My first conscious encounter with ambiguity came about 20 years ago when I was trying to have a conversation with the two teenage sons of one of my best friends. We wanted to take them out for supper (a rare treat for them) and I was trying to establish where they would like to go. So I mentioned a few places, asking them which one appealed to them. “Whatever.” Hmmm. So I asked again, narrowing down the choices to two. “Whatever.” Groan. I had hoped for a little more eagerness and excitement, knowing how much they enjoyed eating out. “Whatever” just wasn’t getting us anywhere, though it was getting me frustrated and somewhat discombobulated, not being sure of how to interpret their response and/or how to proceed in the face of what appeared to be uncaring apathy.
So then I asked, uncomfortable with the taste of passive aggression on my tongue, “Hmmm, it’s hard to choose when I don’t have a clear idea of what you want. Would you just rather stay home?” “NOOOOO”. Well that was clear enough. So we had at least established that they wanted to go SOMEWHERE. So I asked one more time, “Well, this is your last chance to tell me which restaurant you want…and ‘whatever’ isn’t the right answer.” So they both answered with the name of the restaurant and we went merrily on our way and had a wonderful meal together. And I can’t recall that they ever used that word “whatever” with me again after that. Which is fine with me.
Ambiguity. I didn’t like it then and I dislike it even more now. I like clarity…no, I CRAVE clarity. Ambiguity is the opposite of clarity. Ambiguity, by definition, is the possibility of interpreting an expression in two or more distinct ways and/or vagueness or uncertainty of meaning.
I don’t like deliberate vagueness. I don’t like not knowing what I need to know in order to do what I need to do. And I don’t like the angst of having to cope with something (or someone) I don’t know enough about. Actually, let’s get right down to it – I don’t like it when I don’t like something. Experience has taught me that a passionate (or irrational) dislike of anything usually means that there’s a history behind it that needs to be confronted and tangled with…passionate and/or irrational hatred almost always has a lesson attached just aching to be learned.
So as my dislike of ambiguity grew into downright hatred, it began to itch at my sub-conscious, to the point where I could no longer ignore that open door beckoning me into those murky depths. Through therapy, meditation and honest delving, I realized that I had grown up with ambiguity and had come to view it as a much-dreaded nemesis. Perhaps to compensate for those years of fumbling through hazy vagueness, now I demand and thrive on clarity, especially clarity of expectation. I need to know what’s expected of me. Not knowing is, well, my definition of anxiety. And I don’t like the feeling of being hopelessly entangled by anxiety, so much so that I tend to deliberately avoid situations and people that trigger those uncomfortable negative (toxic) feelings. Which over time can develop into full-blown social anxiety. Which has plagued me for the past few years.
Therapy and reflection showed us that I had grown up through a never-ending thicket of prickly comments and diatribes that were wrapped so well in double meanings that I honestly never really knew what was being said…yet often had that uncomfortable sense that there was another message hiding behind what was being said. There always seemed to be layers of meaning, which to me felt like random minefields that I never quite knew how to maneuver without getting blown to pieces…and as children are wont to do, when I couldn’t clearly understand the message, I interpreted it to my own detriment. To this day some of the words that were flung at me in those early years still echo with a discomforting ambiguity, because I still don’t know for sure whether the real message was genuinely benign or ingeniously cruel. The difference today is that whereas the child interpreted those words as detrimental rejection, the ever-evolving adult in me now tries to offer some benefit of the doubt and not allow those ancient words to inflict any further damage. Unfortunately, that can be the burden of plying a young child with such a constant diet of ambiguity.
Despite these deep delvings and recognition of the “why” of my passionate aversion to ambiguity, it’s still one of the few things in life now that can bring that word “hate” to my lips and heart. I really REALLY hate ambiguity…well, to clarify, I hate deliberate ambiguity in situations where I just want to know what I need to know in order to do what needs to be done. I simply don’t want to have to waste time playing these guessing games, trying to figure out what the real message is behind the message. I can sense when there’s more to the words being spoken…there’s a heavy weight to that unspoken “more”, and it infuriates me because I honestly don’t want to be drawn into having to guess what that “more” is. I find it tiring, frustrating, unnecessary and, well, utterly demeaning.
Arghhhh. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand having to dance this tiresome dance around unspoken messages and hidden agendas, trying to figure out what the other person really wants but refuses to speak it unless coaxed and cajoled.
The fact is, I usually refuse now to participate. Maybe that’s unkind. Maybe it’s still a subconscious rebellion against those childhood minefields. Maybe it borders on paranoia, though I prefer to think of it as a wise wariness. Maybe I’m finally growing up. Let’s face it, there are times when ambiguity reeks of a toxic passive aggression – that’s when I refuse to play, insisting instead on clarity and truthfulness. There are those other times when it’s clear that the other person seems genuinely unable to articulate their way to clarity, and in those situations my passion for words and in particular, accurate articulation, dances in to help the person dig around for the message they’re trying to express.
Sigh. Does any of this make any sense? Am I the only one so adversely affected by ambiguity? I don’t mean delicious ambiguity – I chuckle as much as anyone over funny ambiguous signs. I just don’t like having ambiguity flung at me in response to honest questions like, “Where do you want to go tonight?” or “What do you want to do today?”
I still haven’t learned how to interpret “whatever”.
Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings Blogging The Journey, 2012. All rights reserved.