The Joy of Not Knowing

I’m about to start a new acting project, and I’m scared. This is par for the course; I never start a new project without getting nervous. I always believe this will be the one that reveals, once and for all, that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Truth? I really don’t know what I’m doing. And that’s probably a good thing. Lately I’ve chosen to accept the gift of not knowing. The truest words I can find to describe how I’ve gotten to where I am are “I don’t know.”

Over the last five years, I have been involved in friendships and medical situations and even business ventures that ended differently from the way I wanted them to, the way I knew they should. I prayed weekly for three friends who had cancer, and within a year, all of them died. I struggled to find the best possible care for my mom’s dementia, and came to realize that what I wanted for her may not exist. I worked with a team of devoted volunteers to save a non-profit theater company from going under, and it closed anyway.

To my surprise, this didn’t make me want to stop praying. It didn’t make me want to give up on Mom’s care. It certainly didn’t destroy my commitment to theater. But it did all hurt. It did confuse me. It did leave me wondering, for a time, what’s the use? Where do I go from here? How can I be helpful in a world where my best efforts seem to fail?

The answer is, “I don’t know.”

I’ve always been a hard worker. Sometimes I think I work too hard. In the craft of acting, that’s called “pushing” — doing more than you need to do, so you’ll feel like you’re really making art. When a performance seems forced or strained, the actor may have the best intentions, wanting to give the audience a magnificent show. But his very brilliance can outshine the role, masking what was meant to be revealed.

This past summer I took an acting class that challenged me to simplify my own work to the point where I felt like I was doing nothing. I resisted, of course. I’ve been acting professionally for twenty-five years, and I have some habits that have served me well in that time. The instructor, Rob Mello, was asking me to strip all of them away and start fresh: in other words, to forget what I know, and trust what I don’t know.

I’ll never forget the night my resistance began to break down. It had been a difficult week with Mom, including a trip to the emergency room (she was fine, but I was shaken). I was feeling tired and defensive, and I had no energy for the night’s exercise. So I just did it, as simply as I could, and Rob said to me, “That’s it. You think you have to do so much, Carolyn, but you don’t. When you just let go and be present, it’s beautiful.”

Well, thanks.  And . . . ouch.  I mean, I’ve spent decades working hard. I thought I knew my craft. But he was right, and I’ve come to see the value in his words, far beyond the walls of an acting class:  “Let go and be present.”  They apply to relationships, to goals, to work, and — deeply — to dementia care, where being in the present moment with your loved one is the greatest gift you can give.

Someone has been posting hand-painted signs around Atlanta for several years now, a kind of folk-art graffiti written on wooden planks and nailed to telephone poles in seemingly random combinations. There’s one near my house that says “Donkey” on one plank and “Food” on the other. I don’t get it, but it’s cool. There used to be one in an area where I sometimes work; it said, “We Live on a Broken Street.” I don’t know if it’s still there, but it spoke to me.

My favorite, by far, is high up on a utility pole, next to the stop sign at the end of my mom’s street. We stop beside it every time we go from her assisted living to the shops and restaurants nearby. It’s a guidepost for me, a mantra, a reminder of how to live, how to approach each new project, including the one I’m about to start.  Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing.  Maybe I don’t have to.  Maybe, not knowing is the key.

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16 thoughts on “The Joy of Not Knowing

  1. Beautifully and honestly expressed, Carolyn. I think one of the hardest things about letting ourselves *just* be present in our work is that then we are asking an audience to be moved/pleased by/satisfied with *just* us — rather than our craft, or skill, or experience.

  2. Mom,
    I just wanted to let you know how much I still appreciate your blogs. I missed your last one, returning to it just last night. When I received the email for this one, I read it immediately. I love to hear your voice through your writing, and I love hearing about the life of feeling and emotion and passion and creativity that is yours. Thanks for sharing.

  3. And of course all of this takes you back to Alexander Technique. More be-ing, less do-ing. Less effort, more ease. Oh, and awareness – and living in the present moment. YES to all of this!

    Good for you, courageous actress and wise woman. Use your AT, all will be well.

    Much love and hugs and I miss you.

  4. Carolyn, thank you again for opening your heart and mind and sharing pieces of yourself with us all. Even though my own circumstances are different from yours, I find inspiration and comfort in your honesty and thoughtful messages. I, too, am about to embark on a new chapter and often struggle with “being found out”. Oh no! Someone will figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing. Ha! Instead, this time, I will work to approach each day living more in the present and stop trying so hard, honoring each day with doing my best with the day’s offering. Bless you, dear Carolyn, my talented friend.

  5. I am going to have this sign made for my office. It will be for me even more than my patients(but we can keep that part quiet). I love your insights, and the way you share them. Thanks!

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