One of the more humbling realizations during Covid is that it has forced me to confront how much I don’t know. Sure, I have encyclopedic information literally at my fingertips on my mobile phone and computer, but I still live day by day in a constant sense of uncertainty and fogginess about the status of my safety, health, and political future. And I have had to learn to live with all that unknowing and the anxiety it produces. Just tuning it all out all isn’t really an option no matter how hard I may try.
Being in the state of unknowing doesn’t deter our political pundits, economic soothsayers, and various prophetic voices (like mine?) from sharing their opinions and prognostications about everything they think they know, but after listening to them we often left with skepticism about what they said. And even the information coming out of the scientific community, the CDC in particular, is often less than conclusive and sure. So at best we get reasonably informed decisions from those we still trust while avoiding what are often simply lies. The major impact from all this is that our lack of public trust has too often devolved into unhealthy cynicism and a lack of confidence about who we can believe and what we actually know at an alarming new level.
The antidote to succumbing to cynicism and radical skepticism is to elevate our practice of awe before the Grand Mystery of life. Part of my daily prayer is to honor the Mystery, the admission of unknowing and accepting that limitation. For me this simply means that I find deep joy and comfort in what I consider a reality that my consciousness cannot ever fully fathom, and I am able to let go of trying to be able to achieve meaning of so much complexity and uncertainty. Instead I want to learn to recognize, and even delight in, realizing how truly amazing is the vast interconnectedness of life and all the mystery that entails.
The purer, classical level of this mystical unknowing is the attempt to overcome our various competing thoughts and feelings and merge ourselves into an ultimate spiritual unity. Zen Buddhism and the authors of the Christian mystical writing in The Cloud of Unknowing refer to unknowing as "a state of being that is not of the sensible or the mental nor is it unified with God." Zen calls this samadhi, "a largely thought-free state in which all is gathered into one." Although I consider myself essentially a mystic, my sense of unknowing and wonder consists in simpler terms of just standing out under the sky on a starry night letting my mind fade into the grandeur of it all. Or in continuing my lifelong attempt to understand the power and mystery of love, of suddenly being aware how all of life and beyond is somehow one, not divided in perpetual conflict.
And yet "back on earth” we are in a considerable tangle right now. A whole way of global and personal life is shifting like quicksand under our feet. Our ingenious knowledge is inadequate because our condition is at heart a spiritual one where love and truth are in competition with enmity and lies. And in the midst we have a daily choice of whose side we are on. Scripture says, “Today I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” The witness of the deeply spiritual lives I most admire, Dorothy Day, Thich Naht Hahn, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, for example, exude a commitment of choice of life over death. They witness to a life of joyful reverence in the midst of considerable travail and violence out of a religious practice that acknowledges and honors the presence of an abiding and reconciling Spirit and Mystery engendered by love.
Of course you and I and all of our clever and smart planet mates will continue to try to figure out how best to survive these turbulent times though our extensive knowledge and technical capacities, and all accumulated and advanced knowledge will certainly be useful in this quest. But you and I, and as many people as possible, in order to ultimately survive, also need to commit to developing a practice of profound reverence and love of life. May we learn ever more intentionally to experience the awe and grandeur of the Mystery that transcends our knowing, that must guide and transform our great body of knowledge with the life-giving power of love.