When you don’t even know what to wish for

by Kristin on April 13, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Bex Ross

Today is clearly going to be one of those days when I just don’t know what I want.

About seven years ago, when I was in the throes of perhaps the unhappiest time of my life, it occurred to me that not knowing what you want is even worse than not being able to have what you want.

At least it is for me. It makes me feel untethered from reality, and disconnected from myself, like my emotions, mind and body are on different planets, unable to connect.

I remember clearly the evening when this realization hit. My now ex-husband and I had a few months earlier moved to Central Illinois for his teaching job at the university. He was wrapped up in it—in his colleagues and grad students, in his art exhibits and visiting artists. I was working part-time as a copywriter and editor at a firm that left me feeling flat and unfulfilled. Winter was coming, the devastation of 9-11 was still fresh, and I had two busy, small children at home—Q was 3 and S was 1. I was essentially friendless.

That particular evening, I was suddenly struck by something that might help: An evening out. I would just tell my husband I needed a break, leave him to manage the evening routine with the kids, and go…where? To do what?

At that moment, I realized I had no idea what I wanted or needed. Even if a fairy godmother had appeared, ready to magically make anything happen, I knew I would have no idea what to ask for. A week in Mexico? A new best friend? A fully funded shopping spree? A new life, outside of the marriage I was in? Did I want to turn back the clocks? Or turn them far ahead?

Every idea had flaws. Every possibility left me feeling somehow wanting and unfulfilled. Every part of my being was pacing, unable to find a comfortable spot to settle down.

Different degrees of not knowing still trigger the same sensation

The past week was exhausting. Jason was out of town, so I was in single parent mode. The girls had two days off of school, which threw my work routine out of whack. We went to a Seder, hosted a gaggle of nine-year-old girls for a birthday party, and had house guests for the weekend, throwing us into a non-stop frenzy of cooking and clean-up.

Then, yesterday, I suddenly tried to immerse myself in the year’s most significant Christian holiday. I arrived at church feeling like I was about to run a marathon I hadn’t trained or even stretched for.

In the back of my mind, I was desperately holding on to this very moment—Monday morning, when everyone would leave, the house would be quiet, and my time would be my own. But instead, now that I’m here, I’m thrown into a state of not knowing.

Today’s sense of not knowing is much less dramatic and desperate than what I’ve experienced in the past. The big questions in my life have been answered in Jason, the girls, our home, my writing, and a renewed understanding of God’s love for me.

But I still have that wandering, untethered feeling. What do I want? Do I wish I could go back to bed, or to the gym? Do I want to be alone or with a friend? What do I want to write about? What client project should I tackle? What would I do with my day if I could let go of work, completely? Where would I go, if I could click my heels and instantly be there?

When I feel like this, even if it’s a mild case, I’m immediately reminded of that moment in my life, when I realized how frightening it is to not know what I want. The triggering sensation is like eating—or even just seeing—a food that caused a miserable bout of food poisoning in the past. The memory alone causes a wave of nausea to wash over you.

I desperately want to know what I want. Knowing gives you something to cling to and work towards. It gives you something to hang some hope on, even if your desires and plans end up shifting mid-course.

What I’m wondering, now, is if there’s a way to force myself to embrace wanting something. Is there a way to talk myself into it, the way you can talk a young child into being excited about a food or activity they initially wanted nothing to do with?

Or maybe I just have to let go, and spend the day floating on the current of not knowing, waiting to see where it might take me.

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  • Lorna

    “But I still have that wandering, untethered feeling. What do I want? ” Wow! You have just clearly articulated a feeling I have that I call “restlessness”, when nothing satisfies, I am antsy & anxious, and I have no idea what to try next. I can totally relate to this post. Now, if I could only do something about it.

  • Robin

    While the unknown is often scary, whether it be what you want, where you are going next, etc., it often brings surprises. Sometimes not knowing what will happen next can make you more open to what does happen. Sometimes those surprises make all the difference. I answered the phone one day, before caller id, and talked to a friend of a friend. Later that night, because of that call, I met my husband! Answering the phone that day and agreeing to go to a basketball game (which I could really care less about, but I was bored and needed something) changed my whole life! The wanting something and the unknown turned out to be 8 years (and counting) and 3 beautiful kids. All I had to do was be open to the unknown.

  • http://ryandscott.com Ryan

    This is well articulated. Not knowing for me often turns into boredom which turns into idleness which turns into sadness. Knowing is about dreaming. If I hold onto my dreams and don’t take actions that would diminish or destroy them, I always know what I want. And I agree with you, not knowing what you want is intensely more awful than knowing and not being able to have.

