The Value of Mystery

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By M.F. Erler

Over the years, I have repeatedly run into writers who emphasize the need for mystery in our lives. I don’t mean murder mysteries, though I enjoy reading these, and so do many others apparently—for it’s a popular genre across all forms of media.

No, what I mean is something I first ran across in Frank Herbert’s Dune books. His main character, Paul Atreides, is prescient and knows all that is coming in his future.I thought that would be a great gift to have, but instead it becomes more and more of a burden to him. He begins to lose all hope in his life, for he knows exactly what each day will bring—all the way up to his death.

This idea opened a new world of thought for me. The next place I discovered the concept was in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In one scene, the wizard Gandalf tells Frodo that there is no need to despair. “Only those who know the future without a doubt have cause of despair.” At first, this seemed backwards to me. But as I thought more about it, I realized that it’s the mystery, the unknown aspect of the future, that leaves room for hope. For we don’t know everything. Maybe we aren’t meant to.

Even in the Book of Job, an ancient piece of poetic literature we’re told, this idea is prevalent. Job experiences all kinds of heartbreaks and setbacks in his life and begins to ask God why he has allowed this. (I confess that I often find myself asking questions like this, too.) In the end of the book, God at last comes to Job, but he doesn’t answer his questions. Instead he asks him questions such as, “Where were you when I created the world? Can you create anything like I have?”

And Job’s reply?  “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” He is humbled by the mystery.

One of C.S. Lewis’s most misunderstood book is called Till We Have Faces. I read it several years ago, and perhaps need to again. It’s a retelling of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche, from the viewpoint of the young woman’s sister. She often asks the gods why they have tormented her sister. In the end, however, she realizes that the gods are a mystery for a reason. She says, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer [to my questions]. You are yourself the answer.” This is, according to most, Lewis’s most completely realized character. And to me, she seems to echo Job.

In the end, we must face up to the fact that we humans don’t know everything. Even though our techno-scientific culture pushes us to intensify our search, maybe its failure is what helps us to embrace and value the mystery in our lives.

 

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