What’s So Scary About the Unknown?

One of my therapy clients said something so profound the other day it stopped me cold. He told me he’s “more comfortable with the familiarity of hell than the unfamiliarity of heaven.” We had been exploring existential themes such as purpose and how we, as humans, struggle so mightily with uncertainty.

My client’s assertion reminded me of a passage I had read in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open. She writes about coming to “a crossroads where the old ways of doing things are no longer working, but a better way lies somewhere at the far edge of the woods. We are afraid to step into those woods but even more afraid to turn back. To turn back is one kind of death; to go forward is another. The first kind of death ends in ashes; the second leads toward rebirth.”

And so, because we are afraid, we become stuck in neutral—treading water, running in place, stuck by the gum under our shoe that renders us immobile. We become content subsisting in purgatory. We avoid taking any sort of action whatsoever. Why? Because we fear the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain. Thus, we avoid these menacing bugaboos at all costs.

Instead, we thrive on sameness, repetition, and ritual. We crave certitude, even though it’s often a mirage fueled by wishful thinking. We live a life of vanilla in fear of adventure, exploration, and discovery. We know what we know, and we don’t want to know anything else.

We surround ourselves with those who have the same beliefs, thoughts, interests, and delusions. We sanction the voices that tell us what we want to hear. We refuse to stray from our cocoon of tedium. We’re afraid of intellectual curiosity—any kind of curiosity. We relish our cognitive default: the same conversations with the same people over and over again. Same church. Same restaurants. Same TV shows, movies, partisan news coverage, and propaganda. Ugh. How boring!

In her book, Ms. Lesser challenges readers to step outside themselves and do the hard things. “To face our shadow—the dragons and hags that we have spent a lifetime running away from—is perhaps the most difficult journey we will ever take. But it is there, in the shadows, that we retrieve our hidden parts, learn our lessons, and give birth to the wise and mature self.”

She’s right. But the journey is treacherous, to say the least, so many of us opt to stay right where we are. Even when the door is wide open, we’re afraid to walk through it for fear of what’s on the other side. We become cowering homebodies, hiding under the covers.

“It seems that human nature is such that we balk at changing until things get really bad and we’re so uncomfortable that we can no longer go on with business as usual,” writes Dr. Joe Dispenza in his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. “We wait for crisis, trauma, loss, disease, and tragedy before we get down to looking at who we are, what we are doing, how we are living, what we are feeling, and what we believe or know, in order to embrace true change.”

Yes, sometimes it takes a crisis—existential or punch-in-the-face, shit-hits-the-fan kind of cataclysm. We begrudgingly venture into Ms. Lesser’s metaphorical woods because there’s a forest fire nipping at our heels. We have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and move. But by then, it might be too late. We’ve settled for a shadow of the self we could have been—could still be. Instead, we’ve acquiesced to a false sense of safety disguised as control over our environment, thoughts, and feelings.

So, how can we summon the courage to embrace uncertainty and change, think deep thoughts, wander aimlessly, take risks, step outside ourselves, and discover new horizons? How can we find the door that provides an exit and safe passage from the suffocating box we‘ve been living in?

Maybe all we need to do is simply turn the knob, open the door, peer through the glass, and see what’s on the other side. Maybe it’s a simple clue. Maybe it’s an epiphany. Maybe it’s exactly what we feared it would be in the first place. But even if that’s the case, our effort is not in vain. At least then, we’ll know. The outside world will no longer be a mystery. We won’t have to keep living in fear of the unfamiliar, the unknown, the uncertain.

The author, Henri Nouwen, writes, “Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown.” Can we accept that some questions have no answers and that no earthly being can predict the future? Not even NFL pregame analysts, try as they might.

Certainty. Indeed! It was Benjamin Franklin who told us everything we need to know about certainty: “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” So maybe we would be well-served just to pay our damn taxes and get a little more comfortable sitting in the queasy messiness of uncertainty—until death do us part.

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