Back in 2011, we were living our best life in our happy little bubble of suburbia when my husband called me to tell me that “We had an opportunity.” If you are not familiar with the nomadic life that certain professions (like heavy civil engineering) afford, an “opportunity” meant we were moving. And it was likely not to a destination where I had dreamed of living, or else this conversation would have gone more like: “Babe- guess what? We’re moving to Fiji!” That’s an important distinction, because “opportunity” meant, “This is likely going to suck, but hopefully it will pay off down the road.”
But, I think I need to go farther back and give some context.
About a year earlier, Paul came home from work and was doing a mental dump of his day. The kids were small and playing nearby while I was cooking dinner. Something was clearly weighing on him even after he had told me all the things that had happened that day. Finally, on a long exhale, he brought it up. He had to send a group of engineers to a job in Newfoundland. Most of them, and their families, had a lot of reservations. I quickly and indifferently snapped back, “Well I guess they’ll need to get over it.” That felt as awful coming out of my mouth as it does to look at on the page. As Paul moved out of the kitchen to go play with the kids, the still small voice in my head asked, “If it were you, what would you need to feel safe, informed, and valued making a move to another country, climate, culture? What would your kids need?” Obviously, lots of information. I called out to Paul, “They’re going to need a book.” He came back into the kitchen, “What do you mean?” I thought for a minutes, “They need a manual. If you’ve only ever lived in the southeastern United States and you have to move with your kids to Newfoundland, you need a guide book. How are schools set up? Where do you register for school? What vaccinations do you need? How do you register your vehicles? What documents do you need for a drivers license? How do taxes work? …” The questions were falling off my tongue faster than I could think them. Paul agreed that the manual was a good idea and he would put some people to work on it.
So when our move to Ontario came the next year, as hard as that “opportunity” was, I had a small framework on which to build. As I grieved the loss of my happy American suburban bubble and came to wrestle with my new Canadian reality, an uncomfortable reality became obvious: I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Not knowing what you don’t know is an uncomfortable status that most of us try to avoid at all costs. There’s a fear or suspicion that hovers in the back of your mind all the time that maybe you’re missing something that you didn’t know you were supposed to do or have, and that lack of knowledge will have repercussions later. Think taxes for example. We’re five years repatriated back to the USA, and that’s still a specter hanging over us. But I digress…
The crazy thing about not knowing what you don’t know is that it forces you to be vulnerable. I mean, you could choose not to be vulnerable, but that’s a quick trip to shame, anger and loneliness as you try to navigate territory that you know nothing about whilst making all kinds of mistakes. Vulnerability, while totally awkward, leads to community, humility, and empathy. Those were the things that sustained me during those four years in Canada.
Paul and I were taking a walk yesterday. I asked him if he thought we would have normal school this fall. “I don’t know,” he said. “If you had told me back in February this Chinese virus we were starting to hear about would have me wearing a face mask in the grocery store, I would have told you ‘the hell it will.’ We don’t know what we don’t know.”
I smiled, “We used to say that in Canada all the time. Unfortunately, we had the advantage that we could just go ask someone. Or check the manual. No one knows how this will all end. Or what’s going to happen next.”
“Why do we think we need to know how it ends? The tension of not knowing what you don’t know means that the end, the timing, the next new thing will just have to be managed as it comes. Not many people are comfortable with that, which is why there’s this low simmering rage on the surface of everything right now. People want formulas, end dates and simple solutions tied up neatly. That part of COVID-19 is scarier than the actual disease for most people,” he replied.
I think there’s truth in what he said. As I’m wrestling with all of this, I know I’m personally fighting the desire to wrap this disease up and move on. I don’t like masks. I don’t like cancelling events and plans. I don’t like hybrid school plans. I want it to end.
But I don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t know what it would feel like to lose a family member to this disease while the world holds a public debate about masks. I don’t know what it would look like to have my kid unknowingly infect their class or team. I don’t know how I would manage the logistics of traveling and then getting quarantined somewhere away from my family. I don’t know any of those things. I likely don’t know even more. But I’m willing to be vulnerable. I’m willing to listen when you complain about your uncertainties, frustrations, and fears. I’m willing to be empathetic to the fact that no matter where our feelings are on all of this- we are all wrestling with not knowing what we don’t know. And since there’s no manual, I guess we all deserve some grace.