I was recently reminded of a quote from Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke that encourages us to “live the questions” of life rather than to wait for the answers.
In a week sprinkled with serendipity, the idea of embracing ambiguity, of not knowing, reared its head at a time when I found myself standing at the crossroads.
Last week, I was delighted to interview Dr William Miller, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico in the United States and creator of a counselling approach called motivational interviewing (MI).
We discussed the process of change and the role of ambiguity, which some might think of as an obstacle or hindrance to change. In MI, ambiguity is seen as the first step towards change: a person might be in two minds but they’re also acknowledging the reality and possible need for change.
In MI, part of the process of facilitating change is known as “evoking” – guiding the client toward thinking about desired change from their perspective and why it’s important to them. While some therapists might try to persuade or convince, MI recognises this as an obstacle to change. Most of us understand this by the fact that we wouldn’t enjoy being coerced or outright told what to do, even if it is sound advice.
Days before my discussion with Prof Miller, I chanced upon Rilke’s famous quote on living our questions. The poet’s advice reads, “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.”
Like all good art, Rilke’s advice will hold different meanings for different readers. As someone who is typically at home with planning, strategising, and being able to spot problems coming, to me it’s a reminder that living fully in the present is more likely to lead to greater appreciation and life satisfaction.
The more time I spend trying to figure out the answers for what’s yet to come, the less present I am to what’s happening now. The future appears as a unknown; however, on closer reflection, the frightening thing is that I have no control over what’s to come. All I can do is try my best to live where I am, in the present.
Besides the fear, there can be a quiet excitement in not knowing. Anything can happen and there’s some personal choice, some degree of control in that process. There’s nothing like ambiguity to bring us out of automatic living.
This brings me to the third piece of serendipity: stumbling across a short talk by American philosopher neuroscientist Sam Harris called “The Last Time”. In it, he describes how we never know when will be the last time we’ll enjoy the people and things we take for granted. Though time rolls on and change is constant, we look at what we have and believe it will last forever. When reality shows us differently, we’re often stunned into disbelief.
Harris’s talk wakes us up like a cold splash of water in the morning. He reminds us of truths we forget in the everyday busyness of life, where we easily dismiss who and what really matters for the sake of relative trivialities. When enough of those moments pass, life gifts us with a handful of “If only I had...” thoughts of regret.
There will come a day when a parent tucks their child into bed for the last time and not know it; there will be a final conversation with loved ones and friends with the usual promise of “see you soon”. There will be a final intimate moment or shared laughter in a relationship that ends.
Humans are masters at avoiding hard truths. We do this because, frankly, the reality of life is too painful to think about. And so we go on with the collective delusion that what we have, love and enjoy will forever be so because it’s easier.
Clinging to this comforting ideal stops us from cherishing moments and nurturing relationships. We miss people when they’re gone, wishing we had said more or connected more often. A quiet voice might respond, “You had the chance so many times”.
We all know nothing in life is certain, and this offers up two truths: very few outcomes can be known ahead of time, and there is tremendous opportunity and possibility in how we choose to live.
The time we have now is the only time we’re guaranteed. If we can stop and savour the blessings we enjoy when we have them, when change inevitably arises, the sense of gratitude will be deeper than the pain of regret that we weren’t fully present when we had the chance.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.