It’s Okay Not to Know

It’s tough to be a junior (grade 11) in high school. There are so many pressures. This is the year many students choose a college, a career, a life. Lowell and I watched Connor stumble through the agonies of these seemingly huge decisions. Now we’re watching Adelaide do the same.

Of course as adults we know that not all of this has to be decided right now. But the air these 17 year olds breath dictates something else. They are being led to believe that they have to know. And they have to know RIGHT NOW. All the years of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seem to culminate now. They have to face grown up living and decide what they want to be. The answers they’ve used their whole lives–nurse, teacher, fire fighter– don’t necessarily fit anymore. The options are broader. There are more choices. What do they want to do for the rest of their lives? Who do they want to be?

But really, it’s okay not to know.

We who have crossed over into the other side –the adult side—look back and smile. We remember the need to know. The need to know immediately. And then we shake our heads and remember the stories of how we lived along into it. We remember the series of little decisions, the circumstances that led us to that particular job, that particular college, that particular summer trip, that particular major. We laugh out loud at the plot twists and the mis-twists that resulted in us having to re-do that, or retake this.

This is a trustworthy saying for all of us. Seventeen and 18 and 19 year olds can all be reassured: it’s ok not to know. And to the adults in the room—those whose frontal lobes are fully formed, those who’ve lived longer than 25, or 45, or 65 years: it’s ok not to know.

Not knowing, of course, means waiting and living past the urgency, into the answer. There’s just no two ways about it, waiting is impossibly agonizing, particularly for the young who have no broader context, or longer experience. They have no proof that waiting results in any answers. There’s not yet any life experience to demonstrate that. It’s difficult for those of us who are older too. We seem to forget previous times when we’ve waited and the answers have finally come. The fingers of inpatience tap out a troubled tune in our agitated spirits and we find it difficult to settle into the wait. We all want answers now.

I was reading a book this week, as part of my Spiritual Direction training, The Good Life, by Richard M. Gula. In it Gula says that the Christ follower should approach ‘the good life’ with, “the conviction that this life has already been lived by Jesus.” He goes on to say,

…we do ourselves no favors by ignoring (Jesus’) humanity and (by) saying that he knew everything because he was God… as a human, he had to discover who he was and what God was asking of him just as we do, step by step. (At) the core of humanity (is)the call to search and discover our way through failure and groping and finally coming up with something new(.) Our great pain and our great joy is in asking, “What’s it all about?” and gradually discovering the answer. (The Good Life, Gula, 1999).

An integral part of living is living! Things don’t just happen. Time reveals options. We research, deliberate, pray and wait. We make choices in the moment. Looming deadlines and final notices come and go. We ride out our fears and discover, much to our surprise, that they do not destroy us. Constantly appealing to God, we follow after him, as Gula said, step by step. Faithfully he helps us with the little choices and eventually we look back and see the big decisions were made smaller by those little choices and by his persistent help.

It turns out it was okay not to know. In not knowing the big answers, we did what we knew with the little choices, and lived along into that expansive space, past the demanding question’s tyranny, into the answer.

To all the high school juniors, all the 17 and 18 year olds out there—to Adelaide and her cohorts—I say this: It really is okay not to know. Life, jumping from one stepping stone to the next, is a grand adventure. It maybe feels scary to not know what’s ahead. But it’s also exhilirating and a little thrilling to leap from choice to choice. The adults in your life didn’t know, at your age, how the story would play out. Truth be told they don’t know what the next chapter holds now either.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. –Rainer Marie Rilke


2 thoughts on “It’s Okay Not to Know

  1. An embarrassed post script– On Monday last, I asked Adelaide, “What should I blog about?” Her answer was quick: It’s okay not to know. It intrigued me. It stirred up this post in me. However, yesterday when I asked her if she had read the blog she had inspired, she replied, “You’ve probably plagiarized! I had read a blog about that same subject that morning that you asked.” My heart sunk. I hadn’t really considered that was the reason for her quick idea. Adelaide did read my piece and said it was significantly different than the blog she had read. I still feel badly about this. I in no way meant to copy or borrow another’s idea. It seems that I should apologize–but I’m not sure who to! It’s probably ok not to know that either. At any rate–please forgive me blogger and the blogosphere!


  2. Wise words, Robin, for any age. I changed degree plans three times in college! Fortunately in the American system, that’s possible, often without losing credits. As I explained to my girls, none of this is carved in stone. Make the best decisions you can at the time and change direction when you need to. If it takes a little longer, perhaps that’s still the best plan.


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