When I was a toddler, my favorite toys were legos. I would build houses and people and sculptures while my parents learned to not walk through the living room barefoot. One day, I bought a box of legos that were a different size than the ones I already had. When I began to build my tower, the blocks didn’t click together like they were supposed to. I started ugly-crying. Legos click together; it’s what they do. It’s what they’ve always done. It was the earliest memory I have of genuine confusion. What was supposed to make sense, to fit together, suddenly didn’t.
With that in mind, I’m going to give a little history lesson. Bear with me; I promise it connects. At the turn of the 20th century, science itself was in a state of confusion. When people zoomed in on atoms or zoomed out on galaxies, Newton’s mathematical laws that had governed motion for centuries suddenly didn’t work. People scrambled to find explanations for why the universe was breaking the rules, and then these weird ideas of quantum mechanics and relativity arrived and established a new order. The universe made sense again, in a new way. This was a major scientific revolution. For decades beforehand, though, scientists’ minds were full of question marks.
This is the part we don’t learn about in science classes and yet can most relate to: not having an answer. Being confused. It often seems like the worst, to face a blank slate when everything that should click together just doesn’t. We’ve all experienced this in our academic lives, if on a smaller scale than that of Einstein. In math class, you write your solution, triple check your algebra, confidently circle your answer, and then…in comes the teacher’s pen. Or you spend hours slaving away at a paper for English or history and you don’t get the grade you thought you deserved, and you don’t know why. Or you don’t have any work written down and you just stare at the math problem or the essay prompt, with no idea of where to even begin.
Growing up, I loathed that whoosh of confusion and helplessness which these moments bring. In such moments, my brain is a churning mixture of disconnections. And often there’s the eventual light bulb that clicks my mind together and makes things as clear as a Claritin-D commercial, but unlike my toddler self, I’ve come to believe that those seconds beforehand, those moments in the dark, matter.
This idea began in my sophomore year, when I read a play called “Arcadia” for English class. In this play, I came across one of those sentences (You know, the ones that stop you in your tracks and make you put down the book to look at your life). There’s this character – who coincidentally is talking about that big scientific revolution I mentioned before – and at the end of this monologue, he says, “it’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” Those words hit me hard. I, who had hated confusion ever since the day those legos didn’t fit together, had never paused to think of it as a time of opportunity.
In subsequent months, I kept pondering such a suggestion. Why would anyone enjoy being wrong or having no answer? But that sentence kept sticking with me, and so I started giving myself time to sit with confusion rather than freeze in frustration. No, I didn’t suddenly get straight-A’s or reach enlightenment, but by embracing my confusion in the classroom, schoolwork became more enjoyable. Confusion changed from being an obstacle in the way of my academic growth to the cornerstone of it. And this wasn’t a result of doing anything drastically differently; I simply allow myself a change in perspective.
To be poetic with it, confusion is when the familiar becomes foreign. Minds full of question marks meet in the dark, scrounging aimlessly for a candle and a set of matches. But I believe confusion is also a time of open doors, when the track you’ve followed has hit a dead end, leaving you the unexpected explorer. And if you freeze up or run away from those moments, you miss the enjoyment they can bring. Confusion is an adventure, leading you to an undetermined, unknown goal.
I believe the fun doesn’t come from the solution with a check mark, or the paper with the A, or even the revolution itself, but from the confusion. The red pen, the blank paper, the blinking cursor on the screen - the burned out bulbs that give you time to wander, to be lost. And I know we’re constantly told, “It’s about the journey, not the destination! It’s not about what’s waiting on the other side - it’s the climb!” But do we really apply that philosophy to the classroom?
I know we’re all busy and most of us don’t have time to close our eyes and meditate over every difficult homework problem or question we encounter, but you only need a few seconds to take a deep breath, give your best shot, and let yourself be in this state, to explore what you do know and wonder at what you don’t.
See, you’re at a point in life and in school when you should be confused. And one of the benefits of being confused at this point and in this place is that we’re surrounded by people who can support us along the way. You won’t always answer every big question that comes to you, but that’s okay. Sit in those disconnected legos of your life, those ashes of “what you thought you knew,” and as you wait for a light bulb to turn on, give yourself time to be at peace in the darkness. And who knows? If you keep moving forward in confusion, there is that magical possibility that you might just stumble upon a revolution.