As a physician, I was trained to deal with uncertainty as aggressively as I dealt with disease itself. The unknown was the enemy. Within this worldview, having a question feels like an emergency; it means that something is out of control and needs to be made known as rapidly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible. But death has taken me to the edge of certainty, to the place of questions.
After years of trading mystery for mastery, it was hard and even frightening to stop offering myself reasonable explanations for some of the things that I observed and that others told me, and simply take them as they are. “I don’t know” had long been a statement of shame, of personal and professional failing. In all of my training I do not recall hearing it said aloud even once.
But as I listened to more and more people with life-threatening illnesses tell their stories, not knowing simply became a matter of integrity. Things happened. And the explanations I offered myself became increasingly hollow, like a child whistling in the dark. The truth was that very often I didn’t know and couldn’t explain, and finally, weighed down by the many, many instances of the mysterious which are such an integral part of illness and healing, I surrendered. It was a moment of awakening.
For the first time, I became curious about the things I had been unwilling to see before, more sensitive to inconsistencies I had glibly explained or successfully ignored, more willing to ask people questions and draw them out about stories I would have otherwise dismissed. What I have found in the end was that the life I had defended as a doctor as precious was also Holy.
I no longer feel that life is ordinary. Everyday life is filled with mystery. The things we know are only a small part of the things we cannot know but can only glimpse. Yet even the smallest of glimpses can sustain us.
Mystery seems to have the power to comfort, to offer hope, and to lend meaning in times of loss and pain. In surprising ways it is the mysterious that strengthens us at such times. I used to try to offer people certainty in times that were not at all certain and could not be made certain. I now just offer my companionship and share my sense of mystery, of the possible, of wonder. After twenty years of working with people with cancer, I find it possible to neither doubt nor accept the unprovable but simply to remain open and wait.
I accept that I may never know where truth lies in such matters. The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.”