A state of unknowing

A juncture is a space of unkowing laden with opportunity.

A juncture is a space of unkowing laden with opportunity.

So, what do you do then?

This is a question that often crops up in those perfunctory small-talk conversations that you are either forced or cajoled into by societal norms. Right now, I am struggling with my response, and London is not the kind of place where people want to hear that you simply don’t know.

Before I went travelling in the Americas, I had a strong sense of identity. I was studying a master’s in Human Rights at a prestigious university; I was heavily involved in political activism, and was respected for my contribution to the international solidarity movement’s efforts to delegitimise the racist state of Israel. I had purpose, I had direction and I had passion for a cause. I had a home, a fat cat that snored at the end of my bed, a wardrobe, a personal trainer and the semblance of a fairly stable life in London.

In a post-2008 world, in which employment opportunities were scarce, I decided that I would throw caution to the wind, and leave England as soon as I had submitted my final thesis. I would step into the unknown. My aims were high, and perhaps impossible. I set off with a bag laden with literature, a few items of clothing, a Frisbee and a head full of questions.

Throughout the year in which I had the privilege to explore some of the world’s most stunning places, I was rarely able to engage on a very deep and meaningful level with the people I met about what I was actually doing, even though I was studying Spanish and Portuguese whilst travelling.  I sought to avoid staying in hostels and guesthouses with other travellers, who primarily spoke English. I was aiming for a more authentic experience, whatever that means. This meant me fumbling around in broken syntax and a lot of gesticulation, laughter and confusion. Of course, when I did speak with people that had had access to a decent education and spoke some English, discussions about my unemployed status often arose. I would reply confidently that I was de-politicising for a little while, so as to reconnect with the beauty and potentiality of humanity to be kind. I’d spent so many years absorbed in literature that described how horrendous the world is, and how rapacious, and exploitative people were. It was a healthy and revitalising period for me in which I would try and start from a position of love, patience and understanding, rather than a deep sense of unease.

On Baru Island, my faith in humanity was restored.

On Baru Island, my faith in humanity was restored.

During this time, I dramatically cut down on the amount of dark material I engaged with. I fiddled with my social networking sites so that I stopped being bombarded with stories of death and destruction. And one evening as the sun snuck away to illuminate someone else’s day, I felt that connection with humanity again. This realisation, coupled with an acceptance that I was not suited to a career in the documentation of the casualties of violence, whether structural or direct, opened up a world of possibilities. I could do human rights without having a nervous break down. I could do human rights, social justice, emancipatory work, whatever you choose to call it, without being enveloped in sadness and frustration. This was a huge awakening for me.

I always knew that when I came back to London to work out the next phase of my life, that it would be challenging. At first, I found myself projecting different realities onto people.

She’s so sorted. She’s bought a house. He’s got a career. They are getting married. They all know exactly what they want, where they are going in life. They have a strong sense of direction.

Of course, this is extremely far from the truth, but my internal voice kept shouting these falsities at me. When I got to London, my fears around being asked the question, so what are you doing, grew. Surely at 35 you should have a job, partner, home and sense of direction. London is a city of knowing. It is a city of, I work here, and I do this. There seems like little space for uncertainty, transition and junctures.

Rather than cower, I respond with confidence that I have no idea where I want to live, or what I want to do. I am in a state of unknowing.

Get involved in the fascinating discussion below in the comments section.

34 thoughts on “A state of unknowing

  1. I remember reading this a while ago and feeling peace because I could really relate and felt I was one of the few people who felt like this, so thank you for writing and sharing this with us. 🙂 Beautiful post again. You are such a strong person from what I know of you, and it is inspiration that your perseverance and search continues to shed light on life (and this little bubble we call existence) for yourself and others. Xxx

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    • I’m so glad you could relate! It’s been an interesting, insightful space, and one in which I wonder if I may always be in, but find new ways to perceive it. I’ve definitely come to appreciate the concept that there are no constants in life, and happiness, stability and security should be seen as in states of fluctuation, and aren’t an end goal, but rather ones that appear to us when we have found the space and peace within ourselves to see it. Does that make sense?

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  2. ‘The most creative and beautiful minds I have known are incredibly unstable in some way. The more stable or wired people are, the more prosaic they tend to be’

    Never a truer word spoken, in my opinion, and if I may be so bold as to remark, dear friend Rob. I believe a mind cannot be beautiful – different from, in contrast with, tedium and banality – without something radically different happening to influence its evolution. Genius and madwoman, constructed from words and pain. It seems to me, the less love we get as kids, the more aberrant we are from those who do get it. Increasingly, I think a greater proportion of the world’s children are raised with insufficient love, and little understanding of the role love plays in nurturing to stability. Ironically, being loved may make us dull 🙂 Every genius and madwoman I’ve ever read about was raised badly – razed, if you like. Normally abused/neglected (same thing). Piggies in the middle – badly enough raised but not too badly razed – like me, or you, Rob, outcast in so many ways, mainly by our minds.

