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Uncertainty #9: On Not Knowing
Vanessa recounts her excitement at getting to know our listeners better — but can she figure out how to know herself?
Hello dear follower of Uncertainty!
In my last newsletter, I bemoaned the depressive unending gray of winter. I write this newsletter on the heels of a warm, sunny day in New York City. Although I did not technically touch grass (sorry Martin), I did smell the daffodils.
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If you’re new to us, and this is your first newsletter, allow me to explain: Every other week, instead of an episode, Adaam and I take turns musing in written form. We share some reflections on the last episode (sometimes delving into the ideas themselves, sometimes doing some follow-up reporting, always trying to grapple more meaningfully with the conversations we’ve had), explore whatever is tickling our fancy, and tease what’s coming next. Which means that this week, I get the distinct pleasure of reflecting on our first ever live event, sharing the thoughts provoked by a book I’m reading and re-reading, and teasing a very fun interview on tech, media, and parenthood.
An Eventful Episode
Last week, we published the recording of our first ever live event: a virtual conversation between economic historian and erstwhile CIA analyst Martin Gurri about the many ways our world could fall apart.
Niall and Martin were exceptional — and made the job easy for us. It was interesting to hear their differing shades of pessimism: on China, Niall was darker; on tech-driven social division, Martin was more dour. Both appealed to literature (Martin: poetry; Niall: prose) as an antidote to our decadent condition (more on this topic coming soon in an episode with William Deresiewcz). Interestingly — as one audience member pointed out in the Q&A — neither Adaam nor I pressed them on climate change, arguably the doomiesttopic of them all (and a blindspot I was glad to have pointed out).
Speaking of audience members, I have to admit that, for me, the most exciting result of our little experiment was getting to know / hear more from you, dear listeners.
First of all, getting to hear your voices on the Zoom call itself was a dream. You all exist! You really do! And you came from all over the world! While the vast majority of RSVPs came from the U.S., we had a healthy representation of folks from the UK and the EU, as well as a smattering from Canada, Australia, Turkey, and Ukraine. You also spanned the gamut in terms of age, ranging from 25 to 85.
Most of you found us via Twitter. Huh. As much as we rag on the platform as a dumpster fire responsible for most of our society’s degradation and division, I guess it still has its uses. It brought you all out of the dumpster fire and into our little fold. I guess that means I’ll have to go back to tweeting. Sigh.
We also asked our event attendees what podcasts you listen to. Interestingly, the top 3 are all interview podcasts that I’ve never listened to myself:
In sum, it was great to get to know you all a little better, and to feel like Adaam and I aren’t speaking into an empty void, but into real ears connected to sharp intellects and questioning spirits.
Ok, ok, I’ve flattered you enough. Now to a subject I’m far less comfortable gushing about. The following is less a critical reading of the book I’ve been perusing, and more a critical reading of…me.
On Not Knowing
My parents were both born into strict Catholic households that demanded unquestioning faith. They both independently came to the same conclusion: Fuck that. And so I was born without religion. I was given no set of laws to follow. When it comes to what is right and wrong, what is moral or amoral, I must set my own path.
If I think back to our very first interview, our conversation with Tomer Persico, I was dancing around one question: how do I live a moral life? No. More pointedly: how can I distinguish what is or isn’t moral for me? How can I, amidst all the uncertainty, the exasperating gray, find the “right,” moral way for me?
It’s exhausting, this moral ambiguity. I get why gurus have such appeal.
But, lately, I’ve come to a conclusion: it’s not hard for me because of the uncertainty itself, it’s hard because I’ve been taught, conditioned, to divorce my mind from my body, and my head from my heart. And despite the wisdom of many philosophers and rationalist thinkers I’ve read, I’m leaning toward the belief that my moral compass lives somewhere buried within my physical, emotional self.
I have been reading Untamed, Glennon Doyle’s memoir relaying the latest chapter in her life, in which she divorced her husband and entered into a relationship with a woman who set her soul on fire. I say “have been reading” because, although I sped through the book greedily on my first pass, I’ve been re-reading, picking up stones I had put into my pocket, and am now turning them over and over again in my hands.
One such stone? Selah. Glennon writes about halfway through the book that it’s one of her favorite words. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a kind of embodied ellipsis. The word invites the reader to stop. Be Still. To breathe in the words the author has delivered to you and consider them deeply.
