smell again. Make the most of every sense. Glory in all the facets and pleasures and beauty which the world reveals to you.