What do I do with the unsettled questions in my life?

When it comes to our deepest aspirations, we all have unsettled questions:

How long should I continue this pursuit?

Am I giving my time to the best things right now?

Will my approach bring me what I expect?

What do I do with the unsettled questions in my life?

Recently, I read Stuart Fierstein’s book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science. As a former science nerd, I couldn’t resist the title and premise: that ignorance and uncertainty have value and should be cultivated. “Scientists do reach after fact and reason,” he writes. “But it is when they are most uncertain that the reaching is often most imaginative.”

The entire book, based on a series of lectures at Columbia University, is an exploration of how science is dependent on ignorance to drive its discovery. “We judge the value of science by the ignorance it defines,” Fierstein observes.

This got me thinking. Do I value ignorance in the same way when it comes to exploring the unsettled questions in my own life?

To be sure, I have a certain negative bias to the word ignorance. It conjures up other meanings like “backward,” “naive,” and “simple-minded.” It’s better to be learned and knowledgable (which is why I had such a crisis when I thought I had reached the end of my intelligence.)

Who wants to be thought of as having ignorance, much less one who cultivates it? Certainly not I. No doubt, left to me, there would be no doubt. None. Zero. Nada.

But then I wondered, where would that leave me? Doesn’t uncertainty and confusion about these deeper questions of my life, in fact, drive discovery, just as it does in science? Should I not value it the same way a scientist might?

So I reflected about the ways I’ve responded to my own ignorance and confusion about the deeper questions in my life. Three responses emerged:

  1. Despair. Inner shame has often driven me to conclude I’m defective. “I’ve been at this long enough,” I tell myself, “that I ought to know the answers by now.” I’m not the only one who’s thought this way. It’s particularly a challenge for those of us late in our career, still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. We see others hit their stride and wonder if we’ll ever get there. There are so many lingering questions that must be answered that we feel powerless. And weary. This is what I call crushing ignorance.
  2. Anxiety. The precursor to despair in my own life seems to be anxiety. Like you perhaps, I’ve been taught that problems have solutions. And the faster I solve them, the better. It’s better to be a maven than a pilgrim. Questions foment anxiety with which the only relief is an answer—any answer (nearly). I resist the idea of lingering with the question. I can’t because I’m not at peace until I get an answer. So I cast about carelessly for an answer to assuage my anxiety. I call this my periods of careless ignorance.
  3. Curiosity. Adopting a more scientific mind, I can view the unsettled questions in my life as fertile ground for unhurried exploration. I can take my cue from the master scientist, Albert Einstein, “It’s not that I’m so smart, but I stay with the questions longer.” This is cultivated ignorance, where I begin to appreciate the transforming effect of staying with the questions. I accept that I cannot—and should not—expect to have all the answers. And I accept—and, in fact, invite—questions as an ally for unlocking even richer treasures that I had no idea existed.

Yes, as I get older, I realize I possess more ignorance and confusion than I care to admit. It reminds me of sign I saw hanging above an office desk that said, “There’s been an alarming increase in the number of things I know nothing about.” But now that I see a good reason for it, I’m not alarmed by it at all.

Comment below: What approaches have you taken to the unsettled questions in your own life?

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