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  3. Certainty is its own form of tyranny. Discuss.

    I liked this post. It is disarmingly honest, and the voice that comes through is compelling because it is open, inquisitive, learning and honest.

    Thoughts that struck me… from differently formed life choices….

    Marriage exists as a contractual arrangement to ensure that the development of children occurs in as low risk way as it can. It is also ‘an optimal’ way of planning finance, housing etc, which is actually all about creating and servicing financial products for the service industries in order that they can create surpluses. Marriage as contracted certainty in the bedroom was first articulated by some bloke called Kant. The views of Mrs Kant are not recorded for history…

    In terms of career certainty, my impression is that you have certainty in what is described as uncertainty or unknowing. Your values, drive your activity. That activity is your vocation. But that vocation is fluid in the sense of the boundaries it operates within. Opting out of the mainstream strikes me as a value-neutral choice, rather than one burdened by the insecurities of others. By which I mean…. would I choose your path? If money was no object I might choose my interpretation of it (it wouldn’t be as positive or humanitarian as yours, sadly), but without the certainty of money it would scare me (and others). There is also comfort within routine, and routines drive their own internal knowledges and debates… A bloke called Marx called it false consciousness. the views of Mrs Marx – predictably – were not recorded for history.

    Life is one long transition, and a particular sort of transition is part of your vocation. Looks good even from the cynical wing of the commentariat.

    (completely off-piste – there is a university ‘world cafe’ event on post-conflict areas, being run by a very progressive colleague of mine. i’d be happy to get the travel for you to come if it were of interest. if it is, email me – the address is easily googleable).

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    • Rob, thank you so much for your insights. I like the opening setence, and would love to hear people’s responses to certainty being a potential form of tyranny.

      Many things you said struck a chord, in particular the idea of security, for that is what I am searching for, as it seems are many of my friends and the people that respond to these kind of posts. What I am coming to terms with though is that this so-called state of security is very much a state of mind, aided of course perhaps by a stable financial situation, and is open to fluctuation and change every second of every day. I think perhaps what I may be seeking, in its permemance, is impossible. Without divulging too much, and like many others, my life cannot be characterised by a feeling of security. A nourished yet unconventional unstable childhood, death, accidents, and a lot more that I don’t care to share in such a manner, have imprinted the impermenance and fragility of life and left me in a perpetual state of fight or flight. I am now coming to accept that perhaps this so-called state of security, is unattainable, which both reassures and unnerves me at the same time.

      As it stands, weeks after writing that post, I am still just as lost as ever. The comfort of routine, as you mentioned, is sorely lacking. And fortunately, or unfortunately, I don’t feel a financial pressure to make a decision any time soon. However, with confidence levels plummeting to a dangerously low-level, it may be time to start applying for everything and anything now, just to get out there, so to speak.

      Regarding the world cafe event, yes please! I will email you!!

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      • I don’t want to reply in undue haste.. but my own irrelevant flight or fright from writing a conference presentation has meant you’ve found your way to the top of the list! I know some of that history, particularly those pertaining to that wretched road we both lived near. But when I say what I’m going to say, please don’t interpret it as having come from a position of stable-state or resolution.

        So, I teach security. And I teach it from a different perspective and approach each week. My concluding lecture is always a demolition of the previous 9weeks in totality. The basic argument is that there is no such thing as security studies because no-one can define security. They can tell you what insecurity means and feels like, and security is not simply the mirror opposite of it. Much like we cannot define ‘sane’, we can merely define or characterise what we think is ‘insane’ and poke away at anyone and you’ll find elements of the ‘insane’ even if the headline is one of sanity. So, having said it cannot be defined, I think there are clearly some facets of personal security that we can highlight to help. Again it’s analogous: I’m sure you’ve read Zizek’s ‘on violence'(?), if you haven’t, you should. He talks of objective and subjective violence. Subjective violence is being beaten up – a physical assault, a ‘terrorist attack’ and this is what we obsess on. Objective violence is structural control – be it economic or political. It is the more important. So, following that on ‘subjective’ security is finance, housing, not being in an abusive or problematic relationship etc, whilst ‘objective’ security would be whether you feel that you are in the mental, physical or life space you want to be in. (the ringer is that the terms should be flipped to really make sense there… but following the analogy).

