Mystery, uncertainty, and death in Ural mountains.

Addicted to Mystery?

Mystery is typically something that eludes our human understanding, something that cannot be explained fully. Maybe it is a bit of an enigma, getting a whiff of the forbidden fruit without getting the full taste. Mysteries fascinate and attract us: this attraction is part of the reason we have movements like science, which strive, above all, to solve mysteries just for the sake of solving them. A mystery can be as simple as a beginner-level Sudoku puzzle or it can be something as complicated as the origin of species. Regardless of the type of mystery or its simplicity-complexity, it seems to give people pleasure to investigate mysteries and to solve them. This is quite curious, because we never really want to solve all mysteries, it seems. Once we solve one, we immediately want another. It is the chase, the process of solving the mystery, that seems most attractive to people, not the actual solution. While there may be a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in the moment when you solve your mystery, it usually comes with an unbounded yearning for the next one. Intuitively, people in the business of selling experience know this. Video games are built on this premise – you must solve the puzzle or pass the challenge to get to the next level and the next, and so on. Once you’ve demystified all the levels, you are ready for a new game.

I have this sense that if we were to solve all the mysteries in the world (let’s just pretend that’s possible), we would be left terribly bored, unstimulated, perhaps even terrified at our boredom. Religion is a source of an unsolvable mystery for many, which is really quite brilliant as far as a puzzle goes. You accept that the mystery cannot be solved (here “God works in mysterious ways” is quite apropos), but you spend your entire life trying to understand the mystery, whether it is scripture, or specific teachings, or symbolism associated with that religion. But what other mysteries do people get attached to when they do not wish to or cannot connect to a spiritual mystery? Here’s one example.

Recently I learned about a mysterious event associated with the “Dyatlov’s Pass” that took place in Ural mountains in Soviet Russia in 1959. Nine hikers were found dead under most peculiar circumstances. They had cut their tent open from the inside, and issued forth into -20C or so weather, most of them wearing little clothing and no shoes. All the hikers had internal injuries, like fractured skulls or broken ribs, yet no bruising, cuts, on contusions on their soft tissue. Some of their clothing tested positive for traces of radiation. In the snow, there were no other footprints but those of the hikers and no sign of a struggle, despite the fact that one of the hikers was missing their eyes and tongue. Other strange details abounded and the mystery was never solved. It immediately drew my attention because I am from the former Soviet Union and because…well, I confess, I love a good (murder?) mystery! I began to scour the internet for clues as I did not plan to travel to Ural to try to solve this. A theory began to spin in my mind. It was exciting, interesting, and I spend much time thinking about it over the course of a few days.

I don’t have an answer for this mystery. There are some sources on the internet that claim that they do, and present their theories, from aliens to avalanches. To me, I know that it does not even particularly matter what my theory is. What matters is that, most likely, this mystery will never be solved, simply due to the fact that it happened in 1959 and most of evidence collected by Soviet officials is gone or inaccessible. Not that they had complex forensics to collect evidence in the first place. What does this mean to me? That means that as I age, my mind will likely return to this mystery from time to time, ponder it, feel it out, refine my theory, and then let it go again as something I cannot solve. The beauty is that I can keep enjoying the process of “solving” it in my mind. And I am not alone. There have been many people who have been fascinated by this event, written books, produced films, spun their webs of theories. Why? It will not bring the hikers back. Now, in 2017, it will not change the lives of people living in Ural. Even if the solution presented itself, likely it would have no practical significance.

Except that we could no longer ponder on the “what if?” and the “but maybe…” The process of solving mysteries is addictive in its excitement, its draw.

Nothing is less exciting than something that is totally known. The excitement of presents? Usually the element the surprise and mystery more so than the present. Not to make an epistemological pun, but it seems to me that people often do not even know they are seeking mystery. So you have one example – deaths, real life deaths in the cold north of Soviet Russia, as a mystery, and people all over the world being drawn to it. But what other kinds of mysteries do we pursue? Television shows try to give us a sense of mystery, but you always must keep watching more and more, because the mystery is revealed for you, the thinking is done for you, and you do not get the excitement of building your own theory. You just have to passively watch the mystery unfold as some crudely unrealistic forensic investigators make their case.

Sometimes seeking mystery can take form of possessing objects of mystery. What is the most mysterious object you possess? Perhaps it’s your phone. Do you know how it works? Do you know what enables it to communicate with others over great distances, take pictures, play videos? For most of us, the answer to that is, “no, I have no idea how it does that” (and I probably never will). So although you may not strive to solve The Mystery of the Smartphone, its magical-like qualities (i.e., it does things you want it to do, but like a lighter for a pre-fire savage, its mechanics are beyond your understanding) make you its Possessor. Being a possessor of the mysterious object may be just as exciting as being its investigator.

