‘The Need for Answers’
It’s about having lost mystery in our lives because answers are so close at hand in a digital world. So I’ll tackle the question of whether the greatest pleasure is in knowing, not knowing, in partly knowing or in opening the door in the mind and suddenly knowing everything! (And perhaps the deepest satisfaction lies in suspense).
Why Mystery Matters
It used to be that if I heard a bit of music on the radio I couldn’t identify, I had to write it down on music paper, trying to score it as best I could. I still have scraps of paper from the 60’s with hasty notations in the shorthand I invented. Or sometimes it was a poem I’d only half memorized and couldn’t remember the author‘s name. Or maybe it was the author but not the name of what she’d written, but not a poem either. So many hours in my early life were spent hoping I’d learn the name of a song or a piece of writing or a writer’s name from something I heard on the radio. Answers seemed tantalizingly close but just out of reach. I had to tolerate not knowing. I had to tolerate not having an answer.
These days we can find out in mere moments what swordfish eat for breakfast and whether ladybugs are nocturnal. We’re exempt from waiting. We’re denied the chance of surprise. And I think we are missing out on an essential human and spiritual experience. Once in elementary school we had an assembly about birds of prey and several were brought in for us to see, up close. One was a Great Horned Owl and one of it’s feathers floated to the floor of the stage.. I kept my eye on it. After the presentation, I picked that feather up, although it required going up on the stage and hoping my teacher would not see me. She had said,” No one is to go up on the stage”.
I put that feather into a waxed paper envelope with a label: GREAT HORNED OWL. The feather was a prize but it was also the only way I could keep that experience. There was at that time no way to see that owl again. I might find some small unsatisfying image in an encyclopedia, but that would have been like looking at that magnificent creature through layers of fog. A photocopy of a photocopy.
My other option was to flip through stacks of National Geographics, hoping to stumble on a full color photograph. My local library kept a room stocked with old issues that students could tear up for school reposts, and we’d grab stacks at random hoping to find polar bears or a desert lizard or whatever we needed for the paper we were working on. If by some miracle, someone found something they could use, we’d all marvel and cheer for a moment and then go back to our hopeless searches. It was scarcity that made that information – that feather precious. Precious and priceless!
We live in an information Age and information gives us power. Most people do not miss the times when information was hard to come by. Having quick, easy access to all kinds of news and facts is seen by most , as a good thing. Knowing things allows us, to make good decisions, to choose from a vast array of options, to lead richer and fuller lives.
But there was a time, and this is very hard for some of us to even imagine, when certain places and certain parts of the country did not learn who had won a presidential election for 6 months! And if you read the letters and diaries of people living in those times, and see what they have to say while waiting for the news, well, they were not waiting for the news! You can see that most were not impacted at all. They may have been curious about who won the election, but they were not holding up their lives over it or waiting to make a major decision over the news when it did arrive. People kept right on living. Some of the issues from the past which would have been impacted by the results of a presidential election were very serious issues. The election between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in 1860 for instance when slavery was the issue.
But wait! By being denied the experience of not knowing, we have given up some very important things, including Surprise, Mystery and wonder!
In 2006, a British artist named John Newling, went to Lloyd’s of London and asked them to underwrite him against, “loss of mystery”, in other words, to offer to pay out if all mystery was lost from his life. He felt life had become too controlled, constantly surveyed and audited. .“Mystery,” he said, is a predisposition to search, to enjoy, to play and to wonder. That becomes lost when we’re controlling it all. Well Lloyd’s of London thought it over for a very long time before getting back to him. But in the end they turned him down. They said they could not insure him. They said they could not pay out for his loss of mystery as they would not know how to value the loss of so many intangible surprises which they felt sure he would have. They simply didn’t know how to value surprises which were in fact mysteries. And he of course wanted surprises to continue.
And so began his time of mystery prospecting, including a stall in an urban farmer’s market in Preston, England, called “ the Preston Mystery Market Project, set up to collect people’s personal mysteries. The sign on his stall read,”Losing your sense of mystery? Finding everything a bit too predictable”? For three days he asked people to entrust him with their mysteries’ And they did! They told him all kinds of stories with mysterious endings .
“ Mystery is familiar to us all, says, Newling. “many of us have been in or observed situations when something inexplicable has occurred. The 281 mysteries I collected in those three days read like a treatise in being human and our need to have things that we can not explain. They ranged from out of body experiences to uncanny coincidences, from a lost red stapler to a woman who wakes from a comas to whisper the answer to the crossword puzzle the whole family puzzeled over for weeks. Well despite the blooming of interest in Newling’s project, we know that we do live in an information age so we put our faith in experts and our questions into Google. We have charted the far reaches of our planet, mapped its contours, and its trickier intersections. Even our deepest emotions are being reduced to empirical brain chemistry – skips and blips mapped by the art of neuroscience. We still have mysteries but now they are forensic rather than fantastic. Solved in the closing credits of some tv show.
But what becomes of mystery when we have all the answers? What of coincidences and chance meetings? When everything is explained doesn’t life become some how mundane, predictable and earth-bound? Surely we actively need a continuing sense of mystery and wonder. Isn’t it the unknowable that keeps us interested in life, in learning, in developing ourselves? Remember all those wonderful children’s books like “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which fascinated us when we were younger? They remind us that even with all the answers we would do well to foster a willingness to walk in the dark, to cast ourselves into mysterious waters, the unknown where our senses become more alive and instincts alert. Not knowing requires you to use your heart and your intuition. As the philosopher Kierkegaard said,” Life is not a problem to be solved, but rather a mystery to be lived.”
I believe that a sense of mystery is intrinsic to the human mind. I think we are all motivated to find out more and use our imaginations. But isn’t mystery like the ultimate trail of breadcrumbs? Because it’s instrinsic to seek answers and make sense of something and use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
The people who do research on happiness tell us that we are at our happiest when we feel we belong to something bigger than ourselves. “ There are two kinds of belonging. One is social inclusion – everything from garden clubs to soccer clubs and the other is that sense of being part of something much bigger. Mystery is this shared but unknowable terrain, reminding us that we are not the masters of our destiny but pawns together. It dispels the arrogance that we know where we are headed. Its keeps our minds open and our lives interesting
“The need for mystery”, wrote American author Ken Kesey, is greater than the need for an answer . Let me says that again. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.. We may live in a time when there is great need for an answer. We may live in a time when there is great emphasis on proof, answers and outcomes, but mystery persists as a reminder to enjoy the process – that unsettling, unknowable journey. Certainly in our controlled culture we will be dissuaded from walking in the dark, lest we bump into something, break apart something, or get sued by somebody. Do it anyway!! Walk in the dark When the lights get too bright we are programmed to seek the shadows, to nurture the unknowable and as Kesey says, “ to plant gardens in which strange plants grow and in which mysteries bloom.
Here’s a little list of things you might think about doing to encourage mystery into your life:
- Spend a day with a child and when you can’t answer their whys anymore, share their bafflement!
- Wonder at You may know the scientific explanation of rainbows, but don’t think about that. Just look at the colors and and the way rainbows fade away so fast!
* Walk without purpose. This is probably best done in a city but you can do it anywhere. See where you end up!
- Invite differences. Talk to strangers. ( Go up to someone you do not know and pay them a compliment. Tell them you just love their shoes!}
- Read mysteries. Become aware of how you feel in the middle of the book as opposed to the end!
*Defy reason. Make a decision based entirely on instinct. ( Not numbers or data)
These are all ways to invite more mystery into your life.