In Praise of Feeling Utterly Confused

I’m in the (freezing) midwest this week to keynote a couple of events and see friends. During Q&A someone asked whether I feel confused about what’s happening on the macro-economic and political front and how that affects how I plan for the future. Here’s the essence of what I tried to say:

I distrust anyone who says he can predict the future or anyone who is overly certain about anything. I am uncertain about most things that are going on around me — especially at a macro level, but also on a personal level, where almost daily some of my intuitions about what will happen get mugged by reality. I plan and think about the future a great deal, but no matter how much I plan, shit happens. As Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” I think we lie to ourselves about how in control we are. Chaos rules. Randomness rules. Emotions grip us. I’d like to think I posses a kind of inner calm that helps me make rational decisions day-to-day. I know I’m stable and confident (sometimes too confident) and, most of the time, relentlessly optimistic and happy. But I’d be lying if I said this amounted to a high degree of certainty about where the world is headed or even what in God’s name I’ll be doing in five years. I suppose I see the more enlightened among us as having achieved a certain comfortableness with uncertainty / confusion.

I would add that if you don’t regularly feel utterly confused, if you don’t occasionally feel like you’re treading just above water, if you don’t ever feel misunderstood, then you probably aren’t living in life — you’re just observing it.

The “living in life” concept comes from Joan Didion, whose quote to this effect I reproduce in the Introduction of my book. It’s from her UC Riverside commencement address:

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is ncessarily part of the package, I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

4 comments on “In Praise of Feeling Utterly Confused
  • Well put, Ben. Wonder how the audience reacted to it 🙂

    The course of life is so unpredictable or else we all could’ve written our autobiography in advance. A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is, but often prompts us to rearrange the past. Isn’t it that the future is always beginning now?

  • very lovely, ben. read this brecht’s paragraph somewhere on doubt and leadership:

    praise be doubt. i advise you to greet cheerfully and with respect the man who tests your words like a bad penny. i’d like you to be wise and not to give your word with to much assurance.
    you who are a leader of men, do not forget that you are that because you doubted other leaders. so allow the led their right to doubt.

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