Know Answers vs. No Answers – Part 1

Recently, while on vacation in South Dakota, my family enjoyed a tour of Wind Cave National Park. My kids, especially my four year old daughter, were particularly excited about seeing the inside of a cave. I was not exactly looking forward to the outing, being slightly claustrophobic and always battling a wildly out of control imagination, a cave tour was not appealing to me. Add to this the fact that my daughter is quite adventurous and slightly unpredictable, the danger level seemed pretty high in my mind. However, I didn’t want to spoil my kids’ excitement about experiencing the cave, so I kept my nerves and insight into the fact that caves can be, naturally, pitch dark and full of scary chasms and tight spaces, to myself. I settled for a simple but firm rule that they stick close to their dad and me while on the tour.

Once inside the cave, my anxiety eased as I realized it was a pretty easy hike with minimal drop offs (insert sigh of relief). My family walked along, amazed by the boxwork and cave popcorn. My daughter charged confidently ahead and asked multiple questions of the Park Ranger at every stop. We reached a point in the tour where our guide spoke of previous tours conducted in the late 1800s and, to illustrate part of the story, shut off all the lights in the cave. The group stood in complete and total darkness for about three minutes. The darkness created a void and the elapsed time felt much closer to an hour than the actual handful of minutes. My previously fearless daughter was completely silent and grasped my hand so tightly I almost lost circulation as we waited to be able to see again. Once the guide turned the light back on, my daughter took in her surroundings and once again moved forward with uninhibited confidence.

As I thought through my daughter’s interaction with the cave, I considered the similarities to the theoretical versus reality in life. When she was able to see her surroundings and her next steps, she was able to move forward in confident assurance. However, once we experienced the reality of the cave, absolute darkness, out of necessity she stood frozen in place. Similarly, I can feel fairly convinced by certain theories and notions of the “best” approaches to different circumstances but when confronted with unexpected, complicated realities, I often freeze. I have long grappled with needing to “have it all figured out,” even as I have encountered complex situations that challenge the notion that it is even possible to have it all figured out. In short, I often try to oversimplify life: I add lights to the dark cave by placing theoretical lenses over reality. Of course, life doesn’t usually fit into simple categories with straight-forward solutions; it is complicated, unpredictable, messy. And when the confidence in the theoretical answers and lighted pathway gives way to the inevitable complexities of reality and the path suddenly goes dark, I’m often frozen in place, afraid to move forward in the unknown void.

Initially I considered how this concept applied to parenting. Prior to actually having my kids, I had a LOT of ideas on what kind of a parent I would be. I thought I had all the answers on all the parenting scenarios. Ha! I was fairly confident in what I thought I knew, the theories and notions I had learned about best approaches and how things should be. It turns out parenting is complicated, kids are each unique in personalities and needs, and I frequently find myself wading through the unknown vortex of unexpected circumstances and simple-answer-defying scenarios.

Then, on a recent outing around town, I was especially challenged with theory versus reality and how to appropriately communicate the nuance to my young son. During this trip, while waiting at a stoplight, a gentleman stood on the corner with a sign requesting help. He waved several times, attempting to get our attention and I politely smiled at him but then did my best to avoid too much eye contact lest I invite a knock on my car window. My six year old son sat in the back seat observing the interaction before offering, “Mom, he clearly needs help. We should help him.” This is not the first time we’ve had a similar conversation, so I started my usual response, “Yes, he does need help and we hope he receives the help he needs…” my son cut me off and stated more firmly, “He clearly needs help, he’s asking for money. We should give him money.” I wasn’t prepared to launch into all the gray areas I’ve considered at-length on the topic, but growing a little flustered I agreed, “Yes, he clearly needs money and we do give money to organizations whose mission is to serve those in tough situations…” and my son, once again, interrupted with growing agitation at the apparent urgency, “He needs help. He needs money. We’re Christian, aren’t we? Why aren’t we helping him?” Mercifully the light changed but my son’s insight had left me speechless. In truth, I often wrestle with those same thoughts. It makes me sad and uncomfortable that despite feeling convicted in the call to love and serve everyone, I still struggle with how to practically implement that in daily life. Despite numerous similar encounters, I still struggle with how best to respond. I’ve read books and articles, researched the topic from multiple viewpoints, had lengthy conversations with friends and family on best responses and still I don’t have simple answers. I know many of the theories and notions of best response. But, when I am in the moment, I still often feel frozen in the dark. Because this situation, like so many areas in life, is complicated and defies simple answers.

These are just a couple examples of how it feels like I have been walking along a well-lit cave path that suddenly had the power cut and plunged my journey into darkness. Maybe it’s because there seems to be a plethora of complicated situations occurring around me at the moment that don’t fit neatly into a here’s-how-to-best-respond-in-this-situation. Maybe it’s because I struggle to grasp, let alone implement, the “right” or even “best” responses in certain situations. But, then again, maybe sometimes there is no “right” or “best” response. Maybe it’s OK to accept the reality that life is messy and complicated. Maybe it is this acceptance that theory and reality don’t always match that starts the journey of a more nuanced understanding to real-life situations. As I continue to contemplate varied complexities, I’m doing my best to keep my mind and heart open when life hits the lights and I’m standing in darkness, unsure how best to proceed from theoretically knowing the answers to the reality that there are, sometimes, no simple answers.

Wendi is co-author of The Unexpected Ever Afters blog and enjoys sipping extra hot coffee, sharing a love of reading with her kids, and exploring bike trails.

photo credit: personal photo

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