Kenny doesn’t know. He doesn’t know why his parents split up; he doesn’t know if his mother’s planning to have another baby; he doesn’t know if he really fancies Charlotte and he doesn’t know if his grandmother’s cancer means that she’s dying. Apparently unconcerned by any of these things, he slopes around, head down, saying little, irritating a succession of well-meaning adults, who try to infuse him with their own energy and enthusiasm before concluding: ‘Kenny’s just so negative about everything!’

He has a reputation for never knowing where he’s supposed to be or what he’s supposed to be doing, but I wonder how much – for Kenny – ‘not knowing’ is the story of his life. When everyone else seems so purposeful, confident and clear about their lives, I wonder whether not knowing about his own life makes Kenny feel like the odd one out, the weird one, the one who’s ‘just so negative’. He certainly plays that role. Perhaps he does so on behalf of other people as well as himself? Perhaps he represents their not knowing as well as his own?

It’s true that saying ‘I don’t know’ can be a way of avoiding talking about painful or embarrassing things, but most young people say they don’t know because they don’t. After all, how’s Kenny supposed to know why his parents split up? He knows the official story (‘My dad started seeing this other woman’) but – at 15 – he’s old enough to know that there was probably more to it than that. His father won’t talk about it, however, and his mother just glares back at Kenny and says, ‘Ask your father!’ Nor can he find out whether she and her boyfriend are planning to have a baby, because it feels too personal, he says – meaning that he’d rather eat Brussels sprouts than think about the possibility of his mother having a sex life.

I don’t blame him. No sooner do young people think they know something than they’re accused of being cocky, and they’re assured that, at their age, they know nothing at all. And then when they admit that they don’t know things, everyone gets upset and tells them that they jolly well ought to know.

‘Not knowing’ poses problems for counsellors and for other professionals trying to support young people, because when counsellors admit that they don’t know the answers either , many young people are perturbed. Surely adults are supposed to know? Surely they must have some idea? For besieged teachers expected to produce tangible results, not knowing about intangible things is particularly hard. The future is exciting, they insist; learning is exciting; there are so many exciting opportunities, and, if you work hard, you’ll succeed.

Kenny has come to see me at the suggestion of these teachers. They want me to fix him up with a sense of purpose, a sense of direction, so that he’ll go back to lessons fired up with ambition and self-belief, knowing what’s worth doing and how to go about doing it. And the quicker the better. 

When things don’t make sense

Phillips1 writes that people come to therapy because the story that they’ve been telling about their lives no longer makes sense. In other words, they find themselves in a state of not knowing (or no longer knowing) what to think about important things. Like, ‘How can the future possibly be exciting when we don’t know what’s going to happen? When things could go wrong? When we could make mistakes? When we could die?’ Or not knowing things like, ‘Why did my mum and dad split up, really? Was it all my dad’s fault? I remember them arguing. I remember my mum always going to the pub…’

Kenny doesn’t know if he really fancies Charlotte. ‘I know I like her,’ he says, ‘but I don’t know if I love her. Trouble is, she keeps asking all the time, and when I say I don’t know, she gets all moody like we should break up or something.’

I assure him that not knowing is normal; that we don’t know what we think or feel about all sorts of things – often because we have mixed feelings about them – and that, when it comes to love, not knowing is usually the truth.

‘She wants us to have sex,’ he says, ‘but I don’t know if we should. I mean, I’d like to – who wouldn’t! – but I don’t want to mess her around if we’re not going to stay together.’

‘Not knowing’ makes young people anxious and, because of this, they clutch at certainties. ‘If we have sex,’ Charlotte might be saying implicitly to Kenny, ‘then that’ll prove how much we love each other. We’ve been going out together for six weeks: surely that proves something? Look at all the presents I’ve bought you. And what I did to that girl who was flirting with you! Everyone says that we’re good together… Of course we love each other. It’s obvious.’

Searching for a tangible kind of proof to put themselves out of the misery of not knowing, there are young people who end up doing things which can’t be undone – getting pregnant, getting married – in order to banish the anxiety of not knowing, when everyone else seems to know.

‘How did you and Dad know that you loved each other?’

‘We just knew!’

‘You mean, because you fancied each other?’

‘No, not just that…’

‘What then?’

‘I don’t know! We just knew, OK?’

I remember agreeing with one young person that we’d ban the word ‘love’ from our counselling conversations as too imprecise, too simplistic. This seemed to help, taking away any pretence of knowing what we meant when – most of the time – we didn’t.

Kenny struggles with not knowing what he feels about Charlotte and, as his counsellor, I join him in his struggling, helping him to bear the experience of not knowing. There’s pressure on me to provide him with certainties, yet learning to bear the anxiety of not knowing is at the heart of psychotherapy.

‘I don’t know if I love her,’ he says. ‘How am I supposed to know?’

I tell him – again – that not knowing is normal.

‘So how come nobody else has this problem?’

‘Maybe they try to convince themselves because they can’t bear to live with any uncertainties.’

‘Are you saying I should just decide?’

‘No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that your honest truth is that you don’t know, Kenny. You can’t pretend to love someone. That’s not fair. When we don’t know, we just have to wait and see. And that’s really difficult to do but – usually – it’s the truth.’

Being understood: the ultimate achievement

We’re better able to bear the anxieties of not knowing when it feels as if our not knowing is understood by another person. This might not seem like much of an achievement in counselling but I think it’s the ultimate achievement: one human being understanding another. Feeling understood, our relief is primitive, like a baby’s when its cries are finally heard and interpreted correctly. Feeling understood means that we’re no longer alone; we’re no longer weird or stupid. Instantly, the world becomes a better place. We relax.

