🪟 10 - Into the unknown
Frame & Axiom #10
Table of contents
Into the unknown
Please do take everything I write with a grain of salt. I have only had a little over a quarter of an average human lifespan to show for the soundness of my worldview. I know very little, relative to other writers, let alone the infinite multiplicity of all things.
Still, my inner voice tells me I must write of how I have made sense of the world, and so I heed it — armed with the little life experience I have, the ideas I have put to a hard test in that duration, and the magical tool of reason. Over time, I have managed myself many gifts of new framing, not unlike Seneca’s written counsels: “there are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly fired, have at any rate ceased to spread.”
But there is one more reason I am writing all of this.
It is this: People forget. It is one reason youths learn more in the mentorship of those who are only a handful of steps ahead of them, as opposed to those at their peaks — because those too far up the curve simply forget what it was like at the beginning of the journey.
The downside of great experience is the simple loss of memory, which distances the archetypal wise old man from the fool. Though the wise may indeed embody those great ideals of wisdom and intellect, it is perhaps akin to the manifestation of the archetype. That is, they may only be met at the top of the mountain, which the solitary traveller must first toil upwards. The wise do not accompany travellers on the journey — less so because they are unwilling, more so because they are unable. They only retain a blurry map of what it was like scaling the foot of the earliest hills, given they have developed a multiplicity of premises that is quite unrecognisable to the youth, and vice versa.
Hence, it is precisely because I am all too early in my journey that I am undertaking this exercise of journalling how I see the world. It is to start from the basics and end with it, for the time being, which should aid with recall — as a tool for reflection and potentially as a map for others in comparatively early stages, while I continue my pilgrimage up the mountain of time and experience.
🪟 10 - Into the unknown
Falling by Fran Rodriguez (Source)
I would love you to picture something for a moment.
You’re in someplace common. Everything around you feels, familiar. You zone out, in the least mindful possible manner, operating on autopilot. It is as if time moves like white noise, like a constant drip of water in a family home’s backyard. Your surroundings go about their hidden lives within your purview, but without the blessing of your attention, for nothing calls out to it.
All of a sudden, you look up as something emerges from the shadows of your perception. Your attention moves from a default state to a state of alertness. It is as if time and space itself warps, as the dripping water in the background advances suddenly into the foreground, and you feel each drip beating like an active pulse. In that split second, the intruder is attended by your field of focus, as your mind rushes to determine what it means for you and how you should respond. Your breath holds itself and your chest tightens — as you prepare yourself to react in a split second to what is about to come next.
Is this not a fundamental cause for fear and anxiety? It is our fear of the unknown. There are no foreseeable limits to the goodness or badness of what can happen that is yet to. Anything can happen, and worse than it can be good. The best possible outcome may cause an influx of positive moods while the worst may lead to death. We fear what we do not know, cannot foresee, or make sense of. We fear, quite literally, ghosts.
So much is unknown that nothing can be truly certain. Our attitude towards life, then, is driven predominantly by our attitude towards precisely this: the great Unknown. It looms eternally over our realities, like the shadow of ghosts. Or we may equally call it the workings of a god, as we fall face down on our knees to worship it, as did the archaic man to appease the gods of the weather.
Where the unknown dominates, as in the cases of those preoccupied with anxiety over what the future holds, over loss or lack, over death, over malice and the conduct of others, over a meaningless life, a reframing may be in order. That is, for those who intend to write their narratives of life with the attitude of an artist, instead of having it written for them.
Because I believe such an orientation is universal, it follows that we ought to examine our attitude towards the unknown and consequently foster an effective framing towards it. While we simply cannot make known all that is unknown, we may box the category of unknownness itself into a certain order of things. If we manage it, and cultivate an effective response to anything that is a product of it, there should be little cause leftover for anxiety.
Now to help arrive at an effective framing of it, I think it should help to examine a little history of unknowns.
We find peace in that which is sufficiently known, proven reliable, and that is fit for purpose. Simultaneously, we feel anxiety over that which we do not know, where our tool of past experience falls short. The proclivity to anxiety could be attributable to the evolutionary dynamics of survival — for if the archaic man were not hyper-vigilant over his whereabouts, it is certain he would mistakenly trespass into a predator’s territory at some point, his village along with him.
The archaic man necessarily requires a biological sense through which he may identify such threats. That is the sense of coherence. We have a proclivity towards coherence, for we detect threats by its guiding. It is as when the primordial hunter-gatherer treks the jungle and analyses his surroundings according to his dataset — proceeding if his environment is familiar (coherent), and halting if he detects something abnormal (incoherent).
Modern man no longer has to retain the fear of predators in extreme measure, but we still need to be prevented from walking ourselves unsuspectingly off a cliff. And so we retain the archaic proclivity to seek coherence in the natural world, the detection of familiar patterns, and to fear variances in the court of reality. Now, the great Unknown may be encountered in the realm of the physical, but it extends also to the metaphysical. And with Mother Nature mostly tamed, modern man’s unknowns gravitate to categories correspondent to our higher functions. We come to fear living a life that might be harboured in safety, but pointless. The great Unknown descends into the murky waters of metaphysics.
Modern man’s unknowns become increasingly psychological matters as he masters the natural world. We find our existential threats in the world of potent stories and narratives. It is the battleground of potent beliefs where the unknown begins — where we instinctively delineate between that which self-actualises (coherent) and that which disillusions (incoherent). It is a threat akin to the threat of wild animals, except this time, we play party to creating them. Some may use the term “projection”, in that we impose our own patterns onto reality in manners that are difficult or impossible to verify. It is this element of party to creation in the beliefs that we cultivate, that I call ‘matters of framing’. Our beliefs are chosen, picked, selected reductions of an infinitely complex reality, filtered by our own history. To the extent that we reduce, that is immeasurable, so are our beliefs malleable. It is why minds can be changed, as so often is the case, when we encounter unknowns that present to us the gift of new considerations.
