The Courage of Not Knowing

“It’s not a mystery, it’s only been two days since I brought this here! Something was not fixed correctly,” my husband, Chris insisted. The young bike shop employee was not convincing in his assessment that sometimes tires “mysteriously go flat” on their own. Sensing Chris’ unlikeliness to back down, the employee investigated further, discovering another broken part inside the rim, which had allowed the spokes on the wheel to pierce the inner tube. Relaying the story to me, Chris shared how he could feel a surge of emotion disproportionate to the occasion rising up inside of him, alerting him that there was much more at play in his reaction than the simple frustration of a flat tire.

We joke about one of his family sayings, heard often from his father, “There is no such thing as a mystery.” There must be an explanation, and that explanation includes finding out who is responsible, so they can be held accountable. For Chris, this set up the (often unconscious) requirement that someone else take the blame for his feelings of frustration, anger, and ultimately, powerlessness. We joke as a way of playfully reminding each other that we don’t have to carry on the patterns learned in childhood that don’t serve us well as adults.

I have plenty of my own patterns like this, we all do. I’ve felt my own disproportionate waves of emotion several times in the past month since beginning grad school. I’ve walked into unfamiliar classrooms and conversations, feeling anxious and exposed as I nervously scanned for welcoming faces, tried to remind myself I belong there.

“Why do you stand all alone, in a crowded room, tell me who is judging you?
Why not find the light deep inside, I know there’s one in you.
If it’s honesty you seek, you’re no different than me.
If it’s truth that you must know, well good luck on the road,
Cause life’s one big mystery.”
– “Life’s One Big Mystery”, The Head and The Heart

When I go back to the young, first half of life need for certainty and truth, something that will resolve the anxious tension rising up in me; I hear a family saying from my own childhood, “Janet is afraid of everything.”

This old fear that has me believing I am all alone, that I won’t be accepted, that there is something wrong with me.

I start to pull back, retreating alone to another crowded room, filled with memories and stories that confirm my truth, confirm that this was a foolish idea. However, I’ve spent enough time in this crowded room over the last few years, bringing care and comfort to my young self, that I more quickly recognize the emptiness of the relief promised by my retreat. I summon the courage to open the door, and step into the spaciousness of the unknown.

Richard Rohr says this a necessary part of our transformation in the second half of life, moving from an insistence on certainty to an embrace of mystery.

“When I can stand in mystery (not knowing and not needing to know and being dazzled by such freedom), when I don’t need to split, to hate, to dismiss, to compartmentalize what I cannot explain or understand, when I can radically accept that “I am what I am what I am,” then I am beginning to stand in divine freedom (Galatians 5:1). We do not know how to stand there on our own. Someone Else needs to sustain us in such a deep and spacious place.”

– Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations

There is something I can’t quite put words to about what I feel in the moments when I allow myself to be held by God in this spacious place of mystery. I bought myself a necklace with the word “courage” on it that I’ve been wearing a lot lately, to help me remember, not retreat. Running my fingers lightly over the letters grounds me, reminding me that there is rest for me in not knowing, because that space of mystery is where I am sustained by Someone Else, Someone who knows me, and has goodness for me.

Demanding truth, exhaustive explanations, and guaranteed safety will never allow us to know the freedom that comes from honestly saying “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”


Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.