A horrible thought occurred to me somewhere between dawn and waking the other morning: What if no one really knows anything for certain? What if all the maybe’s I receive are just a cover-up for no one I know, anywhere, having any clear answers?
I tried to talk myself out of my cold-sweat fear of ambiguity, but by my third cup of coffee I was lamenting the death of straight lines and simple precision. Oh good god, I panicked, is clarity dead? Is there no one left who knows without a doubt what they think, feel, or want? Or do they know, but are simply afraid to commit to an answer?
Much of my writing has to do with the gritty, gray areas in life—the hidden pockets, the in-between’s, and the unacknowledged expressions. I’m often more aware of what’s not being said than what it is, and writing allows me to explore the unspoken without inhibition. In day-to-day life, though, this kind of gray frustrates me. In fact, when I look back on conflicts I’ve had in my personal life the past few years, all of them—every single one—stems from uncertainty.
To me, there are more possibilities in a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type of answer than in a ‘maybe’. A yes or no feels like a clear-cut direction, while ambiguity feels like a dead-end road. Too many times, though, I find myself meeting up with the gray—the wispy maybe’s, the fluid non-answers, or cliché-strained could-be’s—that leave me almost desperate for the simplicity of black or white: Words that genuinely match thoughts; thoughts that are well-considered; and wants and needs that are spoken out loud. These things make me feel secure even if they’re not in my favor, while having to guess leaves me feeling like a tight ball of anxiety and angst. (Psych 101 for someone who grew up without a firm foundation under their feet—let me know what’s coming around the corner, give me something solid to hold onto, don’t make your thoughts and feelings a surprise to me—and I will appreciate you for that alone. No magic cape or great acts of heroism required).
One friend of mine thinks that ambiguity comes from fear—of conflict, or not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, or even of committing to a certain thought, feeling, or action. Another friend tells me that she thinks ambiguity is a social nicety—a halfway open door that neither invites in or locks out possibility. “It leaves the raising of other people’s hopes or the dampening of them up to the receiver. They get to decide whether a maybe feels like a negative or positive.”
Personally, I find ambiguity torturous, like guessing at a crossword puzzle written in a made-up language. My curiosity level, as well as my anxiety, is far too high to be content with all the vagaries that come packaged in gray. When I was younger (meaning up until last year or so), I faced all the maybe’s in my world as if they were a contest. It was a challenge to figure things and people out—it was exciting to guess at answers and chase after possibilities.
Since then, I’ve realized that I’ve got far more imagination than intelligence. My dreams supplant my consideration of reality at a ratio of about 100-1. It’s easy for me to find the long shots in the gray, and to stoke the thin hopes that edge their way into all the glass-half-full-or-perhaps-half-empty maybe’s. If there’s a slight chance, I’ll fatten it with imagination; and if there’s an improbable hope, I’ll dig it out and raise it to the realm of possibility.
What I won’t do in the midst of all that high-flying imagining is feel any sense of direction or security. My anxiety will fly as high as the guesses I chase after in the gray clouds.