Life’s mysteries: Admit you don’t know

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By Bob Mueller

Sorting clothes and wondering what happened to my other sock is my cue to practice mystery. Passing a funeral home or a cemetery, I am reminded to contemplate mysteries. 

Whenever I hear someone apply a system of explanations for good fortune or illness, I vow to respect the complexity and mystery of life.

I have an abiding respect for the great mysteries of life – the profound distinctiveness of other souls, the strange beauty of nature and the animal world, the complexity of our inner selves, the unfathomable depths of the Inexplicable One. 

I cherish the baffling, curious, hidden and inscrutable dimensions of my existence and the world around me. Live with paradoxes. Give up the idea that you can always “get it.” Be suspicious of all of “-ologies” that try to explain everything, from astrology to psychology to theology. Whenever you are honestly stumped by the existence of evil, injustice, or suffering, resist the temptation to ask “Why?” And never be afraid to admit “I don’t know.”

Movies can transport us to a place where awe and wonder are the only appropriate responses to mysteries beyond our ken. One of the most impressive films of the modern era in this regard is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Roy Neary, a power repairman in Muncie, Indiana, has a series of close encounters with UFOs. As he tries to work out his feelings about these experiences, his life is completely upended. Alienated from his wife, who can’t understand what he is going through, Roy teams up with a widow who has also seen UFOs and is looking for her missing son. The third major figure in this thriller is Claude Lacombe, a French scientist who is leading an international investigation of UFOs.

This extraordinary film asks us to re-imagine the vastness of the universe and our small place within it. The drama affirms our impulse to believe in cosmic unity and downplays the idea of Earth chauvinism. The main message of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is this: Openness to the unknown is the best policy; there are surely many more mysteries to come.

One of the best ways to practice mystery is for adults to model accepting it in the home. This means that parents, grandparents and other significant figures in the lives of children make room for “not knowing” in their responses to difficult questions. Not everything can be answered or explained simply and quickly. Here are some common situations when “not knowing” would be appropriate. You see survivors of a natural disaster on TV expressing gratitude that their property was spared, while others lost everything, and a child wants to know who deserved what. One of your child’s friends, a parent or a pet dies, and your child wants to know why this happened. Somebody wins the lottery, and your child wants to know if it could happen to you.

When you work in a hospital, a hospice or a rehab center where you come face to face with suffering and death, you don’t try to make rational sense out of what you witness. The practice of mystery enhances our understanding of the complexity of reality. It is an affront to the modern need to have answers to every question and our tendency to create tidy systems with a cubbyhole for every problem and aspiration. Yes, the world is immersed in mystery and the most spiritual approach is to revel in the mystery of life rather than to analyze it. 


Bob Mueller is vice president of development for Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.