        I am clearly in analogy mode… the other thing I wanted to say is not well formed. Military aircraft ‘fly-by-wire’, that is they are not stable objects and without their electronic avionic systems they fall out of the sky. Because they are unstable objects they are able to maneuver in extraordinary ways. I think people are the same. The most creative and beautiful minds I have known are incredibly unstable in some way. The more stable or wired people are, the more prosaic they tend to be. I think I have been both, and I transitioned into the latter. Being ‘fly-by-wire’ comes at a high price regarding energy and effort. Being able to step back and be nice to oneself is hard. But often essential.

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        • I have read Zizeks’ work on violence, as well as other schools of thought in the same field, such as Galtung. In fact, I wrote a disastruous essay on the question of what is violence. It was a deeply unpleasant experience as I didn’t have the confidence to say what I wanted to say, which was nothing ground breaking by the way! I find the analogy for security very useful, and I’ve been thinking about it and talking about it since this morning! So thank you for providing another paradigm in which to understand security. What I’d love now, would be a Buddhist, or Taoist, or more so-called Eastern understanding, interspliced with everything I have learnt from those that have responded to this post, and that have been patient and talked to me about their understanding of security. I don’t ask much do I?!!

          As for stepping back and being nice to onself, that is another life-long battle, in which I seem to be winning the odd minor scuffle here or there. Not to bring the tone down, but I think losing my mum in the manner in which she died has had a huge effect on my ability to be kind to myself. So much of that validation is sought through our parents, especially the mother. But now, we are delving into the world of psychology, of which I am fairly illiterate!

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          • Hello activist abroad. I’m a colleague of Rob’s. I don’t know you at all, although Rob has said you might be interested in a conference I’m organizing for 25 April. I was touched by the way you talked about being (un)kind to yourself. My limited understanding (from my own experiences, mostly) about self-cruelty is that it derives from assumptions we make regarding the nature of the relationship between us and those tasked with caring. I started a novel about but flagged :). The long and the short of it, after 4 years in NHS therapy (God save the NHS!), was that I was unspeakably, violently cruel to myself (indirectly and directly; I think Zizek nicked Galtung’s definition and remodeled it :)) because I blamed myself (as a child always does) for my mother’s lack of care, compassion, contact and anything even remotely resembling love beyond the technical (how to butter toast and write a cheque). My psychotherapist told me this is the norm for children; to assume it is our fault our parents are crap and correspondingly blame ourselves for the remainder of our lives for it. I think the deepest guilt comes from the earliest experiences. It may or not be the case for you. Take care 🙂

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            • Hi David. I have been holding back from replying to your comments, as it’s the weekend and my sister’s here to stay, so I’ve been distracted. In fact, it’s mainly because your comments are so poetic, poignant and considerate that I have been a little lost for words as to what to say. For now, I will just say thank you, sincerely.

              Regarding the conference, I am definitely very keen to attend. I actually have a job interview on Tuesday, so I won’t be able to say for sure until then. Can you give me some details please? I am intrigued!

              I will respond to your thoughts soon. I hope you are having a lovely weekend.

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  4. Ten years ago I knew what I wanted, and how I was getting there. Then on the way I discovered I was wrong. Now I’m proud of how my path has evolved, with no regrets that my route was indirect. Seems like you know where you’re headed too, and this part doesn’t have a tagline job title, but it’s You just growing You. Remember to let everything you give yourself to feed you back though – absorbing reality takes so much energy and emotion, but every snippet you share is a good deed done, so feel good about yourself for bothering. And also, people only need to address decisions and directions when they’re already going places, but stillness and reflection on an awesome journey is important for appreciating where you’ve come from Xx

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    • Your response reads like a poem. Thanks for taking the time to share your beautiful insights. I really feel a great deal less alone in this state of unknowing after writing the post. Thank you.

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  5. You’re one Brave Lady! Not just because you set off into the unknown on your own but because you’re honest. Your writing has evolved into a clear narrative of where you’ve come from and where you are going. There is nothing to do, you are doing it & we love hearing about it! Please keep writing, it eases my deep sense of unease.

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    • Ah, thanks so much Caroline. That means a great deal to me, seriously. I am so gutted we didn’t get to meet up when I was in Mexico the last time. Like I said, Yasmina and I really think of you as a sister from another mister!
      I will absolutely keep writing. It is so cathartic. Have you ever thought about writing too? xx

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  6. Layla, great read and really feel what you are saying… I remember that feeling, that struggle and the times of elation when the world opens up and you know you are going in a magical right direction. Try not to get lost in the deepness, if there are too many questions sometimes it clouds the mind and brings you down. When I feel like this I just push all those questions to the back of my mind and pretend like they arent there and just live in a free space for a bit and magically things start to right themselves and present themselves… I dont know I dont have the answers as everybodies are different.
    Travelling is the most amazing gift that opens you up to so much that sometimes cant always happen how you think it will. As for being settled and having direction-bollox to that! I didnt choose to be settled and have children, it found me, and believe me I struggle with being settled often! Dont get me wrong, I love my family to the upmost and wouldnt change a thing, but the bird in me is trying to figure out how we can all take flight now which is a lot harder to figure out!
    Anyway enough of my bleating and spilling my own gumf, my point is, kick back, and push things out of your mind, your on the right track and IT will find you at some point when you are ready.
    I love london, its like the world of countries condensed into one. .. for everywhere I have been it was london that finally stole my heart.
    Good luck and keep writing-you have an amazing talent!!! X

