The allure of ambiguity
Back in the ‘50s, I left my West County farm boy life behind in the gently rolling countryside beyond Sebastopol, and came into town to enroll at Santa Rosa Junior College. I was fortunate enough to have Sidney Meller as my first semester English professor there, and over the following two years I was wise enough to take every class he taught after that.
Mr. Meller was a wise and good man, and the author of novels that enjoyed some recognition – although in my opinion not enough. He helped our young minds comprehend the immeasurable demands and nuances of the human condition found in literature, and opened his book-lined home to students wanting to learn to write. He cared deeply for poetry, and for the subtle poetic instincts that he inspired and nourished within each of us.
One spring afternoon, speaking on the differences between fiction and non-fiction, he remarked that in fiction the author could invent an ending where there is no ending. Then he paused and, looking out the window where green lawns reached beyond the nearby oaks, he said – almost under his breath – “I wish I had written more.” Then he seemed to catch himself, and dismissed class early. That night he died peacefully in his sleep.
The meaning of his soft, slightly rueful words has stayed with me half a century since, and more. As definite as our past may be, he helps me realize, what lies ahead can only be completed if we live completely as we go. Destiny is fan-shaped, spread out before us with its infinite unexplored possibilities. The path we walk upon lies entirely behind us, where we have been; what lies ahead is only a trackless landscape, in which every item is the hub of its own universe, upon which every other item turns in a complex dance, never colliding.
Mental health, they say, is the ability to endure an ambiguous life. In reaction to the allure of ambiguity there will always be the lure of decision, of coming to some final conclusion. There are several versions of a legend about Mozart – and sometimes other composers – being taunted by his children (or his wife, or a maid) by playing an incomplete, unresolved scale (do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti…) that would make him feel compelled to rush to the piano and complete: do! With bated breath, we must always wait for the other shoe to drop.
Sometimes we believe we have come upon a crisis in life, at a crossroads where we aren’t quite sure which direction to take. “I don’t know what to do” is our common complaint, implying that it is somehow wrong of us to not know what to do. We run the risk of making a decision under the influence of believing that we are already somehow wrong. But not knowing what to do is neither good nor bad – it’s simply true. The future must always be unknown.
We find ourselves looking in one direction, as far as the eye can see, until the road ahead rises and drops out of view, and then in the other direction, again as far as the eye will go until the road ahead turns, its curve blocking our view. Eventually we must choose, at best according to our deepest values. Then, if we look back, we will see that the road not taken never really existed after all – except as an imagined possibility. What lies back there instead is the place where we had paused to consider and choose our next step – neither a good choice nor a bad choice, but our choice.
As I wrote some time ago, the ideas of “good” and “bad” are really only training wheels that we may remove when we’ve found our own personal balance. This balance of thoughts and feelings can only be found deep within us, seeing things with curiosity rather than discomfort, and drilling down to know how we genuinely feel about them at our own fundamental center – not out there, in a world filled with the distraction of competing opinions.
Let’s not confuse ambiguity, being open to more than one interpretation, with ambivalence – having mixed feelings. Circumstances may seem ambiguous from time to time, but what seems unclear would best make us attentive rather than apprehensive. Although we may not be able to reach a final conclusion on the spot, we can continue on anyway – living completely as we go – not deciding what may be right or wrong, but recognizing what is simply true.
The poet Rilke said it well: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given 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.”