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The Power of Stepping Into the Unknown

A Personal Perspective: The heroic task of letting go of the familiar.

Pexels. Photo: Jens Johnsson
Pexels. Photo: Jens Johnsson

Stories of the “hero’s journey,” from Bilbo to Buddha, tell us that leave-taking is an essential, perhaps the essential task. Heroes must eventually leave the village or the castle, or the farmhouse in Kansas in order to come into their full powers. They must leave behind the familiar and strike out for The Unknown.

But leaving the village is considered heroic for a good reason, captured exactingly in a scene from the movie Papillon, in which Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play a couple of guys trying to escape from prison. In this scene, McQueen’s character is released from a long stretch of solitary confinement, during which he'd gotten into the habit of counting the number of steps he could take in any direction inside the cell, which was five.

When they let him out, he slowly begins walking down the corridor, counting off the steps. On the fifth step, he stops, looks around bewildered, and for the first time in a very long time, he takes a sixth step—on which he passes out cold.

It’s a striking illustration of how literally overwhelming it can be to take even a single step beyond what’s familiar, even when what’s familiar is a prison.

But sometimes, our lives call us to take that sixth step. Whether it’s driven by the demands of passion, growth, authenticity, love, innovation, or introspection, we begin to understand why, at the edges of the known world, the old mapmakers used to draw monsters, dragons, and ships offshore being attacked by giant squid—which is enough to keep most people in the village.

The following story is about a leave-taking I embarked on some years ago, which taught me a few rubber-meets-the-road lessons about the heroic task of stepping into the unknown:

In a bid for change, adventure, and authenticity—and something I sensed I needed to hear but couldn’t in the cacophony of city life—I had decided to move, for the first time, from the city to the country, from a suburb of San Francisco to a desert in northern New Mexico surrounded by the silence of lunar places.

The night before I was to fly there to begin house-hunting, I dreamed of falling and was flopping around in bed like a fish on a dock.

Flying into Albuquerque, the plane hit a trough of air that pitched a glass of water from the tray table into my lap and brought my lunch up to the mid-esophagus. The airplane’s wings flapped like the arms of a man fighting for balance on a tightrope.

In the airport, I saw someone wearing a button that said, “Welcome to New Mexico. Land of the flea, home of the plague.” I later learned that some of the state’s outlying areas—not far from where I was headed—have something of a problem with fleas that carry the bubonic plague, the same one that killed a fourth of the population of medieval Europe.

As I headed for baggage claim, in the back of my mind, I heard the words of the poet Rainer Rilke reminding me that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things, and I had the uneasy sense that I’d come to the right place.

My first few months living in the wilderness felt overwhelming. I barely left the house for more than a few hours at a time and slept 12 hours a day. The scale of everything made a mockery of my sense of perspective, and the 100-mile visibilities seemed to double the size of the world, making me feel very small. The intractable silence of the place kept startling my reptilian brain into idle chatter. The Indian and Spanish cultures felt alien. There was hail the size of marbles, flash floods capable of carrying off livestock and large appliances, and thunder-like gunshots next to my ear. Nothing felt familiar.

I suppose, then, that a sense of feeling out of control made the incident with the magpie so unnerving.

I was sitting at my desk one afternoon several months after moving, staring out the window at columns of thunderheads moving across the sky while the wind pounded on kettledrums outside. Suddenly a bird flew directly into the window with a bony thud and bounced off, leaving a clump of feathers stuck to the glass.

I stood up reflexively. A meadowlark lay stunned on the ground, and just at that instant, a magpie, three times the meadowlark’s size, barreled down from a nearby tree and pecked the small bird to death as it flapped around helplessly. When it was dead, the magpie took it up to a low branch of the apricot tree, set it there, and flew off.

I stumbled outside, wondering what act of carnage I had just witnessed. Was it the end of a chase? Some violent spasm of territoriality? Or was it, I even wondered, a mercy killing?

Four days later, that clump of feathers was still stuck to my office window like a suicide note, and I was still rattled, not by the violence or suddenness of it, but the not-knowing, the not understanding what it meant.

Maybe it was growing up in a culture that doesn’t distinguish between uncertainty and anxiety and to which mystery is something to be solved, not serenaded. My father, for instance, frequently read to me from a book of “minute mysteries,” and I had to figure out whodunit, thus coming to believe that almost anything could be figured out.

Life, however, and certainly the natural world, isn’t just another minute mystery to solve, and not everything can be figured out. Nor am I any closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems the better bet. Life, after all, ends not with an answer but a question: what next?

Indeed, in the months after I buried the meadowlark, I chose, quite uncharacteristically, to stay in suspense about what had happened to him when one phone call to the ornithology department at the University of New Mexico could have settled the matter, as well as my sense of uncertainty. But I didn’t call. I wondered.

One afternoon I even spent several hours speculating on the lives of birds as I watched a group of grey juncos outside my house repeatedly flock to the ground, peck for seeds, and suddenly, as if on some invisible cue, explode into flight in every direction, and then re-gather slowly on the ground like fallen leaves.

Then one day, I stopped wondering and called the university. Magpies, the young woman told me, are thievish and opportunistic and will take advantage of an injured bird for the sake of an easy meal. That, she said with great certainty, is what I saw.

I hung up, feeling oddly disappointed. Not in the cruelty of nature but in the cruelty of certitude. The knowing, that is, put an end to the wondering, which in many ways was far more entertaining and instructive. In it, there was room for imagination and discovery, for the quest implied in question. The truth, it seems, did not set me free.

In disregarding the old mapmakers’ warnings—in literally moving into the unknown—I learned that in hanging onto the familiar, I have what is familiar, and in letting go, I have no idea what comes next. Life becomes a cloud rolling overhead, changing shape moment by moment like a moving Rorschach. It’s a gargoyle, then a fish, then a serpent, and there’s no predicting. It’s a hawk, a dancer, an airplane, a buffalo, an archer. And the only thing I knew for sure about it is that I am, like the magpie, resourceful and, like the meadowlark, vulnerable.

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