And so, on this second read, I’ve accepted the invitation.
This is not easy for me.
As I noted in my previous newsletter, slow is not in my nature. I am almost always quickly doing something, getting somewhere, talking with someone — fast. Last time, I noted the collusion between speed and forgetting. Today, I want to contemplate a more sinister coupling: speed and not knowing — or the way speed impedes us from living a truer, more moral life.
Brain in a Jar
I divorced my brain from my body as a means of self-preservation.
As a nerdy, chubby pubescent girl afraid of growing up, and even more afraid of the rejection of my peers, I decided I did not want the world to see my body at all. I wanted the world to only see my intellect. I wrapped my curves and rolls under enormous sweaters and unflattering jeans. My body was merely a conveyor system for my brain, I decided. A brain not in a body, but a jar.
In this way, I taught my brain that my body was irrelevant, and I severed the connection that allowed me to listen to myself.
Rejecting my body for my brain served me well. I got good grades. I earned prizes and the praise of my teachers. I avoided dances — and the opposite sex — like the plague. I pushed down my feelings when they arose. I was innocent, a good girl.
But I was not me. Just a simulacrum of me.
Glennon calls this version of herself — the version before she got “free” — a “ghost.” When she was younger, she thought she was broken, bad, wrong; she strived to live up to an ideal that was always just out of reach. Then she realized that the world was demanding her negation. If she had kept chasing, she would have ceased to exist.
How to Know
Glennon writes that she had to cultivate a practice of knowing. She would hide in her closet when her kids went to school and practice “sinking” into herself. She came up with a formula:
Moment of uncertainty arises.
Breathe, turn inward, sink.
Feel around for the Knowing.
Do the next thing it nudges you toward.
Let it stand. (Don’t explain)
I can’t explain how hard this list looks to me. I get stuck at step two: turn inward. Carving out the space and time for this — in a frantic, fast-paced life — feels impossible, but also so vital. It’s a way of repairing the severing, of re-claiming the body and its role as a locus of morality. “If I am willing to sit in the stillness with myself,” Glennon says, “I always know what to do.”
When we were younger — before the world taught us how to behave and what roles to inhabit and to pack those layers of “shoulds” between us and our knowing — this process was innate, immediate. Like Lyra reading her alethiometer, we all knew how to divine our own inner truth.
But as an adult, I need this knowing more than ever, because I need to know how to act. To know when to speak up for myself (“Brave means, in every uncertain moment, turning inward, feeling for the Knowing, and speaking it out loud”). To make moral decisions. To steer the course of my life toward something that feels right and good to me, toward the kind of world I’d like to see.
Without the knowing, I’m at once paralyzed and in perpetual motion — speedily, unthinkingly going through the routines and errands of daily life, skimming on the surface without acknowledging or valuing or heeding the depths. I believe my body can tell me what is my “right” — if I can only learn to trust it. And breathe. And listen.
Things Worth Your Time ⏰
🎧 Women at Work & The Episode That Wasn’t with Sarah Spain (We Can Do Hard Things) — This conversation got me thinking a lot about the ways we enforce gender roles and endorse bad behavior, all in the name of diffusing awkwardness. There can be so much power in the simple act of refusing to laugh, to play along, to excuse.
🎧 The Art of Noticing — And Appreciating — Our Dizzying World (The Ezra Klein Show) — I hadn’t heard of the poet Jane Hirshfield before, but I will certainly look up her work now that I’ve been introduced to her wonderful, wise way of seeing the world.
☁️ I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (William Wordsworth) — ’tis the season.
What We’re Working On ⏭
There are lots of great episodes in our back catalog, but we’re pretty pumped to finally share our conversation with the charismatic, open, parenting-happy Nellie Bowles next. If you haven’t read it already, her piece on San Francisco’s failings is a must-read — and helpful context for our conversation.
One Last Certain Thing…
Great NY Noodletown: The only true and certain thing in New York City.
Adaam: Really? The doomiest? If humanity’s future is the main concern (and it should be, because nature will inevitably outlive us), then I’m not sure our stupidity in other realms isn’t far doomier.
Adaam: For me, this word is like tattoos of Chinese characters. I don’t mind the appropriation, but I cringe at the New Age-ism.