Monthly Archives: January 2016

Embracing Mystery

We are, Sartre told us, doomed to be free. “Essence precedes existence”, which is to say there is no essence of human calling us to be human. No other animal has such freedom. If a wolf ignored the essence of wolf and tried to live as a haddock, he would soon die. A haddock trying to live even as a different fish would be doomed. But we humans have a huge range of choices on how to live. Anyone who finds freedom on this scale unbearable has an easy way out: just sign up for the voluntary slavery offered by any religion. Hand your unwanted freedom the men in funny hats (and it nearly always is a man).

With unanswerable questions, I can see two obvious choices but I’m going to recommend the third. The obvious choice with difficult questions is to rely on the men in funny hats again, a popular option for religious people. Not only can they be relied upon to answer the unanswerable, many will even insist on obviously incorrect answers and perhaps stone you to death if you disagree. The second option, typically chosen by atheists, is to ignore unanswerable questions, deny they exist or insist asking them is futile and absurd. This may leave some atheists looking rather cold, having intellect but little emotion about them.

I’d like to recommend a third option: embrace Mystery, even come to love it. Ask the impossible questions. Embrace the beauty of the questions and embrace the Mystery of not knowing the answers. If you find the knowledge that your questions will never be satisfactorily answered, acknowledge the fear, embrace it and live with it. If you genuinely believe a question to be worth asking and yet unanswerable, is it not wiser to embrace Mystery than to pretend to know the answer?

What is love for? I don’t know. Are there different kinds of love, or are they all variations of the same experience? I don’t know. What happens to me after I die? Probably nothing, but I’m not sure. Is there a god? Unlikely, but I can’t be certain. What is the purpose of life? I don’t even know that it has a purpose. Do I have a soul? Probably not, but I can’t be sure. Is there intelligent life on other planets? I don’t know, and if there is, they could be so far away we would never meet them or even know they exist.

Training & practice: reaping the rewards

I noticed something rather lovely on Monday, something that’s been building for several years. I’m effortlessly happy, even in challenging situations. I was happy while waiting to see a vascular consultant about an ancient leg injury that’s limiting my mobility at the moment. A few years ago, I might have been resentful of the time waiting to see the consultant and the probable many months wait for surgery to improve my ruined knee. On Monday, without making any conscious effort, I noticed how kind the nurses were, how amazing the medical technology is compared to what was around when I injured my leg in 1977. The delight was easy and genuine. It’s the result, I think, of several years training and practice in several areas including NVC, Positive Psychology and mindfulness.

Last year, I completed an on-line Positive Psychology training course with Dr Chris Johnstone and Miriam Akhtar. The practices I learnt on the course were valuable, simple to use ideas like optimism, daily gratitude and savouring. I practice most days and they’ve become habit. It might seem that pessimists are most realistic and least likely to be disappointed, but evidence based studies have shown that optimists tend to be happier. Just so long as over-optimism doesn’t lead to extra risky behaviour or repeatedly attempting failed strategies.