Discipline: Open Yourself to the Unknown

Did you know that ravel and unravel are both antonyms and synonyms of each other? Unravel is what happens to sweaters and plans and intentions. Ravel can also be that pulling apart, that undoing and complicating confusion. Both can mean a fray and a tangle. But they can mean it differently or similarly. The dictionary tells me that few people use ravel as an antonym to unravel these days, but I rather like it.

Discipline, in part, is opening yourself to the unknown without unraveling. But while raveling.

The unknown demands that you unwind and disentangle a part of yourself if you choose to engage. The discipline comes in knowing when the threads are coming apart or tangling in a destructive way (unraveling) and when in a productive way (raveling, antonym). Any amount of unraveling can create complications and entanglements. Sorting through those can mean a more beautiful sweater, plan, or intention.

If you’re so focused on never facing the unknown because you fear the unraveling, you might miss the very thing you were meant to become.

Folks who know me in real life, and maybe those in virtual life, might scoff at this one. I’m not exactly the go-to master of the unknown. In fact, I have lived most of my life avoiding it.

The unknown was a big part of why lawyering never felt like a good fit for me. I wanted to know everything before I presented it. Especially in front of people who could make decisions on the information. A strong lawyer must embrace the unknown a little bit. Prepare like you wouldn’t believe, but then – well, what do they say? No training survives the battlefield? It’s like that sometimes. The unknown is always lurking in the corner of the courtroom. Or, in my practice of corporate law, the unknown was forever noshing on the policies and procedures of the day.

Turns out, art is also about the unknown. Who knew? It’s about not knowing if your process will produce a viable product. Not knowing if anyone will receive it well. Not knowing if you can pay your bills. Ever. Not knowing. Like, anything. Oh, you think you know how to plot a book. And then you do. And you write it and you move on to the next book and what do you Google? How to plot a book.

Art is also about the known. About keeping yourself, and sometimes the world, raveled – woven from the frayed threads. It’s about getting up and doing the work and learning and doing more work. It’s about listening and doing better work. It’s about doing the work even though you have zero guarantees a single person will see it, will find value in it, will pay you for it. About knowing yourself well enough to look the unknown in the eye and decide to open into it.

Is there any aspect of living not like this? Or dying, for that matter.

For far too long, I didn’t know that. Rather than opening toward the unknown, I closed myself. I shut down, turned away, moved away so I couldn’t see it anymore. Maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s me – natural, learned, whatever.

The source of my avoidance doesn’t matter nearly as much as my conscious effort now to confront the unknown. To walk right up to the unknown and say, hi.

Now, here’s a thing: even if you and I have known each other for years, I will assume you don’t know who I am, and I will not likely approach you in public. So me walking up to the unknown is…awkward.

For a minute. Then I remember to open up. Sometimes for another minute, sometimes longer. The length of time I open myself directly correlates to how raveled I am. Because I cannot afford to unravel. Some unknowns – especially concerning family and health – threaten the ravel more than others and cannot be avoided because then unraveling is certain. Said otherwise, a diagnosis is an unknown that may do a fair bit of unraveling but avoiding it will do even more damage. That calculation of balance – opening and raveling and knowing when unraveling is necessary – that’s a discipline, too.

If you struggle with this discipline, as I do, remember the balance part. A set of scales somewhat within your control. Move a bit to one side then to the other and find balance. The other visualization I find useful is perspective. A frayed thread may seem dire or not such a big deal. Stepping back and seeing whether the fraying is on an item you value can be instructive. Likewise, when opening to the unknown and balancing the ravel and the unravel, step far enough back often enough to see what it is you’re creating. It can make all the difference.

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