Highly Personal Musings Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s Essay Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, Part III

On My Pathological Need to Know Exactly What is Going to Happen All the Time

Quote from Solnit’s essay:

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible, we often hang onto the plan, ignore warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, “Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.” It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconceptions, to go into the dark with their eyes open.”

The quote of Gonzalez has been on my mind ever since I read it. “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.”

First of all, I think of motherhood. Picture it: you are a mom. Your three-year old is getting adventurous on the living room furniture. You watch her jump from couch to coffee table, to chair, narrowly missing the vase full of flowers, leaping over the blocks on the flower, teetering at the corner of the side table. As you watch this, you envision all the different ways this can go wrong. They can fall on the blocks, They can knock over the vase. They can slip and bang their head on the corner. The possibility that this adventurousness is not going to end in disaster is a tiny kernel at the back of your mind which you dismiss as ridiculously hopeful. Best to stop your child before they hurt themselves.

This happens in the space of a few seconds, of course. And I think it is probably necessary, this imagining all the possible scenarios and going with the worst in order to prevent it, an essential part of our survival as a species, I suspect. But it means that the child’s time of using the living sofa as a playground, letting their imagination soar as they leap from furniture to furniture (did you ever play the game where the floor was an ocean full of sharks and you couldn’t touch it lest you get eaten?) is over. You have set a plan for the future, seen what you want to see. Set a course. You saw only disaster and acted in a way that allowed only for that outcome.

As Solnit points out:

“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future…Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans…”

Hope. I have been railing against it lately. It seems like one of those charming rogues that will seduce you, get you pregnant and then leave you at the altar. But then I read the above quote and I thought, maybe I am looking at it wrong. Hope isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, chiseled features and six-pack abs (just to follow my previous simile). Perhaps hope is just embracing the unknowing. Walking into the dark.


Ha. Have you ever walked in the dark? There is a lot of stumbling. Of hands held out in front feeling your way. Of banging your shins on sharp-cornered furniture.

This is the hard part of motherhood. The letting go. The embracing the fact that you don’t know if your child is going to make it to school on that first day when they take the metro alone. Or if they are going to act responsibly at a party. Or even if they are going to make it through the furniture circuit alive without the need for a trip to the emergency room. But this isn’t a choice. The growing up of your child demands it. Whether you like it or not, you can’t fit your plan (safety first and only!) to your child’s reality. Parents have tried to do it and the results mean broken children, or at least a broken relationship with your children. If there is one thing about parenthood that is guaranteed, is that your child will always do the unexpected. They are the unknown.

Second of all, I think of my own personality. As I mentioned in that post about Quiet, I took the Briggs-Myer test and, not surprisingly, am 100% introvert. I have also been shy all my life and prone to bouts of social anxiety. Now, at the ripe old age of forty, I think I have more the habit of shyness than the actual feeling, just like I have the habit of low self-esteem rather than the practice, but the fact remains that for most of my life, social situations have been extremely nervous-making. One way to cope with that was to make sure I knew as much in advance so when the time came to say, go to a new school, or attend a party, I could alleviate a little of the fear.

When faced with a new situation, I always prep. For instance, about a week before my first day of university, I made sure I knew how to take the bus to my campus (it was in a new city). I checked out where all my classes were going to be. (Orientation was not an option – that would have involved talking to people and social situations involving drunk frat boys I don’t think I will ever be prepared to cope with.) Where the library was, the cafeteria. All importantly, the bathrooms.

In fact, just before I wrote this, I made sure I knew exactly where I was going for about the third time for a conference I have to attend today.

I do not like the dark. The dark is a scary place.

Yet unexpectedly, that is where I find myself. After a lifetime of trying to know exactly what is going to happen, of planning my days so rigorously you could probably set a clock to my rhythms, I find myself in this unknown place and no light. It is not comfortable. I try to envision all possible outcomes to where I find myself and come up with darkness. I do not like it. But Solnit (nor Woolf) ever said anything about it being comfortable or pleasant. I am starting to realize that it is exactly the opposite.

My plan for reality is not fitting anymore. There is no plan B. So. I can either balk against the darkness, fumble madly for the light switch, bruising my shins and falling over the furniture or I can move slowly, let my eyes adjust, and try to make out the shadows.

I am pretty sure it will be a little bit of both.

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