We don’t have all the answers, but we don’t need to…

by Sarah-Leah Pimentel


Our generation seeks answers to the big questions of our time: climate change, sustainability, the opportunities and ethical limits of medical and scientific discoveries, and the value of human life. In South Africa, with its crippling poverty and rampant crime, we are searching for solutions to our most basic needs: employment, education, and health care. 


We also seek answers to deeply personal questions about identity, life purpose, spiritual healing, and the source of our happiness. As we search for meaning in a myriad of constructive or futile ways, our ultimate hope is that, in the end, it will all work out. But here’s the thing—we just don’t know. 


In the hope that emerged after World War II, Western culture became accustomed to relatively easy access to the basic needs of human survival, which we consecrated as rights: food and water, housing, education, healthcare, and employment. These are good things, and we should continue to strive to make them accessible to all people. However, we’ve come to realise that infinite abundance is not guaranteed. 


These uncertainties induce anxiety and make us fearful for the future. Increased levels of depression, mental illness, and reluctance to have children, among others, are some of the symptoms of the stress of a world that appears to have become more volatile.


The source of our fears is not new. More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus spoke about coming wars, famines, earthquakes, and the destruction of all certainty, where “not one stone will be left on another” (Matthew 24:2). Despite these impending calamities, Jesus promised that God will gather all those who did not fall into despair and trust in something more than the kingdoms of this world. Jesus is telling us that we cannot rely on human genius. We need to look deeper. 


I draw great inspiration and courage from Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk, mystic, theologian and poet. As a child, he experienced the loss of a parent. As a young man, he sought meaning in multiple pleasures, but none satisfied him. His exploration of various religious traditions left him unfulfilled. Despite this, he converted to Catholicism and entered monastic life. But a deep sense of loneliness remained. It would take decades for him to find the peace he had spent a lifetime seeking. 


One of his best-known prayers begins with the words: “My God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” The Merton Prayer from Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton.


Merton was able to tap into the anxiety and longing of the human soul. His quest is as ancient as it is modern. He has become a voice for our times. 


He experienced the pain of disappointment in a world that doesn’t care. There were no earth-shattering answers to his (and our) questions, but he began to recognise that unity with the divine can heal our anxiety. For him, that unity came from a belief “that the desire to please you [God] does indeed please you.” 


He did not know if he was doing God’s will but trusted that simply desiring to please God was enough. Similarly, we don’t know where the future will lead us. But if we believe that there’s something greater than us and that God’s hand is on the pulse of time, then our desire to seek and do good unites with God’s plan of love, as expressed by Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (Jer 29:11). 


When I am overcome by anxiety and fear over the state of the world and my own life, the conclusion to Merton’s prayer gives me renewed strength: “I trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear; you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

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