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    • I love the idea of magic openings. So beautifully put.
      As for getting lost in the deep, it is difficult not to, especially when you are very analytical and contemplative like I am. But, I will try!
      I can also very much relate to It finding me. In some senses, I am fatalistic, and believe that if you put good things out into the universe, that they come back to you, in some shape or form. I guess I am just putting a lot of pressure on myself to know. Do we ever know? Is everything impermenant? If it is, there is no such thing as security, and knowing, as life constantly evolves. Right, I am going off on tangents now! xx

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      • Haha, you are funny! Your mind is so open and searching that you roll into questions and question everything…
        Lets flip it on its head.. there is no IT as it were, there is only you and when you are ready… you may well end up doing a full circle and feelig completed in or at somewhere you started-you were just not ready at the time. Live your life and live in the now… if you are happy-enjoy it, if you are not then change it. Only thing to be aware of is when you have been moving so much, staying sill is very hard! I think its like you said… your in a state of unknowing, and right now thats where you need to be. Enjoy it and let it go a little. X

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  7. La this was such a good read.. didn’t want it to end….. .. you know how i felt when i went back, what i realised is you have to just keep in focus what you want, and where you want to be, and be present each day reminding yourself, positively manifesting it every day religiously.

    In London I rot away. The city consumes me. I can’t remain there, the love and the hate for the place is too extreme. I needed to find my balance, which I knew was out there waiting for me. You too will find it, maybe you do need to leave again and not get seduced by the comforts of the familiar, but you will know when it comes, and never judge yourself against others, everyone has their own path.
    I was always told that the most interesting people are the one’s who at 50 still didn’t know what they want to do or be, so keep exploring, enjoying life and never get stagnant.

    don’t grow moss till your ready babe. LET THE GOOD TIMES KEEP ROLLIN’! XX

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    • I have tears rolling down my cheeks reading this. I don’t know why, but yesterday was a bit tough, as was last week actually. I keep feeling lost, and like I need to know what I want now, right now. I do think things will and are falling into place. It’s just sometimes, when things are in such transition and everything is up for decision, it is so hard to feel settled and confident in yourself.

      I can relate to the love/hate relationship with London. But, for now, what it represents is a small space of stability, whilst I work out my thoughts. I began by picking up on the high levels of aggression here, and focusing on that, as if that would help me to decide which country I would move to. Now, I am just embracing it, while I can. And who knows, if something amazing lies around the corner for me, it may very make me want to stay.

      Thank you for reminding me of the power of positive manifestation Juni. I will absolutely include that in my day now, and think of you too.

      As for people in their fifties who don’t know what theyre doing being the most interesting, this fits in perfect with this incredible song Nat played me a few mornings ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI Check it out, as that exact line comes in, but just forty year olds!!!

      xxx

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  8. What I wanted to say about this was the following: the fact that you are searching (proactively), and are asking these questions, it itself a gift. You will not believe how many people (I call them the “unthinking majority” like System of a Down in their track [same title]) live without a second’s thought about where they’ve come from, where they are, and where they’re going. Count yourself blessed that you are journeying through life with an open heart and a contemplative mind. Of course, at times, it becomes draining, and one wishes ignorance would just envelope them (trust me I know the feeling). But when you find what you’re looking for which you will, you will find Eternal Peace (and nothing is more blissful than that). “Seek and ye shall find” xxx

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    • Eternal Peace, sounds like bliss. I definitely feel a little drained right now though. I have to keep reminding myself that this is all part of the process. Thanks for your kind words Yazz. You know they mean the world to me.

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  9. Fantastic… love the expression “Dark Material” thanks for posting really enjoyed this … inspiring and remember “all those who wonder are not lost…” (ps 49 and still unknowing…. don’t know if that helps or scares…)

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    • Many thanks for your kind words. I love the quote you mentioned! As for whether it is reassuring that at 49 you still don’t know, it kind of confirms my understanding that life is a continual process of evolving and learning and so in that sense an inquistive mind may always be in a state of unknowing!

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    • Thanks Dad. I will stick around in England for a few months and then make a decision. I was meant to be in Brazil now, spending six months there to see if I could live there. But, then life happens, and things change.

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