“This is the first time I’ve decided to leave a job without having something else lined up,” my friend Tonya* confessed to our small women’s support group. We applauded her daring, self-affirming choice and offered words of encouragement to bolster her confidence in stepping into the unknown. She knew she was doing the right thing, but wasn’t at all comfortable with the prospect of not knowing what was next.
As I reflected on it later it occurred to me that, in our culture, we have trained ourselves to tolerate the wrong kind of discomfort. We have become like martyrs, enduring the endless drudgery of tedious jobs or the relentless demands of 70-hour-per-week careers. We convince ourselves that our choices are somehow noble – or we convince ourselves that we have no other choice – and busy ourselves with developing “coping mechanisms” to mitigate the negative effects of the psychic pain that, by now, has become chronic. We don’t acknowledge that this kind of pain is our soul’s way of letting us know we’re off course, because we don’t know what other course to take.
And that, paradoxically, is the point. In order to get back on course, we must be willing to not know how - to be lost, at least for a little while. And we’re not terribly good at feeling lost. We’d rather rush to figure things out so that fear doesn’t have a chance to step into the gap between the world we know today and the world we will come to know. But the world we’re longing for is created in the gap; if we think and act only from our known world, we’ll keep getting more of the same. We need to remind ourselves that beyond our daily routines and habits of thought lies an endless source of ideas and inspiration to lead us step by step into our brilliant future, if we will but take that first tender step into the unknown. That is the kind of pain – the squirmy discomfort of not knowing – that we must learn to sit with. And as we do, it begins to soften little by little. The willingness to not know invites a new knowing, the kind that can transform our lives.
I’ve come to understand that the pain we associate with not knowing is caused by the belief that we’re supposed to know; we’ve been taught how to plan our lives from here to retirement, so doing something as radical as leaving a job without having a tidy five-year forecast to make sense of it all seems to offer proof of our stupidity. But what if we could drop the belief that we should know what we’re going to be doing for the next five years? We might find that setting it aside ushers in a sense of freedom and possibility we’ve not experienced before. Will we have to deal with fear? Yes, we will. Is that something worth learning to do? Absolutely.
Tonya knows this, in her heart of hearts. She knows that the pain of staying in a job that suffocates her is far worse than the heart-fluttering bouts of panic that chastise her for making the choice to leave. She knows she can negotiate a new relationship with panic, but her soul’s desires are not negotiable. They are just waiting for her to peel away the filter of the known so she can see them with new eyes.
And so it can be for each of us. As we give ourselves a little distance from our known world – as we step into the gap of the unknown and let the initial waves of discomfort wash over us – we gain a new perspective. And from this place our soul’s desires can be seen for what they are: the beacon that is forever lighting our way back to our true selves. It turns out that being in the unknown doesn’t mean we are lost - it means we are willing to be found.
* Not her real name