Talking to Chijindu Emereole about why I don’t want my work in the “African Literature” section of the bookstore.
The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that it’s okay to be uncertain.
We approach the unknown with dread so thick and viscous that we are terrified we will suffocate in its grip. We can handle a lot. Pain and suffering? Bring it on. But doubt is the quiet scratching in the dark that threatens to unravel us completely. We can’t let it in. We can’t even turn around to look at it. So we hide behind layers and layers and layers of “Yes, damn it, I’m sure!”
We’re not just afraid of not knowing. We’re afraid of being wrong. Countless times I have listened to the words coming out of my mouth, knowing that they made no sense, that I was about to drive myself off a cliff, but I kept on going. Even though I knew I was wrong, I had to pretend to be right until the very end. God forbid I confessed that I had no clue what I was talking about, that I was being a stubborn pain in the butt, that there was a painful pulsing heat inside me that said if I was wrong I would die. But I was wrong, and I’m still here.
The desire for certainty is so deeply ingrained in us that we apply it even to the most idiotic things, things that are so clearly subjective that there can be no “right” answer. Yes, I am POSITIVE that this is the worst album of this artist’s career, and OHMYGOD how can you possibly think otherwise you are a lunatic and we are no longer friends.
As kids we are expected to have a rough idea of our future careers. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, actress and scientist, with superpowers. That didn’t work out for me. As teenagers we are expected to decide our path, and then follow it. No one seems to grasp the sheer absurdity of this. At 16 the most vital question in my life was whether my crush noticed me, and a year later I was supposed to be able to map out the next fifty years. How, when even people over fifty are still figuring it out?
We think certainty will save us from uncertainty, but it won’t. Our certainty changes nothing. The only thing we can truly be sure of is that we will survive whatever life throws at us, and then one day we won’t. In the meantime we’ll keep waking up to another day, another opportunity. As long as we’re conscious, we can make choices. We might not be able to change circumstances, but we can change ourselves. That is pretty extraordinary, and yet it’s not enough.
We want be certain that the person we love is “The One”, whatever that means, and that our love will last forever. But we don’t know what will happen next week, let alone a few decades down the line. All we know is that right now this is what we want more than anything. Right now we’re in it 100%; beyond that all we can do is try. And that’s okay.
We want to be sure that the people we spend our time with will be buried beside us. But maybe we’re not Best Friends Forever. Maybe we have different friends at different stages in our lives. And that’s okay.
We want to be certain that the job we’ve picked is the one we really want. But maybe we need to explore, take chances, try things out. We can change our minds, and that’s okay, too.
When people ask whether I’m sure about something, I panic. I second-guess myself, because of course I’m not sure. I have no idea how I’ll feel down the line. I now realise that there’s no shame in admitting that. There’s no shame in going back and forth, trying to make the best choice. There’s no shame in saying, “At the time I was convinced this was the right thing to do, but now I feel differently.” There’s no shame in admitting how afraid we are of screwing up and how often we feign certainty to save face. Nobody likes a person who “flip-flops”. We’re expected to stay the same, like mannequins in shop displays. But you can’t grow without changing.
When it comes to the big issues – our principles, our spirituality (or lack thereof), our ethics – the mere thought of doubt is anathema. We HAVE to know. We HAVE to be certain, because if we’re not certain of the things that give our lives meaning, the things that govern us, then what is there? What foundation do we have? The answer? None. But instead of fleeing the terror that comes with that, let’s just sit with it for a minute. Let’s wait and we see what comes next.
Because here is the secret, the thing we don’t discuss about doubt: until we reach that place of not-knowing, admitting that we have no clue what we’re doing, we can never experience genuine surrender. And faith, regardless of what form it takes, is all about surrender. There is an arrogance that comes with certainty, a desperate clinging to the notion that we, with our small, subjective, utterly limited perspectives, can even begin to understand any aspect of this complex puzzle called life, let alone know anything for sure. We think. We hope. We believe. But we don’t know a damn thing. And guess what? That’s okay.
Doubt is fundamental to a healthy existence. It is the foundation on which faith is built. It is not weakness, but the beginning of strength. It seems counter-intuitive, but doubt requires us to let go of all we cling to, all forms of protection. It’s jumping without a parachute, with no clue what will happen when we land. If we land. Doubt demands the greatest act of faith of all – trusting that somehow, with no ground beneath our feet, no ropes tethering us and no safety net, we will still be okay. It’s only after we move through that curtain that we can start believing again, for real this time, without fear. Because now we know that doubt is just part of the process. That place of groundlessness is home. We’ll come back to it as often as we need to, and leave it a little stronger each time.
This is what I believe, what I have learned, the result of my small, subjective, utterly limited perspective. I wish I could say I’m sure, but I’d be lying. What I will say is I’m as sure as I can be, for now. And that will have to be enough.
Tune in today to hear me and fellow author Cathy Bramley talk about the ups and downs of women’s fiction.