The Joys of Not Knowing
In the twinkling of a story, I feel myself being drawn to them. I care about them, I’m curious about them, and I’m ready to go down the road with them, wherever it may lead. It’s the same way I feel about 50 pages into a novel I’m writing. By then, I’m completely committed to a sustained relationship with a whole new group of characters whom I don’t know very well, but who are enticing; characters who are slightly deformed below the surface, try to hide what they most need to share, make decisions they find hard to justify, struggle nobly, are connected to each other in painful and transformative ways, and sometimes defy life’s odds and flourish despite all of this. Together we work toward some resolution, partial though it may be.
Even though I’m the author of the story, I find myself watching and wondering what will emerge from the characters I’ve assembled as they wrestle with life’s circumstances, much as I do with every new client family. I live with almost as much not-knowing when I write as I do when I sit down with a family for the first time. I know how to begin, and usually I can see past a few bends in the road ahead, but how I’ll get from point A to point B and how things will transpire along the way remain largely a mystery.
When I was younger, this not-knowing made me a hesitant writer. I wanted to know where I was going, and I took it as a lack of creativity or imagination or worse that I stank as a writer, even when I didn’t. I was the same as a beginning therapist. I thought it was my job to never be caught short or get stuck or in any way be lacking in cleverness and insight. Why else would a family come to see me? Wasn’t it my job to lead the way—to understand the road ahead and know where the potholes were; to have resolved life’s problems so I could help others resolve theirs?
The late family therapy pioneer Harry Goolishian helped reframe not-knowing as an asset in the psychotherapy—a means of remaining open to the story as it comes at you. He once said in a conversation that it takes at least 15 years to create a therapist. At the time, I was five years into my career. Hearing this, I thought I didn’t have to know everything yet, but I was doubtful that it would take me 15 years to become what I already was—a pretty damn good psychotherapist! Now, more than 30 years into my career, I wonder how Goolishian could ever have thought that a therapist could be created in a mere 15 years! It’s a lifetime’s work, full of all the anxiety and possibility and reward that come with not-knowing and entrusting oneself to the process of being with others.
In like manner, I was a young Presbyterian minister when I wrote my first book, which was accepted for publication and then rejected upon further review. The publisher said airily, “I’ll get you on your 10th book!” It would be 15 years before I coauthored my first published book and another 15 before I published my first novel. Some things need time.
As a therapist, I’ve found that timing and pacing, and the attendant patience, are the most important things I do. If I move too quickly, it doesn’t matter how insightful I am. Sometimes I know what I need to say to a family in the second visit, but I may not be able to say it until the fifth. Similarly, an author can’t get further ahead in the plot than the characters can manage.
After the first visit with Pamela and her family, I can tell that a nasty divorce, the father’s remarriage and gradual withdrawal from his daughter, and the bitterness of the mother left handling everything by herself are at the crux of their difficulties. But the family isn’t there yet. “How can we get her to stop doing these things?” Linda asks, plaintively. “I just don’t understand what she was thinking,” Frank says, shrugging his shoulders.
Alone with Pamela in the third visit, she confesses, “As soon as I did it with him, I knew it was a mistake.” When I ask how she knew, she says simply, “Because I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I won’t make that mistake again. It’s not worth it.” I believe her. Despite this incident, Pamela has a good head on her shoulders. She’s managed to avoid pot and alcohol, despite her friends’ urging. She has plans. She wants to become a veterinarian. When I ask if her parents know any of this, she twirls the bracelets on her left wrist and huffs, “They don’t have time.”
The time seems right, so I ask. “What was that all about?” She glances at me and then looks away. “I don’t know. Y’know, my dad got married and he’s all lovey-dovey with her, and my mother’s angry all the time and just yells at me when she’s not trying to go out on dates herself. I mean, I’m just there. Nothing seems to matter, so I thought, ‘What the hell?’”
To most adults, this comment is a classic example of “attention seeking,” the catchall dismissal for the confusing behavior of distressed teens. While there’s some truth to this, I see something more complex in Pamela’s desire to be seen. I know because I’ve asked “What the hell?” myself more times than I want to admit. In fact, it’s the question one should ask under certain circumstances, as in Pamela’s case. When you feel invisible to those you love, when you feel that nothing matters and you’re “just there,” the obvious question is “What the hell?” If you don’t get a good answer, then it’s no longer a question, but an answer. Without realizing it, Pamela is a budding existentialist trying to figure out what it means to be here in the world when the pillars that have held her up are no longer there.