The original posting of this material (written by me, David Knoble) can be found here. This is the unedited copy submitted for that post.
Imagine a whiteboard. A big one, extending far beyond the limits of your sight. Just a big ole blank white board, waiting to be filled in. Zoom out, and see all the whiteboards, exactly the same humongous size as the first, filling up space in a grid of colored marker and explosions of thought on erasable canvas. Whiteboards as far as you can see, with words and symbols and blobs, some with moving pictures, others playing music, some connected by strings of yarn and others covered in sticky notes. And one, off in a corner, blank. A marker sits on the tray, uncapped. But nothing is drawn.
I won’t say I’m used to having all the answers (we all know how feisty faith can be), but in school I can usually sit with a difficult question and find words from a fleshy fold of brain matter somewhere in the cavern that is my skull and speak to the question, providing some form of answer. Sometimes that looks like a lot of external processing (read: talking to walls and other inanimate objects); at others, it’s headphones in and jamming out. Sometimes showers, sometimes bike rides, sometimes staring at pine cones, sometimes lightning-quick flashes of inspiration in class. I’ve even written all over paper on the walls. Even with the tough questions, my brain is running full-speed most of the time, drawing strange connections and ready as often as possible to spit back an answer half-formed of precise thought and half of blob-like shapes and colors. As you can imagine, whiteboards fill up fast that way.
I thrive on extended metaphor. My favorite way to write is to take a metaphor and meditate on it, pursuing the fleeting images wherever they might lead me, capturing their essence in a free-flowing dialogue of pen and paper. The idea leads me; I do not control it. I think this is why I see connections well, why I see whole systems and individual moving parts, why a peculiar song lyric reminds me of a movie which in turn draws me to a book or a story of my grandfather’s. I’m willing to let things go where they will, to spread and adapt and change to the day, the space, the mood. Rarely is there something that leaves me entirely speechless, without existing connections to draw on or thoughts to explore. I know I’m young, and there is certainly a lot out there that is unfamiliar to me firsthand. But we understand the unknown via the known—we incorporate new knowledge in the context of older experience. In other words, we as human beings connect. Everything is a network of emotional memory and half-remembered facts and midnight-snack-induced dreams. So when something doesn’t immediately become a new branch of my worldview, I am reminded of how much I don’t know and how difficult some experiences can be to incorporate. And that can be breath-taking.
Imagine then, my spiritual journey in Raleigh this summer. I am confronted daily (thanks to my boss, Katherine, our agencies, and our community members) with issues that leave me at a loss for words, poetic or otherwise. Often, I am simply pensive, leaving the office concerned that I am “broken.” I reflect and wonder and wait and throw spaghetti-thoughts at the wall, and it seems like nothing sticks. For someone generally ready to reply, someone like me, it can be frustrating. At first, it’s just a reminder that I ought to pause before responding and organize my thoughts. Then, it begins to feel like I’m searching a haystack for a needle. And after a while, the void really starts to feel empty, as words like “toxic masculinity” and “welcoming spaces” bounce around without company in the walls of my skull. My whiteboards of ideas and thoughts and connections have remained mysteriously, frustratingly, quietly blank. And not for lack of trying—we are pushed constantly to reflect on difficult experiences, to ask the hard, deep questions, to find words in the deep dark void that we call ourselves. And sometimes all we can do is sit and say, “I don’t know.”
Before this summer started, I would have said that it’s alright to admit to not knowing, that I’ve done it before and that I was comfortable not having all the answers. And on some level, that was true: I don’t mind not knowing what dinner would be, what class would look like in a few months, or what life would bring in just a few short, sweet years. But I never realized I wouldn’t be comfortable drawing a blank when faced with tougher questions of who we are and who we are called to be, of where I might be welcome and where I might not be, of just what social justice issues might look like. I sit and sit and sit and wait, staring at the inner-most recesses of my brain, repeating the words over and over to myself, hoping desperately for a bolt of connection, for anything I can draw on as background, for even a solar wind to stir the cosmic tides and shift my perspective. And that lonely little whiteboard, it just sits with me. Waiting on me to pick up the marker and write something. It sits, blank. And so I sit, uncomfortable, pensive, deep in the trenches of my brain, but unable to fight off the pressing silence of thought.
And pre-summer me is almost right: it is alright to not know. It’s needed and necessary and important and healthy. When was the last time I really found myself speechless before I started at RYM? When did I last find myself wrestling with some big question and unable to formulate the beginning of a response? When last did I sit, wordless in the face of the universe, struggling against silence and open to the possibility that it is beyond me? But I am not comfortable with it—it is intentionally uncomfortable space, space in which we push ourselves to the limits and find that, with all barriers removed, we don’t know which direction to go in. That confusion, that lack of direction, that is our struggle with the unknown, with the deeper questions of faith in a modern setting. What are we going to do?
I reflect on our theme for the summer of 2017, and I am reminded that even as we are looking at creating space in our communities, we should also look inwards. We should explore how we create internal space to wrestle and struggle and be wrong, how we can as a community open up that space to asking tough questions. We should make sure that, amidst a sea of busy thought and faithful action, in a storm of colors and blobs and sticky notes, we leave open in a corner a whiteboard, blank. Empty. Silent.