I’m not arguing for counsellors to become hapless incompetents, professing to know nothing about anything and never daring to express an opinion. Young people need the containment of counsellors who know things and sometimes say what they know. They need counsellors who are wise and can make sense of things when they themselves can’t. And with young people, it’s often appropriate to be directive. It’s just that there are also times when not knowing is the simple truth, and containment involves bearing those times together, calmly and without panicking. Keats describes a state of ‘negative capability’ wherein a person is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’2.

The alternative to not knowing is to reach irritably after fact and reason. When young people can’t bear not to know, they panic and regress, splitting the world into good things and bad things, into love and hate, truth and lies, us and them. They take refuge in a simpler, childlike world of apparent certainties, and the job of a counsellor is to draw them gently back from that world, supporting them as they try, once again, to bear all the doubts and anxieties of life.

Why bother when we’re going to die anyway?

And there’s another anxiety troubling Kenny which, again, is born of not knowing. He’s close to his grandmother – his mother’s mother – and she has cancer. That much he does know. What he doesn’t know (because no one will talk about it) is whether she’ll die.

He says the cancer is in her intestines.

I ask whether she’s had chemotherapy.

‘D’you mean when your hair falls out? Yeah, she had that and she got a wig and everything but her hair never fell out.’

Apparently she’s feeling better at the moment but Kenny’s not convinced.

‘She’s not the same. She gets tired. She can’t go to the shops. She has this woman who comes to help her.’

I ask if he thinks she’ll die.

‘How would I know? Haven’t a clue!’

‘Cancer is serious,’ I say. ‘Hopefully she’ll recover but it’s always possible that a person with cancer might die because of the illness.’

‘You think so?’

I say that I’ve no idea but, yes, it’s always possible.

He shakes his head in dismay. ‘F**king stupid!’

‘Stupid that people get ill? Stupid that they die?’

‘Yeah! Doesn’t make sense….’

I agree with him: death doesn’t make sense. Perhaps that’s the reason we avoid talking about it and, in particular, avoid talking with young people about it.

‘Death’s the last thing on their minds,’ we tell each other. ‘They’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. Why would they want to be thinking about death? That’s morbid! They’ll worry about that when they’re much older.’

The truth is that young people think and worry about death far more than adults would like to believe. And not only do they think about dying physically and what that’ll be like, but they think about the fact of life being finite – finite despite all that talk about the future, the future, the future and the exciting opportunities waiting for those who work hard. Why bother to do anything when we’re going to die anyway?

It’s a good question, a really good question. Young people are sometimes fobbed off with answers about the importance of having a family, living the good life, making money, serving God… But more often, adults avoid the question of ‘Why bother…?’ for fear of not having the answer. It rattles our cages. We feel as if we ought to know; we ought to be able to put young people’s minds at rest and reassure them that life is worthwhile.

‘Why is it worthwhile?’

‘Because it is!’

‘Yeah, but why?’ I

t’s a question underpinning everything. If I’m going to die, then why should I bother to behave? Why should I save my money? Why should I respect other people? Why should I invest in the future or revise for my exams?

Without opportunities to talk about these things and feeling that they should have their own answers, young people’s anxieties about death seep out. They go round trying to look tough and courageous, as if they’re afraid of nothing. Or they attach desperately, merging with other people in order not to feel alone. They take physical and sexual risks, defying death. Or they fight with authority figures because they can’t fight with death, the greatest authority figure of all. Underneath so much of their behaviour, they’re forever asking ‘why?’ – why do we have to die? Why will I have to die? – but no one will engage with the question for fear of not being able to provide The Answer.

‘Not knowing’ seems to me to be the only emotionally and intellectually honest answer to the question. We don’t know why people have to die. We don’t know why some people – good people – die before their time. We don’t understand the meaning of these things and we spend our lives trying to work it out.

In my experience, young people find this admission reassuring. Not knowing is less anxiety provoking than pretending to know when we don’t. As I’ve said, one of the most important tasks for counsellors is to bear another person’s not knowing. Finding someone prepared to do this leaves young people feeling less alone; it makes their questioning and their not knowing normal rather than mad or foolish or ‘just so negative’. 

Modelling ‘not knowing’

Counselling itself provides an opportunity to practise. Not only do young people like Kenny not know about love and death but they don’t know what’s going to happen from week to week in counselling. In counselling, they can practise not knowing, entrusting themselves to a process over which they have partial but never complete control. Sometimes that experience will be reassuring, and sometimes it’ll be disconcerting as meaning is negotiated and renegotiated, as the circumstances of the young person’s life change, as the relationship between the two people in the counselling room becomes closer and as the ending of their relationship approaches.

Still thinking about his grandmother, Kenny looks downcast.

‘It’s so stupid!’

‘Why do you think that some people – good people like your grandmother, Kenny – get cancer?’

He says he doesn’t know.

‘I don’t know either. Like you say, it doesn’t make sense.’

He looks at me, still worried, but also – I sense – relieved. I suggest to him that I’m not giving him the answers he wants.

‘That’s OK,’ he says. ‘It’s helping.’

‘How’s it helping?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘It just is. I’m not used to talking about stuff like this.’

Lots of young people would say the same thing. What they mean is that they’ve never allowed themselves to stay in a relationship where the outcome is unclear, where the other person doesn’t make everything all right, and yet that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s good enough. 

Nick Luxmoore is a school counsellor, trainer and UKCP registered psychotherapist. His sixth book, Young People, Death and the Unfairness of Everything, will be published in July by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Nick can be contacted through www.nickluxmoore.com

References

1 Phillips A. On flirtation. London: Faber; 1994.
2 Keats J. Letter to George and Tom Keats. In: Gittings R. (ed) Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1817.