Not Knowing


Tufts graduates reading the Tufts Daily – by Matthew Healy

Context: I wrote this as a letter to the graduating seniors and myself next year. It was published as an Op-ed article for Commencement issue in Tufts here

On this Commencement day, I am surrounded by lovely, strange creatures called “seniors” who are exhausted by going from one event to another. It must feel like freshman orientation again, being unsure of the schedule, frantically texting friends to coordinate where to meet while trying to answer parents’ 101 questions. Today, I am falling in love with their smiles and tears and hugs. I also see a lot of uncertainty behind these passionate expressions, and I have some thoughts for you to prepare for your own graduation.

Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty is one of the most important life skills that you can learn; yet the structure of the school may not help you much with that. Don’t blame the school though — it was never intended for that goal in the first place. You have to learn it on your own. Graduation is aptly just the beginning of your learning journey.

You aren’t sure if you want to go to this graduate school or to take this job or to move to this city. You aren’t sure if you should continue or start or end a relationship. Being independent in the world is a scary thing. It leaves us feeling insecure, and when we feel insecure, we often ask ourselves, “am I right?”

Please have the courage to ask a different question. When you have a decision about something as fuzzy as your life, in a world that is as unpredictable as today, remember that you don’t make the right choice. You make the choice right. A better question to ask, and I mean really asking it so that the question will do its own magic in the back of your mind, is “what do I truly desire?”

When you first ask this question, you will first be confronted with this daunting feeling of not knowing.” Why is this so hard to stay in the not knowing” zone? One reason may be how it is linked to your identity: it may mean you are not smart enough or not trying hard enough to find out the answers. As students, we were rewarded by our correct answers, but you should know well by now that your performance in classes is nowhere as important as the quality of your questions and how well you have engaged with them. So ask the good ones anyway, and stay with them.

The second and more important reason is that this feeling of not knowing is simplyhard. Asking you to stay with this feeling instead of putting it aside and getting busy again is as hard as asking you to not scratch at a mosquito bite. You may yell “what the hell is this person thinking?” or “what on earth am I doing with my life?” In those moments, remember that life is teaching you patience again. There is often a tendency to fight through this discomfort of not knowing. Don’t think of it as a fight because life is too busy to conspire against you. Instead of fighting an uphill battle, why not choose to roll downhill? I’m not asking you to be lazy, but whenever you sense resistance within yourself, be gentle and curious. “What else is going on here? What are you whispering to me, my dear self?”

Please embrace this not knowing feeling because as Rilke once wrote, “the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Giving yourself the permission to not know is the most empowering gesture you can have because then you can listen to the answer, perhaps from the universe or from a deity of your own. The more not knowing you can embrace, the larger you become, the even more you can embrace again. Hold this virtuous cycle for other people too, so that we can all live everything.

Independence ceases to be scary when you realize you are not alone, not only in the solidarity sense that other people are going through the same thing but also in the real sense of the phrase, that you truly are not alone in this world of seven billion people and countless other living beings. Independence doesn’t mean doing everything on your own. Rather, it means realizing what you can and cannot do alone and take responsibility to reach out for help. Ask and you will receive.

I won’t tell you what specific course of actions to take because I too am embracing not knowing myself, but I can tell you to do. You may likely be doing cost-benefit analyses on your decisions till things go wild. That’s great, and I’m asking you to supplement this love of overthinking with a bias towards action, so that you can learn faster what you want. Remember what Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and one of Tufts most illustrious alumni, shared about how he went about his life and work? “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Yes, Fire before Aiming. Bring that spirit of “not 100 percent ready, do anyway, recalibrate right after” into life. That is not knowing in action and that will be how you step into future — by creating it.

Boldly yours,

Junior self



Thinking through my letter to mom.

“So it’s going to be my 5th year staying away from home. It’s the 11th time I go to Noi Bai airport for an international flight. Mixed emotions, and I guess you too, mom.

This 9 month staying at home with you has taught me a lot. I was used to the communal living style in the boarding school where I was constantly surrounded by people. In contrast, I’ve been living alone from 8am to 7.30pm on most days at home. Only then did I realize I had taken the human warmth for granted. Do you remember I often sulk when you come home later than 7.30pm without notifying me? I have been waiting for someone for the whole day!

