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Why mystery matters

We live in a world that tries to explain everything — from how our minds work to whether there is a God. But, says Tanis Taylor, we should leave some room for mystery

An artist called John Newling went to insurers Lloyd’s of London in 2006 and asked them to underwrite him against ‘loss of mystery’ — in other words, to offer to pay out if all mystery was lost from his life. He felt life had become too controlled, constantly surveyed and audited, with every meeting minuted and every risk assessed. ‘Mystery,’ he says, ‘is a predisposition to search, enjoy, play and wonder. That becomes lost when we’re controlling it all.’

He was unconvinced that mystery could survive in our unremitting climate of CCTV and health and safety regulations. And so began his year of mystery prospecting, including a stall — The Preston Market Mystery Project — set up to collect people’s personal mysteries. ‘Losing your sense of mystery?’ he asked the public. ‘Finding everything a bit predictable?’ He asked people to entrust him with their mysteries. And they did.

‘Mystery is familiar to us all,’ says Newling. ‘Many of us have been in or observed situations when something inexplicable has occurred. The 281 mysteries I collected read like a treatise in being human and our need to have things that we cannot explain.’ They ranged from out-of-body experiences to uncanny coincidences, from lost red staplers to mothers who wake from comas to whisper ‘It’s Aspen’ — which turns out to be the crossword solution the whole family is puzzling over a week after her death.

Despite the blossoming of interest in Newling’s project, we live in an information age. We put our faith in experts and our questions into Google. We have charted the far reaches of our planet, mapped its contours and sat-nav’d its trickier intersections. Even our deepest emotions are being reduced to empirical brain chemistry — skips and blips mapped by the art of neuroscience. We still have mysteries, sure, but now they are forensic rather than fantastic, solved by the closing credits of CSI.

Physicists are working on the ‘theory of everything’, taking Einstein’s theory of relativity and combining it with the findings of quantum physics to account for, in theory, everything. Imagine– no more unmapped consciousness. No more lost socks. But what becomes of mystery when we have all the answers? What of ghost stories, coincidences and chance meetings? When everything is explained doesn’t life become somehow mundane, predictable and earth-bound?

Surely we actively need a continuing sense of mystery and wonder? Isn’t it the unknowable that keeps us interested in life, in learning, in developing ourselves? Think of magical children’s stories such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, or the magical realism of Louis de Bernières and Gabriel García Márquez. They remind us that even with all the answers we would do well to foster what philosopher Martin Heidegger called a willingness to walk in the dark – to cast ourselves into mysterious waters, the unknown where our senses become more alive and instincts alert. Not knowing requires subtler, more numinous skills – you need to use your heart and your intuition. Surely the philosopher Kierkegaard was right to maintain that life is not a problem to be ‘solved’, rather a ‘mystery to be lived’.

‘A sense of mystery is intrinsic to the human mind,’ says Les Lancaster, professor of transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University. ‘It’s intrinsic for us to seek answers. It’s our evolutionary heritage, moving us forward by motivating us to find out more and use our imagination.’ Mystery is the ultimate trail of breadcrumbs. It piques our interest, invites us to solve or make sense of something and use our imagination to fill in the gaps.

All the sociology points to the fact that we are happiest when we feel we belong to something bigger than ourselves. ‘There are two kinds of belonging,’ says Lancaster. ‘One is social inclusion — football clubs or social groups — but the other is belonging in that sense of being part of something larger than yourself.’ Mystery is this shared but unknowable terrain, reminding us that we are not the masters of our destiny, but pawns together. It dispels the arrogance that we know where we’re headed. It keeps our minds open, and our lives interesting.

‘The need for mystery,’ wrote American author Ken Kesey, ‘is greater than the need for an answer.’ We may live in a time where there is great emphasis on proof, answers and outcomes, but mystery persists as a reminder to enjoy the process — that undirected, unsettling, unknowable journey. Certainly in our controlled cultures we will be dissuaded from walking in the dark lest we bump, break or sue somebody. Do it anyway. When the lights get too bright we are programmed to seek the shadows, to nurture the unknowable and, as Kesey says, to plant gardens ‘in which strange plants grow and in which mysteries bloom’.

Psychologies' manifesto for mystery

1. Defy reason. Make a decision based entirely on instinct, be that an internet date or a DVD from the shelf.
2. Invite difference. Talk to strangers in the park, in a café or in the street.
3. Notice coincidences.
4. Read mysteries. Be aware of how you feel in the middle of the book as opposed to the end.
5. Enjoy the unsettling. Tell ghost stories.
6. Walk without purpose. In the eighteenth century situationists would ‘deriver’ or take psychogeographic walks with no direction and no destination. Try it in your city.
7. Wonder at rainbows.
8. Spend a day with a child. See the world through their eyes and when you can’t answer all their ‘whys?’, share their bafflement.