How What You Don’t Know Can Help You

Greet the edges of your understanding with awe, not angst.

Emily PG Erickson

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Tree along the Mississippi River in Minnesota with its first leaves in springtime
The first leaves of spring, by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

Growing up, on the second Sunday in May, you could usually find my family outside, planting flowers for my mom. On Mother’s Day last year, my husband, kids, and I stuffed our in-ground planters with seedlings: basil, mint, strawberries, and tiny tomatoes you can pop in your mouth come August. But when May rolled around this year, with the tulips still tucked under the earth, I wondered whether it would be safe to plant? How would I know?

I polled the parents at pick up. “After the final frost,” they said. But with an April that felt like a February, who knew when that would be?

The internet certainly didn’t. Official-looking sources confidently declared both April 20 and May 21 the last frost date in my part of Minnesota.

Then, with sudden, simultaneous certainty, the trees — whom I hadn’t thought to ask — announced that they knew. With chartreuse tips, they proclaimed: It’s time.

Not so long ago, this kind of thing would have made me itchy. If only I had framed the question more clearly. If only I had found the right sources. I could have prepared better. But honestly? So what?

Not knowing is glorious! How amazing it was that day when I first caught a flash of green out my window, then peered out to see the hue echoed on tree after tree after tree all the way down my street — a riot of color in a world that had been black and white for so long.

The ways of knowing that I’ve relied upon thus far — research, science, the sorts of answers one human can tell another — have their limits. The world is filled with magic. Unraveling its mystery is compelling, but so too is receiving it wholesale.

Pulling at strings, looking behind the curtain — these are all efforts to resolve uncertainty, that deeply uncomfortable state we humans so desperately aim to avoid. But what if, instead of mindlessly scrambling to conquer the frontiers of our knowledge, we occasionally practiced resting in our imperfect understanding. What if we made room for awe?

The American Psychological Association defines awe as:

The experience of admiration and elevation in…

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Emily PG Erickson

Former mental health researcher sharing insights about psychology and parenting. www.emilypgerickson.com