Living in the Undefined

“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.” - Ursula K. Le Guin

3 min. read

It’s in our nature to define things. We like boxes, categories. A few thousand years ago, this was incredibly helpful. Don’t eat things that look like this: you will die. Eat things that look like this: they are delicious.

But nowadays, I find that my compulsion to define things is incredibly unhelpful. I’m rarely ever poisoned by what I eat (other than pretty much every time I eat Thai food), and when I am my body takes care of it (how’s that for a nice euphemism?).

I attempt to define relationships I have with people, and with my work. I want to know, within some predetermined categories, what X person is to me, how I should relate to Y person, and how I am supposed to fulfill Z responsibility. But people aren’t Xs or Ys, and the goals I work toward aren’t Zs. There is no immutable variable that can adequately take the place of any relationship in my life, and attempting to apply one will only result in frustration.

I know this, yet I still try to do it.

We categorize everything in the world. Life > Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species > Petability (I may’ve added that last one, but it really should be part of the system. What’s more important to you? What phylum something is in, or if you can pet it?). But ultimately most of us agree that these labels are insufficient. We’re all snowflakes. The world doesn’t fit in a box.

It’s when I get over my impulse to define things, when I stop the mental gears that start turning whenever I meet someone, or spend time with an old friend, or work on a new project, and divert all energy to being, that I appreciate things the most. It’s when I don’t try to find the black or the white, but relax into the grey.

Malcolm Muggeridge is credited for saying, “Only dead fish swim with the stream.” But there are two streams. They fight against the current of the river, defying all odds in order to achieve the destination of their journey, but in doing so they are giving into the flow of their biological imperative and fulfilling their purpose.

In making an intentional effort to push myself to become more comfortable with the grey, and living in the undefined, I feel like I’m fighting against the social current. But I know I’m allowing myself to be swept away by a greater current, and experiencing life the way I want to live.