The value in vagueness

Lately, I’ve noticed that my taste in reading material has changed slightly. It used to be that almost everything I read was a similar kind of non-fiction: the kind of non-fiction that has a very clear thesis, clear structure, and makes very clear points. I couldn’t be doing with anything that wasn’t clear - lack of clarity to me always seemed unnecessary and pretentious. Even examples and stories used to illustrate points in non-fiction books often frustrated me: I just wanted them to get to the point.

Recently, though, I’ve found myself gravitating towards more autobiographies, more fiction, more narrative non-fiction. Rather than reading blogs that attempt to provide a clear answer to a question or a clear explanation of something, I’ve been enjoying reading those that simply grapple with complex and interesting ideas without necessarily reaching any conclusion.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I’ve more explicitly recognised that reading can serve different purposes - sometimes that purpose is to learn things, to absorb facts - in which case, clarity and simplicity can be really useful. But another reason we might read is to evoke feelings, to help us think about something on more of a gut level, or to see someone else’s perspective. And lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been more interested in finding ways to feel different things and see different perspectives than to “learn facts” in the strictest sense.

A slightly different perspective on this, though, is that I’ve begun to appreciate that sometimes vagueness has value. If we want everything we write, read, and say to be clear and concise, we’re going to be limited in what we write, read and talk about. If we prioritise clarity, we’re going to miss out on grappling with some of the most interesting ideas out there: those we don’t fully understand yet. We also risk oversimplifying and thinking we understand things much better than we do.

I read something recently about how people who are willing to grapple with and try to express feelings that they don’t quite understand yet apparently do much better in therapy than those who always seem able to express themselves clearly. Those people who feel they can only talk about things that they can express clearly are, perhaps, failing to acknowledge a whole subsection of their feelings and experiences - those they don’t understand yet - which might be the most important. In some ways, it seems obvious when put like this - you’ll only ever improve your understanding of anything (including yourself) if you’re willing to face what’s presently beyond your understanding.

Acknowledging that the world is messy, that our concepts are vague, that we really don’t understand things, is difficult. We all have a strong drive to make sense of the world, to organise things into neat patterns, to put things in boxes, to make things make sense. The feeling that things suddenly fit together and click into place can be incredibly satisfying.

What’s strange though, is that recently I’ve been finding it somehow more rewarding to grapple with complex ideas I don’t yet understand, to read something that’s thought-provoking but doesn’t have any resolution, than to read someone’s neat and simple explanation of how the world works. Given the choice between an article that attempts to lay out a clear model of how something works, and one that explores a number of connected ideas, tries to make sense of them, and raises interesting questions, the latter feels much more appealing to me. This seems to conflict with my model of how the brain works when it comes to processing ideas - that we find chaos and unpredictability deeply unsettling, and a strong drive to organise ideas so that they “make sense.” So how is it that I’m now finding it oddly satisfying, and maybe even more than that - a sense of greater meaning - from thinking about things that don’t yet make sense to me?

Part of the key here might be in that word “yet” - there’s something exciting about encountering an interesting question you don’t know the answer to if you’re anticipating that you might at some point be able to resolve it. In the same way that sometimes the anticipation of a fun event can be more enjoyable than the event itself, maybe my anticipation of understanding something better can feel as good - or better - than actually reaching the understanding. It might also be that, as I become more and more aware of just how damn complicated the world is and how little I understand, those “simple” explanations feel less satisfying, because I’m harbouring some scepticism about whether they actually explain things as well as they seem to.  

But I think there’s even more to it than this. Even though arguably, a great deal of our sense of meaning comes from this making sense of things, seeing patterns, drawing connections, it feels like I get a different - perhaps deeper - sense of meaning from realising how little I understand. This deeper sense of meaning is like a kind of awe - a sudden appreciation of how incredible and incredibly complex the world is, of how little I understand, of how insignificant I am, of how much I will never understand. And somehow, weirdly, this feels good, in a “looking up at the stars and realising how crazy it is that anything exists at all” kind of way. 

I have a sense that this ability - to let go of needing to make sense of everything, to accept uncertainty without struggling with it, to embrace it and actually see it as good - is incredibly important. It’s what allows us to not get too attached to any one perspective, to be willing to reconsider our views, to listen to viewpoints we disagree with. It’s what allows us to venture out into the unknown and discover new things, to try to understand things about the world that make little or no sense to us.