Overcoming the fear of the unknown
“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
― Max Ehrmann, Desiderata: A Poem for a Way of Life
The painting above is called the ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. It is by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich and was painted in 1818, during the early Romantic era. It is a well-known masterpiece that displays an intense focus on the natural world and man’s insignificance within the landscape.
Observing the painting, a man is displayed stood upon the rocks, gazing across the landscape. He is an urban man, wrapped in an overcoat with a walking stick in one hand. The landscape is covered with dense fog and the tops of trees can be perceived across the valley. The fog blends with the cloudy horizon and mountains, faded and grey, tower on the left.
Here, nature is glorious, striking and overpowering, a common depiction within the Romantic Movement. There is a sense that the urban dweller is distinct from nature, as if he is foreign from the landscape. The man has come to conquer nature with his grand industrial factories and his concrete pavements.
However, the man has not come to view the scenery to boast of his dominance and envision an industrialised future. He is in a moment of deep reflection, a profound state of meditation.
The cloud and fog that lie before him are hiding the treasures behind. Everything is grey and blurred; the foreground is windswept and lonely. There is no suggestion about what it is that rests behind the bleak curtain, it is uncertain and possibly infinite.
The man’s future is unknown. He is anxious for the fog to lift and for the sun to streak through the clouds so that the answers to his questions will reveal themselves. He waits patiently, but still the clouds do not break, the sun has abandoned him and the overcoat is his only protection against the wind. The wanderer is searching for logic and patterns in places where such things do not exist.
The man is looking for certainty in his future, he is fearful and any sign of light would ease his apprehension, even just for a moment.
I empathise with the man in the painting. My interpretation is that the ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ is a metaphor, an illustration of our fear of the unknown.
There is a valuable message here.
We have become ever increasingly anxious about the future and the unknown. There seems to be an obsession surrounding the future, a kind of mania that continues to get worse. If you listen carefully in a pub or a bar, or any social setting, you will notice how most of the conversations are about upcoming events of hopes for the future. Now, this is not wrong in and of itself. Nevertheless, it demonstrates an overarching perspective that has come to dominate many people’s lives. This is to say, most people are living for the future.
People’s self-worth and happiness have become entirely dependent on their plans and aims for the future. In this circumstance, people have every right to feel anxious because they have given themselves to something that they cannot control.
I see this all the time, and I am under no illusion that I do not do it myself. Perhaps I am, as it is I who is writing about the matter, a worse offender or maybe I am just more sensitive to the folly of it all.
Have we ever asked ourselves if we really would like to know what would happen in the future?
It is the mystery of the future that makes life worth living; this is what provides humans with the capacity to experience the deepest, most sincere emotions. By not allowing yourself to fall into the discomfort of vulnerability, you reduce the richness of those human experiences that come with uncertainty: Love, trust, delight, and inspiration to name a few. To experience joy, sadness and anger there must exist the truth that nothing in life is ever a guarantee. To give in to the unknown and recognise we cannot nor should attempt to do anything about it is to accept the unknown for what it is.
We delude ourselves in thinking we have control. This desperate struggle for command and power has come to define our lives, and indeed the modern world.
It is not understood that the more one tries to control everything, the more things have control over you. In giving away control, you receive the control you wanted in the first place. This means, you alleviate your grasp over the world, the same grasp that held tight around your throat, and instead chose to trust the world.
Alan Watts compared this thought to the human body. Man has no control over the internal workings of his body and we are not aware of the different processes that are ongoing inside of us. We do not command our stomach to digest food or our lungs to breathe. Instead, we trust that our digestive system will perform its function and for our lungs to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream. In delegating these powers, we become infinitely more powerful and free than we would be if we had to control these procedures ourselves.
The same is true for the future. Power and responsibility over the future has to be delegated elsewhere if we are to become at peace and free with the present moment. Some things are just too heavy to hold on to.
Truly, our fear of the future is a refusal to accept the present moment as the only moment that we have. There is a widespread belief that reality is not fine as it is and something has to change in order to enjoy it entirely. Therefore, people look to the future for possibilities. However, as Eckhart Tolle, you have to accept the present moment, whatever it contains, as if you have chosen it yourself.
When one acknowledges that they are of this world and not separate from it and that the only moment we have is the present, you liberate yourself from the need to find certainty. Instead, you are able break from the mind’s frustrating proneness to know the unknown.
The wanderer in the painting overlooks a future that seems bleak and hazy. He is the champion that wants to make sure that his future adventures will be fruitful. There is an attempt to tell apart the right path from the wrong, to make sure he never places a foot in the wrong direction. Yet, he does not realise that underneath the blanket of fog and cloud lies countless diamonds and surprises that his mind could have only fantasised. There is no need to part the clouds, for with patience and courage they will eventually disperse and reveal an emerald green and sky blue landscape.
The ultimate challenge the wanderer faces is not the future, but to accept himself exactly the way he is. He stares across the horizon because he is at conflict with the rocky precipice that he stands on. This is a refusal of the self and the present moment, a struggle that we are all fighting.
The acceptance of the unknown is something I am trying to make peace with and I imagine I will continue to do so for many years to come.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.
…live in the question.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Thank you for reading!