Understanding & the Discomfort of Mystery

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What is it about knowing, about understanding a thing or a person that is so attractive?

As a teacher I sense the hunger for certainty in my students. They want to know what they need to know to get an A (or merely pass) and move on. Tell me what I have to know (and I’ll repeat it back to you). But I teach college writing. There are a thousand—a million!—ways to write a story, a paragraph, a sentence. It’s best if your writing is specific to help your reader understand your perspective—but one right answer doesn’t exist. Welcome to the liberal arts and critical thinking!

I can relate to my students. Growing up and well into adulthood, not knowing felt shameful. Admitting my ignorance was so scary that I’d nod along AS IF I understood. Sometimes I’d even lie. Then worry I’d get caught. That felt so horrid that I decided to see what would happen if I owned the truth in a conversation, and admitted I don’t know. (This radical approach has been transformational!)

To Know & Understand

Socially, there’s a certain cachet attached to knowing. To know something, to know someone, and, BONUS, to understand a thing all adds up to success. Not knowing is, at best, a gap in learning; at worst a sign of failure, a fault, a personality flaw.

Generally, not knowing is managed by admitting I don’t know*. And then 1) deciding I don’t care or 2) I do care, so I will learn/figure this out.

But what if you can’t figure this out? What if you do care, but don’t understand something, someone? What then?

Ignorance vs. Mystery

When we don’t know something that is known and knowable we are ignorant. I am ignorant of many things: tax law, surgical procedures, how to speak Mandarin. All of the things I don’t know, but that are knowable, would fill a library the size of the Empire State Building. Many things that I don’t know, I honestly don’t care about, or care to know.

Then there’s Mystery: a different kind of not knowing. Mystery is not the same as ignorance. Mystery means we stand in wonder of something that often is not knowable right now, or perhaps ever. Mystery is not managed by education or science.



–Mystery is defined as something that is a secret, something where there is no clear explanation, something difficult to understand or explain or something unexplainable or unsolvable.

  • An example of a mystery is whether there is proof that God exists.
  • An example of a mystery is how exactly people came to be.
  • An example of a mystery is a situation where it is unclear who committed a crime, or what the purpose or point is for a work of art, an experience, someone’s motives and actions.

Mystery sits in the same room as uncertainty and ambiguity. Such and such could mean X, or Y, or perhaps even Z. And on occasion, it might mean none or all of these at once. 

Personal Anger

My father, bless him, features often in this series. I suspect this is because a major trigger for personal anger is broken trust. (Hat tip to my daughter for naming this in a recent conversation.) I feel personal anger when I trust someone close to me for something I need and they do not or cannot provide it. (I could shift focus here to managing expectations and boundaries. But that’s not where I’m going.)

My father sat at my kitchen table in 2009 and spoke the truth, “I never understood you.” Jesus said the first bit first. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

But Gloria’s follow up rings true. Truth leads to freedom, but first it leads you through anger.

My father’s admission was at once dazzlingly honest and excruciating. Suddenly, I knew shy I felt erased, invisible as a child. With his words my relationship with him, and others that I struggled to animate with mutual respect and appreciation, made sense.

With those four words I was set free from thinking I should get a lobotomy rather than have ideas and make choices that he “could not condone or approve”. For example, during my 12+ years in community theater, I asked my anxious parents to trust. “Even if you can’t trust me, can you trust the One who made me, who holds me, who led me here?” Acting, as more than a hobby, was something they didn’t understand, so they could not value it. I was asking for support, for trust, they could not give.

If you can only value and respect what you understand, what do you do with mystery? 

~ How do you relate to mystery when she is your own child? ~

My father, like my students, found not knowing, not understanding extremely unpleasant. We lived in the same house, but didn’t understand me. I didn’t match the efficient guidelines for value that made life manageable, knowable, comfortable for him. Mystery caused him distress. Because of a lifetime of emotional poverty, Dad could not find a way to navigate this discomfort. All he knew to do was diminish or dismiss what caused it. Me.

Mercy & Mystery

For 50+years I struggled to say the words that would magically make my father understand me so that he could affirm, even celebrate, who I am. But before he died, I stopped that wistful, futile, exhausting habit. Here’s my current, ongoing practice:

First, I rest. Nothing good happens when I’m tired.

Next I choose mercy. Mercy for Dad and his need to understand someone before he would appreciate or celebrate them. And mercy for myself for trusting him to give me what he could not.

Finally, I reflect. My earliest model for moving through life taught me that reflection is a choice, not a default. In a place of rest and mercy, I shift my gaze inward and wonder, How often have I raced past the discomfort of mystery? Can I respect and value what I don’t understand?

Warning: This is NOT an efficient practice. I think efficiency is great; if you’re a server at McDonalds, a clerk at the DMV, or a light bulb. It works for anything that isn’t related to deep relationships with others or your Self. This practice involves curiosity. (Never efficient.) What if I am guided by the Spirit? What if, instead of dismissing the discomfort, I sit with my mystery? What if sitting with mystery and being uncomfortable is how I will grow?

Mercy for my own Mystery

This fall I have a chance to find out. I return to school. Again. I’ll be a full-time student pursuing my MFA in Studio Art. (Yes! This totally ROCKS!!!!!!!) I have NO idea what my area/s of focus will be. Not One Clue. Nor do I have a clear vision of how I’ll use my degree when I’m done. What the hell am I doing!? Three years! More student loans!

But—I feel called to this: To sit (even dance) with the discomfort of Mystery. I stand here because of mercy. I got here by grace.

Mercy for YOUR Mystery

You are welcome to use these questions yourself, if you want. See above Warning! This is not easy work. It is totally inefficient and there won’t be one right answer. But when you let yourself keep patient company with the discomfort of mystery, grace and mercy show up too.

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