In fact, our technological project appears to be based on a thirst for mystery (along with some other things, like competitiveness, social comparison, loneliness, etc.) We want the next mysterious object that the company promises is even more mysterious, even more magical than the one you have. Who can resist?

Mystery is our idol. But, having lost the mystery of communal religion, are we looking for mysteries in the right places, or are we looking for mysteries in places where we will only get the cheap knockoff? Uncertainty is part of mystery, yet we are often terrified of uncertainty and love mystery. How can that be?

Uncertainty = terror, but mystery = uncertainty, so…?

Uncertainty is one of our greatest imaginary foes while mystery is our idol. How can that be? On the one hand, people don’t stomach uncertainty too well – they plan their future, follow 5-year plans, have a career trajectory, have goals of doing something by a certain age, whether it’s graduating from school or buying a house, etc., etc. People act like the future is certain and secure, like their plans will reach fruition, often without planning for obstacles. The illusion of security becomes one of the bitter pills of the postmodern existence, once the inevitable obstacles spring up. I say inevitable because although we may plan and scheme as if we can build a certain future, things rarely go 100% according to plan. When our expectations encounter reality, an ugly clash can ensue, like holding up a mirror to your face for the first time and realizing you look nothing like Brad Pitt (but you have already ordered a thousand business cards with “Brad Pitt” on them).

I would not go as far as saying that uncertainty is an inherently “bad” thing just because people tend to be so afraid of it. Uncertainty is a fact of life, neither good nor bad, and every culture nurtures a different relationship with uncertainly. In the current dominant culture of American consumerism and capitalism, uncertainty – as a fact of life – seems to be denied. From the viewpoint of Buddhist and existentialist frameworks, this is a problem. Now, denying facts of existence is a problem, just as it would be a problem to deny that humans need oxygen to survive or that we are vulnerable to the elements. You would probably not leave your home undressed during the Canadian winter, pretending that the subzero wind chill does not affect you. If you did, you would be in for a rude awakening. This is the type of rude awakening people experience when their expectations in life are not met, as if they possess a certificate saying that they have a special right to experience life in a completely different, much more secure way than the rest of the world.

Again, Buddhist and existentialist writers, such D. Loy, D. Suzuki, and J.P. Sartre, would not say that uncertainty is then an ineherently good thing. What they might suggest is a more balanced approach – accepting that uncertainty is part of life would include letting go of the illusion that you can control all your life circumstances. Once you let go of the illusion, it will be easier to manage obstacles when they arise instead of spending your time fighting against the inevitable reality of that obstacle. In another words, you can spend your energy applying to a different school if the school of your dreams rejected you, rather than wallowing in the resentment and bitterness of your thwarted plans.

While generally fearing uncertainty, many people also are drawn to mystery. It seems as if this might be a contradiction, but it’s not. If we get back to the Dyatlov’s pass incident, the distinction is clear: mysteries like the Dyatlov’s pass give us a safe measure of uncertainty. It feels safe because it likely will have no bearing on our daily life (read: our security, financial state, whether we believe we are worthwhile, etc.). As a contrast, the uncertainty of missing your flight and therefore job interview and therefore opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment etc., etc., does not feel like a “safe” kind of uncertainty. As such, we can feel free to flirt with uncertainty by becoming addicted to mysteries, whether it is Dyatlov’s pass story, some conspiracy theory, or the miracle of kittens.

Is this flirtation with uncertainty problematic in itself? No. Yet, if we only engage with uncertainty at a distance, if we can only tolerate it when it has no bearing on our practical lives, relationships, or self-image, then really we are trying to keep a fact of life caged in a tiny glass box. Then, when something does not go according to plan and that little box shatters, we have no immunity for uncertainty. We are infected with anxiety and we cannot tolerate it. This entire psychological system simulates a 90’s cell phone dropped in water: it’s trying to function, but it’s um… not doing so well. We start imagining the absolute worst and then acting as if it’s actually happening.

What about if we could find other ways to engage with uncertainty, other than just relegating it to mysteries that are like a fancy intellectual toy: fascinating, but not relevant to daily living. I don’t claim to and don’t want to provide The One answer as to how we might engage with uncertainty in a different way. But here is just one thought: if instead of thinking of our own [life, future, identity, insert whatever you want here] as a terrifying void of uncertainty, why not think of it as a mystery? Perhaps it is a mystery that you can dedicate yourself to solving while, at the same time, recognizing that you can never solve it absolutely, never predict the future with 100% money back guarantee. If one truly throws themselves into such a view, might life seem more interesting? More worthwhile? More fun? I don’t know. Try it. Let me know.

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