  • http://www.mothering.com/candacewalsh Candace Walsh

    When I feel like that, I know I need to sit and meditate, or do a grounding cord exercise. I think that scrabbling feeling comes from being disconnected and dispersed inside, which equals the inability to tap into knowing what would hit the spot, and getting grounded and centered leads you back to a sense of peace and perspective.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Totally get this, Kristin, and am in this spot myself. I love the way you put a very, very human feeling emotion into words so perfectly. “We read to know we’re not alone” (Anais Nin). Thank you. :)

  • http://www.howtomatter.com Jeb

    So you pretty much just summed up the point of my blog. For me, knowing what you want is, ultimately, how you matter. It starts with the dream, as Ryan suggests, but that can’t be the end. Unfortunately, it often is.

    I consider that ‘tethered’ feeling you speak of that comes from knowing what you want, to be purpose. There are times when I have it, know it. When I read or write something that inspires me or experience the beauty of the world around me on a run. When I encounter these experiences, that feeling of purpose flows like a river, and I haven’t a care in the world. In those moments, I can actually see my life the way I want it. And it’s so full. All of it I see in my mind’s eye, at that precise moment when my social preconditions are stripped away and all that is left is me as I should be. Me as I long to be.

    And in that brief expanse of awareness lies the roadmap which points the way from here to there. As clearly as I can see my reflection in the mirror, I see how it could be, how I could live that life. But alas, the awareness is fleeting. One moment my vision is clear, the next moment cloudy. A mental roadblock is constructed and I unwittingly go about my day. Not fully, or even remotely, grasping the gravity of the moment-passed.

    I can imagine living a life knowing what you want, but not achieving it. But – and I speak from experience – living a life not knowing, untethered, lacking purpose. That’s no way to live. But I don’t think forcing yourself to embrace something, just for the sake of it, is the way. My sense is that you know what you want at times. That you can think back to those moments when the vision was clear. The trick is knowing the triggers and engaging in them often enough to know that you can pick yourself up each time you falter.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Me again…I just read what Jeb wrote. I really identify with that, Jeb. I am wondering if perhaps it is partly an “artistic personality” type of deal? I can have this restless feeling, even when the circumstances of my life, marriage, etc. are stable (whatever the hell that means!) and it is usually at that point related to not having an artistic goal, not feeling like what I’m creating/spending time on is an accurate reflection of who I am, and/or being immersed in “custom work” that I’m being paid to do but is not really “me.” Anyone else identify with this?
    Another question that occurs to me…am I the only one who gets this restless feeling in the Spring? When I think about the past, I am a little alarmed that I broke up with almost every boyfriend I had in this March-May window. Usually April! And here I am with this restless feeling right now. April. Maybe I need to have a “wait ’til summer to do anything drastic” policy for myself??? :)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Lorna, that’s the question indeed: What are we to do with the not knowing? I’m sure those moments translate into creations in your craft room, from time to time. My not-knowing became today’s blog post. Maybe we just have to embrace it and persevere, until we know, once again. (I think Candace has some good advice here, as well.)

    Robin, I’m glad you were able to put a positive spin on this frustrating experience. Wonderful surprises can come from not knowing, and your approach goes along with my posts around New Year’s Day about trying to be “less intentional.” What a great story about how you met your husband, too!

    Ryan, that’s a really interesting snowball effect, from not knowing to boredom to idleness to sadness. I’ll have to think on that, and see if there’s a boredom piece in all of this for me. I completely agree with your “knowing is about dreaming” statement, though. To me, dreaming is about hope, and it all makes me think about the Bible verse that describes faith as “being sure of what you hope for.” Very powerful. I want more of that in my life.

    Candace, I would love to hear more about “grounding cord exercises.” The way you describe being “dispersed inside” is spot on. I wonder if feeling that inner peace actually results in wanting less, in addition to knowing what it is we do want.

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    Sometimes the strong feeling says overwhelmingly, “I don’t know what I want, but I do know I don’t want this.” Sometimes that leads me to look for the way out of a difficult situation, and in the process I clarify what I really do want.
    And sometimes? No clue.

  • http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com Betty Duffy

    “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies.”
    (Is 30:15b)

    I hate it when I’m restless and there’s nothing to do, or when I have some brilliant idea I’m unable (or too lazy) to execute. I feel frustrated when I try to discern God’s will for my life, and the answer is to do nothing, at least for awhile. It feels counterintuitive. In hindsight, though I’ve been able to see how those quiet restless moments have been some sort of incubation period for a bigger plan that had not yet presented itself–and I have at times wished that I used my pent-up energies more wisely, by being happy and contented with where I am.

