April 20, 2009

"I Don't Know"

Thoughts On Certainty And Control

The anniversary of my father’s death has come and gone once again. It has been 37 years since he committed suicide; he was fifty-five and I was eighteen.

Dad was an alcoholic and the gentlest man I’ve ever known. We’ve all tried to piece together the answer to the puzzle of his suicide, but no one knows why he did it. One of my sisters and I believe that it might have started on the beaches of Normandy. (Watch the opening sequence to “Saving Private Ryan” to see what he experienced.) But early on—and maybe still—each of us who loved him took on the burden of cause. If only...

But that kind of control isn’t possible. Control of anything but your own actions is an illusion. While I might have influence on other people, it happens only with their consent. What they ultimately choose to do is entirely out of my power.

Maybe Dad lost his battle with control. He could no longer bear whatever pain that alcohol could not erase. And his final act of control was suicide. It gave him the peace that escaped him for much of his adult life.

There is a kind of surrender that is not defeat but serenity. It is letting go of control, allowing events to unfold as they will and adapting to them. This means giving up the goal of certainty, described variously as absolute truth, conviction, knowledge, and reality.

We all want certainty. It is not a weakness so much as a hunger. “Knowing” reduces fear of the unknown, one of the greatest fears we have. But knowledge is a journey, not a destination. For the moment we settle on a conclusion or set of beliefs—“The Answer”—we stop moving, thinking, examining, assessing. Therein lies the problem with certainty: it provides us with a sense of security which leads to stagnation.

I think those who are most at peace don’t need certainty and control as much as others. They are open to change, new information, diversity, and conflicting points of view. (Don’t count me in this group yet. Too far to go.)

It’s taken me many years to accept that I will never know what haunted my father so much that he had to end his life. I cannot know because I have chosen life. I can finally say “I don’t know” and let it be. I can apply that kind of acceptance to the mystery of God and yet still seek knowledge, insight, and wisdom. It is quite freeing to understand that “I don’t know” is an answer in itself.


bigislandjeepguy said...

*this* is one of the reasons i come back again and again to your blog. you never cease to make me think.

words cannot express about your father. big alohas to you, birdie.

Java said...

This gnaws at me. The what of it, the why of it, though I realize there probably aren't answers. There aren't answers that will help store it away in a tidy package. And it gnaws at me because sometimes I want to go there, too. One of the reasons I don't is the effect it has on survivors. Thank you for being open about your experience. It helps a lot.


Ur-spo said...

I spend some time with patients trying to get them to give up certainty and explanation of their life events. This is hard and sad to do, but it allows for them to move on/not be haunted so.

Roxrocks said...

That generation, sadly, was so damaged by the war. My Grandpa also landed at Normandy and was an alcoholic as a result of everything he'd been through over there. He was far from a gentle man though. He was an angry, violent person when he was drunk.

Your dad internalized his pain. My grandpa spewed it out into the world. War is hell.

The Wayward Hawaiian said...

Well said. The need to control and understand everything around you and the desire to believe that you are the cause of all of it will drive you, sometimes literally, to suicide. A notable example includes many gay and lesbian children that commit suicide because they believe that they are the cause of the world's bigotry towards them and that they can never be what the world wants. How many teenagers mysteriously commit suicide for no reason, apparently having ever reason to live yet deeply, innately, challenged by something they cannot change? We cannot make the world an accepting, loving place overnight. That, we can only nibble at, generation by generation. However, to the extent that we can accept who and what we are and the things and people around us, then learn to love ourselves innately as we are, we can be at peace with both the demons around us and those within us. Mind you, acceptance does not rule out curiosity and the quest for understanding. Rather, it is the NEED for control and the NEED to know that will keep you up and ridden with guilt. Thus, acceptance does not rule out learning from our past. For example, if someone is hateful to you, you can "accept" that this person is living in that space at this moment and not take personal offense. However, you can also choose whether you want to deal with that person to either help them through their issues or simply step away and avoid them. Thanks for sharing your world with us and for helping, one nibble at a time, make this a kinder, gentler planet.

David said...

Yoga teaches us to live without expectation, that it is the key to a life without suffering. I find that the areas of my life where I have the most stress or unhappiness are those where I try to force expectations.

Anonymous said...

...."I don't know" is an answer in itself. I've learned this also. Yes and AMEN!

Caddy Jean

THIS IS ME....ONLINE said...

What a thought provoking post! I've often considered it a blessing that I really can wonder about some of the really big questions and just say "I will know someday" and be actually be okay with that. I accept the Bible by faith. Things like the details of how God create our world; what did the process look like etc. Why is there death in the world at all? It's the more personal things that are so much harder to just accept. Like your father; like why my son should continue to suffer; like why is there cancer? Way too big for us. Thanks for sharing.

the hobbit said...

I think we all have various degrees of success with coping with uncertainty/not needing an answer depending on how much life is slapping us around.

It's fairly easy to have peace with uncertainty when only one or two variables are troubling.

The toughest for me is to have peace without blocking out reality. Denial is not peace, much as I try to convince myself otherwise. ;)

Do your best with the tools you have. That's all anyone can expect of any of us. Even we of ourselves, pumpkin.

Greg said...

It seems so often I find exactly what I need when I visit your blog.

Today, this message of peacefulness in the face of uncertainty is the lovely parting gift. Thank you, Birdie.

tornwordo said...

Therein lies the problem with certainty: it provides us with a sense of security which leads to stagnation.And yet I'm so certain of this line's veracity.

Jeff said...

As always, beautifully and lovingly done. It was the suicide of one of my closest friends in 2006 that started me blogging, at first to try and write down the stories and then to try and work through it all. My own version of coming to terms with it is attached: