I don’t know. For many years I was uncomfortable admitting that. I thought if I didn’t know, I needed to find out, if not for me than for my children. Surely, there always must be a way to find out. There is always an answer to every question, a solution to every problem, isn’t there?
There are, of course, the really BIG questions. What am I meant to do with my life? Why am I here? Is there a god? Why does he/she let bad things happen to good people? These are the questions that thoughtful, intelligent people will spend their entire lives trying to answer.
Then there are the smaller, but just as important, questions that seem to, at least, have the possibility of being answered. First there are the personal questions we ask ourselves. What career path should I choose? Why doesn’t he/she love me anymore? Did I do something to deserve this? What do I do with my life now? Then there are the questions that the children in our lives ask us. Why did grandpa have to die? Why do people get divorced? Why don’t we have enough money to do that? Why didn’t Daddy come to visit when he promised?
When children are young and start asking these questions adults often feel compelled to always provide an answer. This answer may be based on our own belief system or on the answers our parents provided us with. The answers are most always based on the child’s ability to understand the answer. “Is Santa real?” and “where do babies come from?” are two questions we usually answer differently based on the child’s age and maturity level.
The hardest question I ever had to field from one of my children came when my middle daughter was in second grade. She had a little friend named Abby. Abby’s grandmother died. However, Abby’s grandmother did not die at a ripe old age surrounded by loving family and friends. Abby’s grandmother was brutally attacked, beaten and murdered while still young and healthy. It was all over the news. Everywhere we went people were talking about it. There was no way to shield anyone from it, not even a little girl in second grade. I’ll never forget it. “Mommy, why would anyone want to hurt Abby’s grandma?” my daughter asked.
I didn’t know.
For the first time I begin to worry there would be more of these questions I could not answer. Not only questions I didn’t have the answer to but questions I feared no one had the answer to. I didn’t know, I didn’t even know who to ask and I didn’t know what to say. So I said simply “I don’t know honey, I’m sorry, I just don’t know.” It was a scary time for both of us. We talked about how sad it was and I did what I could to comfort her in spite of my own fear but somehow I felt I had failed her.
Most often, we see people in situations like this desperately trying to make life’s unexplainable moments fit into the rules someone else gave them. Too often, those rules involve a very strict standard of religion. When the answer can’t be found in the “rule book” it is chalked up to God’s will or Karma or some other blanket way of trying to answer an unanswerable question. While living a strict, black and white faith may be very comforting to some, I found it even more frustrating than not having answers. The rules were too complicated and nearly impossible to follow. I could never make it make sense to me in today’s complicated world. The round peg doesn’t fit in the square hole and stop trying to tell me it is supposed to! I just couldn’t live a satisfying life in constant fear of punishment from some deity over every little thought and deed. Religion can’t be about hate and punishment. The same God responsible for the beauty of a new born child would never later hate that child for being who he or she was born to be. I just refuse to believe that. I don’t even get it when you try to point it out to me in your rulebook.
Life is not black and white. There is no one perfect set of rules. There is no one religion no one faith no one lifestyle that has all the answers and everything will finally make sense if you just find it. Life is grey. The rules are sometimes conditional, the outcome unclear. For me, this conclusion was freeing. We are human. We make mistakes. We do our best. No matter how rocky the path, no matter how many times we lose our way, if our intentions are pure, if we don’t give up, if we have faith in love and in each other, our outcome will be the right one for us.
As years have passed, I’ve come to realize that one of the most useful things we can say to our children may be “I don’t know.” It gives them the opportunity to see their parents as human. It is dangerous to portray to your children that you are all-knowing and flawless. It will be devastatingly disappointing when they eventually discover the truth. It also sets them on a path of trying to become flawless themselves. None of us should have to feel the pressure of trying to live up to something so impossible.
However, saying “I don’t know” should never end with a period. It should always be followed by “but I am willing to listen” or “I am willing to learn” or even “let’s try to find out together.” Saying “I don’t know” gives them the opportunity to go out and find the answers for themselves. The freedom to keep asking questions, the willingness to listen to all possible answers and the unexpected joy of the paths those questions lead us down are gifts we give our children. They are gifts far more valuable than any answer we could hand them. How arrogant it would be for us to assume that the answers we discovered would fit everyone! No one else’s answers will fit all of my questions, all of my circumstances! No one else’s truth can be entirely my own.
Now, in my forties, I find myself answering a whole set of questions I never expected at this age. Is there life after divorce, again? Is true love even possible? Can I stop worrying about my adult children long enough to enjoy my own life? Will I be able to handle the workload of earning another college degree while also working full time? Can I have a viable financial future when I’ve given up home ownership for apartment life and I don’t even have a 401K? Does doing the RIGHT thing eventually pay off? Is God watching all this crap and why hasn’t he/she intervened?
If I find out any answers to these I’ll let you know. But then again, those same answers may not work for you! Stay tuned.