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The Unknown: A Potential for Success

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We always fear the unknown. It’s what keeps us trapped in bad situations, bad relationships, and less than favorable political climates; it’s what keeps us from exploring the new, from experimenting with the different, from inventing an alternative or pursuing a risk. The unknown is what confines us, pacifies us, contents us with the status quo, no matter how desperately it wants for change. “There are things known,” as Jim Morrison once said, “and things unknown” (Jim Morrison). The known is the comfortable, the tried and true, the tested and the reputable. The traditional. The known has been passed down; we have grown up in. The trouble with the known is that we already know it. There is no impetus toward revolution in the known, no drive for knowledge. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces of World War II, spoke of “greatness” as “a road leading towards the unknown” (Charles de Gaulle). If we already know the known, if we already inhabit its offices, then every catalyst for human success will always point us in the direction of the unknown.

So what is the unknown, exactly? It can be anything; it is anything. It’s the window you’ve yet to peak out of, it’s the girl you’ve yet to talk to; it’s the leader you’ve yet to challenge; but perhaps most terrifyingly: it’s yourself. Knowing others often means knowing yourself, and when that prospect scares us into complacence with ignorance, then we build up walls and we shutdown. If we cannot know ourselves, then we cannot know others. And if we cannot know others, if they remain to us always unknown, then we’ve already lost the potential for communication. That’s really what the unknown is about: it’s about taking a leap of faith from me to you, from self to other. It’s about communication. So of course everyone fears the unknown; but it isn’t until we face that fear that we can hope to come together as human beings. And as humans, as social animals, we cannot but yearn for intimacy, we cannot but want for relationship—and what this means is that, as humans, we simply need to communicate.

In The Uncertain Mind, Sorrentino and Roney claim that the unknown can either invigorate us with its endless possibilities, or it can terrify us with its unpredictability (2000). The unknown is therefore also about us, about how we take a stand toward it: are we willing to open up to change or are we capable only of shutting down and cowering in familiarity?

When I first started high school, I was terrified at the prospect of meeting new people. I let a fear of the unknown scare me into introversion: I became incapable of communication. Would they laugh at me? Would we have a basis for relation? Would we have anything at all in common? Would I remain forever an outsider; would they find my interests childish? The questions go on and on. And they all represent one thing: uncertainty, which stems from an irrational fear of the unknown. We cannot know the exact manner by which others will react to our communicative efforts. We cannot know until we try. And refusing to try means refusing to communicate. It means letting uncertainty get the best of us. It means falling prey to the unknown and allowing what could otherwise have been a proliferative network of communicative relationships breakdown and atrophy. And the thing about a breakdown in communication is that it harms not only the self but also the other. When I couldn’t communicate, I felt hollow, I felt lonely and isolated. But I soon came to realize that I wasn’t the only one facing alienation: other people have as intense a need to communicate as do I; other people too were faced with the harrowing prospect of the unknown, and other people we alienating just as I was. So communication is about the furthest thing from egoism I can think of. It’s about opening bridges between each other, it’s about relating and coming together as people.

It takes a significant amount of courage to face the unknown, because, as Sorrentino and Roney are so quick to point out: the unknown represents the uncertain—and we always fear the uncertain. But it isn’t just courage. No, the courage to face the unknown is moral as much as it’s daring. It’s moral because a paralyzing fear of the unknown means a breakdown in communication, and a breakdown in communication has as much as affect on others as it does on oneself. It means shutting yourself off from other people. And, to reiterate my point: we are all human, we are social beings and we need to communicate. As terrifying as the unknown can be, endless isolation is much worse. Because when you isolate yourself, you’re also isolating others. You’re depriving them from an opportunity to communicate as much as you’re depriving yourself. And now it’s no longer an issue of courage, but of morality, of human character. If it were obvious how others would respond to our efforts to communicate, then the whole thing would be a non-issue, and this speech would miss the mark entirely. But it’s never obvious; it’s always a risk. The task is to see in the unknown a potential for newness. A capacity for greatness, to recite de Gaulle’s famous line. If we can do this, then others no longer represent to us the possibility of humiliation or embarrassment. Instead, they represent the potential for new friendships, for companionship, for genuine human interactivity. If we learn to share our thoughts, feelings, wishes, dreams, expectations, disappointments and beliefs with others, then we can come to know ourselves in a more authentic way. In other words, the more we communicate with others, the better we can learn to communicate with ourselves.

I find the best way to make sense of a significant event is to share it with someone by narrativizing it in the form of a story. It’s by sharing my story that I sort out its pieces. It’s by relating to others that I learn to relate more authentically with myself. And this can be just as scary. What we learn when we truly listen to ourselves can paralyze us to the same extent that the fear of communicating with others can scare us into isolation. The task, again, is to take an affirmative stand on this uncertainty. The task is to see in yourself a possibility for authenticity, a potential for authentic self-knowledge, self-actualization. Some people go their whole lives without ever “finding” themselves. This is a fear of the unknown, an unwillingness to communicate with yourself. And the best way to communicate with yourself is to start communicating with others.

In his book, Into the Unknown, Jack Uldrich emphasizes the fact that the best way to orient yourself toward the unknown is to assume the role of a leader (2004). The unknown is the path that strays from the crowd, and the only way to plunge into its depths is to lead yourself the way you might lead a team. I find this metaphor to be rather apt, because the act of following implies a familiarity, a comfort and a lack of risk. Leading means looking at what lies ahead and taking the first step into uncertainty. It means seeing in the straying path a potential for success, for invention, discovery and greatness. If the world is just a combination of the known and the unknown, and we already know the known, then all there is that’s left to do is explore the unknown. Open up to others, open up to yourself. Look into the darkness and embrace the fact that its secrets are better discovered than left hidden. It is only by communicating that we can come together as human-beings, and it is only by embracing the unknown that we can ever hope to communicate. 

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