    Great post. You put into words a universal feeling.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Cheryl, when you and others comment, I know *I’m* not alone. Writing and reading and sharing is such amazing therapy! Re: your second comment, bringing up the artistic personality aspect of this is interesting. I know I feel untethered when it’s been a while since I’ve created anything that feels like TRUTH to me—an accurate reflection of who I am, as you put it. I don’t think it’s just a creative issue, though. I think seven years ago, my entire LIFE didn’t accurately reflect who I was/am. And maybe this past weekend didn’t reflect who I am, which left me feeling directionless. Very interesting…

    Jeb, I love this: “In those moments, I can actually see my life the way I want it. And it’s so full. All of it I see in my mind’s eye, at that precise moment when my social preconditions are stripped away and all that is left is me as I should be. Me as I long to be.” This definitely fits in with what Cheryl was saying, about parts of your life (or certain moments, or things that you create) that accurately reflect who you are. Recognizing and honoring those, and allowing them to be triggers, as you said, is essential.

    Daisy, yes, the process of elimination can be extremely helpful, even if it is time consuming and draining. :) And luckily those utter “no clue” moments are relatively rare.

    Betty, that verse from Isaiah perfectly addresses the inner “pacing” that I wrote about. Thank you. And I completely agree with this: “…those quiet restless moments have been some sort of incubation period for a bigger plan that had not yet presented itself.” When I look back on the most significant times of restlessness in my life, I can now see that they were difficult but necessary incubation periods. And perhaps these smaller bouts of restlessness, like what I experienced today, are opportunities to recalibrate and recenter in terms of what matters.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    That makes total sense, Kristin…that we would feel restless, uncomfortable, sorta “itchy” and generally dissatisfied when how we feel inside and what’s going on outside doesn’t match up. Sometimes I think this happens when something is shifting on the inside that I may not even be able to identify or name yet, but my spirit senses there’s not a spot for that yet, because I have based decisions, relationships, beliefs, lifestyle or whatever on something that is in some way incongruent with the new whatever-it-is. The silly image that pops in my mind is trying to put my toddler in one of those pajama “zip suits” with the feet in them that is a size too small. I can remember how that feels, too! Pulls at your shoulders, makes it hard to sit down, pinches your toes and is generally pretty miserable. But there’s no way to make the thing bigger! You simply must get the next size. And until you do, the growth is not something to be enjoyed. It pinches. I am feeling pinched at the moment myself. Though I know that means I’ve grown inside, or at least changed in some way, it’s hard to appreciate, embrace or incorporate this into my life comfortably. But I’ve also learned from experience that hopping out of my zip suit, willy-nilly, means running around buck naked for awhile, which can lead to all sorts of problems and even hurt the people I love unnecessarily. So I think the answer (I think!) is cutting the feet off my zip suit until I find the next size up. My feet get cold but I think I’ll just put on some comfy socks until I find a new zip suit. I want one of those blue ones with the clouds on it, I think….

  • http://www.ashleygraceless.com Ashley

    I feel the restlessness, too. Cheryl, I can totally identify with what you said. I constantly feel like I’m being pulled apart at too many angles and none of them are precisely what I want, and I think it’s worse because it’s springtime (“nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime” – Bambi). Most days I feel like I have my two selves – my dayjob self which includes all the bill-paying, all the financially-related minutiae of my day, and my creative self, in which my second job (a creative writer’s assistant) thrives. That’s where my blogging and writing focus goes when I actually have a focus, and I fear that my dayjob self is sucking the life out of my creative self.

    Great post, Kristin!

  • Trina

    When I have periods of not knowing what I want, I am actually grateful for them, as I realize that I have no pressures or demands required of me. I think that comes from past stresses of too many demands and pressures. Once I was able to release some of those pressures, ‘not knowing what I wanted’ became exactly what I needed.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Cheryl, this is very perceptive: “Sometimes I think this happens when something is shifting on the inside that I may not even be able to identify or name yet, but my spirit senses there’s not a spot for that yet….” Also, I love the whole footsie PJs analogy! Perfect (and hilarious)! That too-tight feeling is one you never forget. It sounds like you’re in a good, if slightly uncomfortable, spot in your life. Keep thinking and listening.

    Ashley, you’ve been struggling with these two lives/selves for a while, it seems. But when it comes to your creativity and vocation, I think you know deep down what you really want. Am I right? Even if it seems complicated? Do you know what you’d ask that fairy godmother for? If so, be grateful for the knowing. Maybe working toward that goal will help calm some of the restlessness—along with the passing of spring, of course. :)

    Trina, you bring up the important distinction between what we want and what we need. I really hope some day I can reach the point that you describe. I want to be able to just relax in the nothingness—I guess that would be the “floating the current” option I describe at the end of my post—but my restlessness makes me struggle against it.