I’m still in the process of divorcing. Although my marriage came to its religious end last September, when my ex and I engaged in a ritual dissolution of the marriage, the state doesn’t yet acknowledge that our lives have diverged. Legally we’re still entangled. Ours is as amicable a divorce as I know of, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick process. And because the divorce isn’t yet final, there are things I can’t yet know about the parameters of my future. For now, I’m living in not-knowing.
There are other forms of not-knowing besides the limbo of ending a marriage. Preparing to begin a marriage is a kind of not-knowing, too. So is applying for a job, or getting ready for a move. Sometimes we make choices that thrust us into periods of not-knowing: beginning or ending a relationship, beginning or ending a job, beginning or ending a new chapter of our lives. Other times the choice to inhabit the not-knowing is thrust upon us: an unexpected pregnancy, a diagnosis, an accident.
When I was a kid, I had a “lazy eye” which my pediatric ophthalmologist tried to treat with a variety of interventions, among them an eye patch and prism glasses. I remember one pair of lenses that he used to put on me during my eye exams. It had one red lens, and one blue lens. He would ask me to look at the chart at the far end of the room. If I were using only my dominant eye, I would see one color. If I were using both eyes, the color would look different.
Life right now feels a little bit like that. When I use my dominant eye, as it were, I feel hopeful about the unknowns in my future. I can envision the outlines of a life that fits my hopes, and I feel confident about the likelihood of that life unfolding.
When I look through the other lens, the uncertainty is exhausting. The fact that I don’t know what comes next feels paralyzing. And because there’s so much I can’t know right now about what my future holds, the simplest decisions feel monumental.
Living in not-knowing is hard. And it can be a profound spiritual practice. It requires us to let go of our illusions that we can control our own future or that we know what’s coming next. It requires us to accept a certain degree of mystery, of unknowability.
I think that unknowability is always there, but most of the time we choose to pretend it away and to tell ourselves that tomorrow will be like today. But there’s no real knowing what tomorrow will hold — even at a moment in one’s life when things seem solid, stable, and familiar. Life could always change at any moment: with the arrival of illness, or the loss of a job, or an unexpected car accident. Most of the time we set these possibilities aside, because living with full awareness of life’s uncertainty is exhausting. But the uncertainty is there even when we’re ignoring it.
Times of flux and transition are stressful in part because they require us to come to terms with the uncertainty and unknowability that was always already there. The challenge lies in being receptive — not only to the future for which we yearn, but to the reality that we can’t entirely know what the future will hold.
Psychotherapist, spiritual director, and teacher Estelle Frankel writes (in her new book The Wisdom of Not Knowing),
“I have learned that being receptive to the unknown, in all its many facets, allows us to become more open, curious, flexible, and expansive in our personal and professional lives. This openness is the key to all learning and creativity. It is the gate that unlocks our wisdom and courage.”
When I accept that I can’t wholly know what my future will hold, I open myself to possibility. There are things I hope will happen. There are things I hope won’t happen. But I affirm that I don’t actually know what will be, and that there is a gift for me in the not-knowing. Because I don’t know, I can hold my imagined futures lightly. I can cultivate openness to learning from whatever unfolds. I can cultivate the bravery I need to keep moving forward, even when I don’t always know for certain where I am headed or how I will get there.
And even amidst the not-knowing, there are certainties I can hold on to. The sun will rise and the world will continue to turn. There will always be things in my life for which I can seek to cultivate gratitude. Love will continue to enliven me; even if that love takes different shapes over the course of my life, the fact that I love and am loved is (in my theology, anyway) eternal. And I will always be able to pursue the joy that I find in trying to sweeten the lives of those who matter to me.
None of those things depend on knowing what comes next. All I can do is practice opening myself to embrace the fact of everything that I can’t know.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).