It is this malleability of beliefs towards the great Unknown that we ought to take into deep regard. The anxiety over a man’s anticipation of wild predators may be alleviated through the reassurance of a trusted compatriot, but it is preferable for him if he retained his vigilance, lest his compatriot be proven wrong. On the other hand, a man’s anxiety over his inevitable death may be alleviated through the words of a philosopher, and indeed it would be better for him if it was eradicated, for that enables him to live out the remainder of his life more freely and pleasurably. Or another man’s anxiety over the judgement of others may be alleviated, and that too would preferable, as he would paradoxically become a better social performer through it. The one who alleviates his anxiety over imagined, exaggerated or anticipated unknowns becomes a freer spirit and paradoxically attains better outcomes in that for which anxiety was had in the first place! And it is the case often that many of these anxieties can be alleviated in an instant with the right triggers.
We fear threats that we ourselves create. We colour everything we perceive and lead ourselves to certain beliefs, inconsiderate of whether they stand up to the court of reality, for oftentimes the court of reality does not allow for the verification of metaphysical beliefs as it does in the physical. In doing so, we enslave ourselves needlessly to threats that do not even exist, and worry over dangers where there is none. We cultivate an ineffective framing of reality. As Seneca wrote and many quoted: “there are more things ... likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
We do harness tools in our painting of the unknown with our own history, and the congruency of human nature makes them all comparable.
One may nourish the capacity for faith — to constantly pursue a brighter and bigger picture, and to look to hope above all things. A person of great faith, the archetypal optimist, takes a courageous (perhaps naive) step into the unknown. She allocates to all people and things her best of expectations. She paints the world a bright morning sky. Another may indulge the capacity for doubt. She fosters prudent expectations and gives all people and things her due skepticism. A skeptic, the archetypal realist, takes a cautioned step into the unknown. Yet, these two extremities so often are contained in one person, often demonstrably across time — as oscillating moods overcorrecting into each other.
As for me, I have cultivated a framing of faith in all people and things. To the degree that I can impose my own beliefs on reality, I impose my own meaning on the unknown. If you recall, I have previously described my ideal of an artist. In accordance to this ideal, I paint the unknown in a manner that optimises for beauty. Is this not a subset of our treatment of self — that is to act upon the malleability of our personality and to develop it into something more effective and ideal? Certainly, preferred beliefs must stand up to the court of reality, and that is how we update our approach to framing the unknown over a lifespan. We pursue progressively higher orders of truth to encompass the mad multiplicity of all things, and within those orders of truth, we may pick and select whatever suits us. As Epicurus writes: “it is wrong to live under constraint, but no man is constrained to live under constraint.”
To pursue beauty in the unknowns is to seek to see all things, where rational, illuminated by the light and beauty of the morning sun, and to act on the malleability of stories — in a manner that takes into account the realities of living. That has given me a richer experience of life, one where I am preoccupied with beauty and wonder, not anxiety, and with a basis not in ignorance, but acceptance.
One might ask — even if my colouring of reality is proven horribly wrong, might I regret my attitude towards the unknown? Except, the potentiality of being proven wrong is itself an unknown that is encapsulated in the framing of it. How can I regret a framing that needed the correction of something yet to be known? To learn from a known, and to have anxiety over an unknown, are two separate matters. It is rational to be doubtful of all things, to accept the outcome in its totality and to integrate any new consideration it bestows. But life is not worth living if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent.
It has occurred to me that there is an attitude that results formulaically in a happy life: to be optimistic in expectation and accepting in hindsight. If the optimist and pessimist are equal chances wrong, I would opt for whichever point of view encourages freedom of spirit. And a true freedom of spirit requires an acceptance of all things in totality. Through it, one is never burdened in expectation, and when things go awry, one is also never burdened in hindsight, simply accepting it as it comes.
Certainly as it is for the artist, the precision of painting the unknown requires great practice. Can one paint a bleak picture in bright light as opposed to appeal to necessity? Can one surpass the stoic shade of grey and paint the radiance of the sun? That calls for the clever narration of a creative soul who possesses a true freedom of spirit: an artist. As for me, there tends to be one of many thoughts I retreat to when met with something painful and unforeseen: “Ah, here lies a story to tell.” What is a life without both thrills and trials? A quality memoir, reflective of a quality life, calls for a certain intensity of hardship reminiscent of the Jungian hero’s journey. Perhaps the curse of the unknown is better painted less as a necessity of nature, and more a necessity for heroes. Or one who faces tormenting ahead of him may frame it even to desirability through an artful narration, exclaiming: Perhaps it is for my best interest, and such an event will heap credit upon my life! As Socrates who died cheerfully at the hands of the law exclaims of death: “To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”
That, to me, is the skill of an artist in full display. It is the ability to simultaneously see things for what they are, and to see beyond them — to separate the good and desirable from the chaos, and to strike upon that which resonates most deeply.
Is this not the wisdom of the wise man atop the mountain? It is not that he possesses a terrifying amount of knowledge, or that he is able to navigate any puzzle that is thrown at him immediately. It is rather the attitude he has cultivated that is admirable. He knows that he does not know, as have Socrates, and cannot control, yet he remains unfazed in spite of abundance or suffering. Such an attitude grants him the air of the ascetic, which may come across as nonchalant or indifferent, but it is hardly that! He has transcended the trivialities, and the trivialities number many.
To master the natural unknown is to know the behaviour of nature, and to control it.
To master the metaphysical unknown is to know the behaviour of the mind, and to transcend it.
Till next time,