I thought you felt the same too when you came back to the hauntingly empty house after a long day at work, and that’s why I always wanted to wait for you for dinner: to compensate for the time that I’m not around. My number one worry before I leave this time is how you will live alone again. I asked you that question and of course I didn’t trust your answer “Don’t worry, I’m fine”. Now I’m glad to tell you that I no longer worry about that: observing you for the past few months assures me that you indeed had been and would be fine living in solitude.

And that’s the first lesson you may not know you’ve taught me. I thought I was the extroverted type who always needed other people around, but I’ve indeed learnt to spend time on myself. I have lived slowly. I’ve lived more contentedly in the first half of the year than I thought.

Another lesson you taught me was that the deepest influences come from leading by example. Nothing touches the heart more than true authenticity. You may not be as funny, stylish or intellectual as other mothers, but you walk your talks. You teach me to be nice with people, and times and times again people come and whisper to me how nice you are. That coherence is what matters.

It meant a lot when I came home at 11pm and found the hot soup on the table while you were asleep. You didn’t do that to show me that you were a caring mom; you did that because you were a caring mom. In juxtaposition with you I feel I’m so petty. Many times I do things because that would make me look good in the eyes of others.

You have taught me a lot that non achieving is the real achievement. That developing relationship should be my goal.

There are things that you may not be aware, but I’ve learnt from you nonetheless. That the fact that we are all fallible and idiosyncratic sometimes just makes us more human and loveable. That we have hope. That a quiet life has nothing to do with a meaningless life.

And there are things I have yet to agree with you. While I’m fully aware that when I’m 50 I may just want to take care of my family, for now I don’t want to settle yet. I still want to maximize my impact. [……]”

<I wanted to share part of the letter so I translated it into English.>
A few more thoughts when I looked at that letter again recently.

I may sound like idolizing my mother. Yes, she is a great mom, and I do feel immense gratitude and admiration for her singlehandedly taking care of the family. It’s not easy being sandwiched by two naughty boys and a grumpy mother-in-law without going crazy. But she is not perfect, and that is precisely what matters.

Living with such a humble person definitely makes me more mindful of myself, because I have a constant reference point.  She once told me about her Buddhist beliefs and practices “I’m not as bright and eloquent as you are and so I can’t express the ideas clearly to you, but you have to practice in order to see it”. I was deeply touched at that moment: here she was, a humble and loving mother, aware of her own weaknesses and still wanted to do her best to help. Perhaps (some) maturity and more conversations helped me seeing her in this new light and gave me a fuller understanding of her as a human.

Now is the strange part: once I start seeing her not only as my mother but also as an ordinary person I feel even closer to her. Couples often talk about how they love each other’s idiosyncrasies. The common sense explanation is perhaps that the romantic passionate love usually overcompensates these flaws (think “love blinds”). Apparently it doesn’t apply to mother-son relationship. I’m well aware that I’m endlessly indebted to her, but that has nothing to do with also accepting her flaws and mistakes. I accept because I have learnt to see her for all she is: a human.

I’m probably the top 0.01% luckiest people on Earth for not having the pressure to return a huge financial investment by parents in their kids’ education. Because of that, I’m freed up to think about how best I should pay back my unfathomable debt. Some people advise me to make my mom proud. It certainly feels nice to hear “Oh your son is so good he achieves this and that”, but I suspect if that good feeling lasts long. Most importantly, isn’t it true that how much my mom is proud of me depends on her more than on me? I think any mom can be immensely proud by the amazing fact that she is a mom. The advice should be for moms, not children.

For the New Years that I was away from home,  she asked me to call and wish happy new year to a few people who have helped her a lot throughout her life. I used to feel very awkward and even fake when I wished someone whom I didn’t have a strong personal connection with – after all, my cynical self asked “Do you even care that much?”. But I stopped fearing that awkwardness because of what they always said after my wishes “Thank you. Your mother must be very blessed to have you”. Then they would text or call my mom to say exactly the same thing: “You must be very blessed to have your son”. Then my mom would tell me about that text or call, and I would be deaf if I could not sense the immeasureable joy in her words. That is what she cared about: building relationship. She wanted to express her gratitude to these people – how better can one do so than saying “Not just I but my entire family is thankful of you”? And of course she walked her talk right there. She really wanted me to be thankful.

Ultimately, the only thing she cares about my decisions is whether they will make me a good person. Same for what I want to her. She is generally more contented than many adults I know, but she too has to deal with the vicissitudes of daily life. She too is on a journey to become a better person, and I am a part of that journey. For how can a good person not be a good child, and a how can a good child not want his parents to live truly better?