Set Theory — what you want may not be what you know

From time to time, a friend will consult me with their troubles. The conversation will go something like this:

Me: How are you doing?
Them: Oh, not too bad.
Me: I guess that’s better than bad.

So they tell me the source of their pain, with all the gory details and then they run out of stuff to say. They don’t know what to do. They’re not getting what they want.

That’s what I hear when someone shares their pain with me. I’ve been through this many times myself and have developed different ways of thinking about the problem of not getting what I want. After much introspection and consideration, I arrived at a way to help relieve that pain for myself. You see, I don’t always get what I want, too. But when I don’t, I am reminded that happiness isn’t getting everything you want, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t.

This article is about one of the mental exercises that I have done for myself and shared with others for dealing with the pain of unmet expectations. I call it “Set Theory”.

You might remember one of the first things they teach you in math in elementary school, and they call it set theory. This is something that I vividly recall from my first grade textbook on math. Look at the image below:

Image for post
Image for post

What is in the circle is in the set. What is without the circle is not in the set. I can recall the diagrams in that textbook, showing a circle and what is within and what is without. I still carry those images in my mind to this day, but now I have adapted them for another purpose.

For my troubled friend, I say, draw a small ‘o’, like this:

Image for post
Image for post

And I’d tell them, that in that circle is everything they know. It’s small because our tiny little brains don’t know very much. We’re just no match for the universe. But at least now we can put what we know in perspective.

Then I tell them to draw another ‘o’, but this time bigger — but not very much bigger, and around the smaller ‘o’. Like this:

Image for post
Image for post

Then I’d tell them that that bigger circle, that’s everything you know you don’t know. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we don’t know. We have many questions that remain unanswered and maybe they never will be answered. But knowing what we don’t know allows us to get a grip on our limits, and that tends to help us lower our expectations.

So, to my troubled friend, I say, “Everything outside of that bigger circle? That’s what you don’t even know you don’t know. And what you really, really want, might be out there.”

This is why I’m agnostic about everything. I can’t know everything that I want at any given moment in time. And if I focus on one thing that I want, well, I could miss an opportunity for something much better than what I already know I want.

And I know the experience of getting what I want, only to find that I have buyer’s remorse after finding out that what I wanted wasn’t really what I wanted. Sigh.

For my troubled friend, I say, “See? There is still hope because what you want may not even be in the set of what you know, what you know you don’t know, and it might be out there, with you don’t even know you don’t know. What you want may come out of left field and you’ll have no idea how you you managed to get it, but you’ll have it. Life is like that, and its full of surprises.”

I am agnostic about everything because I want to keep my mind as open as humanly possible. I have heard stories about how a poor immigrant from a communist country comes to America and sees a land of opportunity. His expectations from his old country were low, and because he moved to a place with an entirely different set of rules and expectations, his mind is free to do something different. I want my mind to be opened like that.

Even when faced with the possibility of disappointment, I will always try to consider as many possible positive outcomes as I can, of what appears to be an impending disaster. I will talk with my friends. I will talk with my relatives. I will seek out whatever there may be for me. I will even re-position myself, and consider what is and what is not so important to me anymore, when I’m disappointed. I ask myself what is the worst possible thing that could happen and what is the best thing that could come of it.

After spending some time in consideration, I have already prepared myself for the worst, while acknowledging the good that can come out of what appears to be a distressing situation. By then, I’m no longer afraid of the worst, and can keep my eyes open for good things that I have not even considered before. I am willing to admit that what I want, under any circumstances, may not even be something I know about.

When my mind is open, I am ready to accept the gifts of the present moment, whatever they may be.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store