“I just wish someone would tell me like, ‘This is how the rest of your life should look.’” This line from the hit series “Girls” is a ridiculously relatable sentiment when you are a twenty-something trying to figure out exactly what it is you want to do post-graduation. There are the lucky few who knew that they wanted to be a veterinarian or a journalist since they were 10 years old. But for the rest of us… let’s just say to use the word “daunting” would be euphemistic. Particularly second semester when the job clock is ticking away and questions from relatives and family friends range from, “So what are you going to do with your fabulous educations?” and, uh well, that’s about it. It becomes even more frustrating when you understand how privileged you are for the opportunities Duke has opened up for you, while still not being able to figure out exactly what it is you intend to do with all that potential supposedly sitting in your back pocket.
To me, this all has to do with a fear of uncertainty. For many, our type-A personalities make us cling to structure and plan for the sake of having a plan. Some examples—breaking up with a significant other because you don’t know where things are going, applying to grad school without really knowing if it’s what you want because it provides a set path, generally making decisions before they truly need to be made. We are so scared of unknowns that we steer clear of it in its entirety without recognizing all the possibilities it has to offer.
Unknowns are like missing puzzle pieces—without them we don’t have the full picture. And, yes, there are times when we are going to have to make decisions without the full picture, but there are also times when we prematurely make decisions before we need to because the mere presence of these unknowns freak us out. In these moments, we need to stop and ask ourselves why we are making certain decisions and plans before we act upon them, particularly those where rash decisions lead to permanent consequences. If we don’t, our comfort zones will lead us to implement ill-fated solutions that do nothing but narrow our perspective by applying blinders that remove unknowns and alternative options from our purview.
For those who have been able to relate to this article up to this point, I offer you a New Year’s resolution—live the questions. This concept comes from Rainer Maria Rilke, author of Letters to A Young Poet. He writes, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to 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.” Take in those words for a moment.
For me, these words offer three forms of encouragement. The first is to turn our fear of the unknown into a curiosity about it. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, but just because something makes us uncomfortable does not necessarily mean it is bad for us. If we had all the answers, there would have nothing to get excited about, nothing to grow into, nothing to stay up at night wondering about. There would be nothing left to explore if we could already see the whole picture—if we already knew what the rest of our life was going to look like. There is so much joy to be had in figuring out who you are and in becoming the person you want to become as a means, rather than a means to an end. Once I realized that, I realized that instead of fretting over not knowing, I should actually be rejoicing at the space I have yet to stretch into.
The second encouragement I get from Rilke’s words is to trust our inner voices to lead us because personal experiences create non-transferable knowledge. There are some things we cannot just take someone else’s word for—we need to have felt it and to know it in an incarnate way. It needs to be our own. Sometimes that means walking into a mistake even if you know it is a mistake. Ultimately, trust your internal compass—it may not always create the straightest path to where you want to go, but it will keep you headed in the right direction.
The third and final encouragement I receive from this piece is to pay less heed to time. As author Courtney E. Martin wrote, “Forget the clock and take your compass because the direction you are headed in is more important than the time it takes to get there.” Often I feel we look over our shoulders at all the overachievers around us and come to the conclusion that everyone has things figured out, while we are left sitting in the dust. In reality, most people are still struggling to figure things out. Rushing ourselves to make a decision or come up with a comprehensive plan would only force us to unnecessarily narrow our options due to—you guessed it—fear of uncertainty.
It is okay not to entirely know. Sometimes, most times, that is kind of the point. Regardless of the mysteries ahead, the one thing you can always trust is that you will be you. And if you listen to that inner voice and allow it to speak over the anxieties and fears that sometimes bottle it up, that is when you know you are doing what is right for you.
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. Follow her tumblr http://thetwenty-something.tumblr.com.