Our Need for Closure Is Outdated

Our need for closure has to cease being something we seek outside ourselves and something we reach by diving within. What we seek when we seek closure is a break in the action.
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Rachel to Ross: "I am over you. And that, my friend, is what they call closure."
Friends, Season 2, Episode 7, "The One Where Ross Finds Out"

When this episode of Friends aired in 1995, the term "closure" and all it represented became a catchphrase among my cohort: graduating college seniors. There we were on the brink of life, scared and without direction. We looked ahead at our prospects -- a blank slate of possibility -- and felt like the only thing we could do with any confidence was "close" those areas of unfinished business that might keep us mired in the past or tethered to our childhood selves: a relationship here, lingering assignments, outdated ideas... We checked these things off our list with a great flourish and seeking comic effect, said to each other, "And that, my friend, is what they call closure."

The world was a slower place in 1995 -- starting to speed up, but nothing like now. Then we allowed events to follow and consummate their natural arc. Stories -- whether in the popular culture or in our own lives -- generally followed a traditional narrative structure. Anything that didn't was considered avant-garde, radical... Waiting for Godot.

Psychologists use the term "need for closure" to describe the desire for information that will help an individual conclude an issue that has previously been ambiguous and uncertain. It's a drive toward stability. In a linear time, which is what we inhabited for much of the 20th century, it's easy and somewhat accurate to believe the world is comprised -- like our storybooks and history books -- of beginnings, middles, and ends. In that paradigm, closure is the sensation that allows us to rest and make sense of the epic nature of a life in bite-sized pieces. It gives us the illusion of being in control of our own narrative. Closure is the wrap-up that opens up space for something new to flow in.

What we couldn't have known in 1995 was that our need for closure would fail to serve us in a future that resists linearity. And that future is here. Today can we be certain about anything? In business, in life, in love, in consciousness -- is there any way to know? Can we get closure on the questions that plague (or merely irritate or stimulate) us? Or are we looking at a future without real closure? If so, where will we find our periodic respites? How will we catch our breath?

According to sources as varied as an urban shaman (Gabrielle Roth), a business luminary (Dee Hock), and a cultural theorist (Douglas Rushkoff), we've exited the linear era, and entered an era of chaos. Events are unpredictable, which disrupts our traditional linear narrative. It's a shift that has significant implications for our own internal storytelling mechanisms. It messes with our ability to make sense of the world and our place in it.

For people with a strong need for closure (there is an actual scale: the Need for Closure Scale, or NFCS), its absence can be distinctly unsettling. Anxiety and panic disorders are on the rise in the U.S. and the cause may often be linked to our fast-paced lifestyle. Yes, speed is an issue. But, we must also recognize we're at the earliest stages of a quantum leap in the way humans and machines organize and process information. This is bound to generate some anxiety related not just to the speed at which we're required to process, but the changing ways we're called on to interpret the events that shape our reality.

The answer is not to cling to an old coping strategy. Forcing closure can hamper our ability to see the big picture, lead to confirmation bias, and cause us to make decisions before we have all the information we need. This is the mess many of us find ourselves in personally and professionally. Our values haven't evolved to meet the demands of the times. Certainty, for example, is something we're probably going to have to give up.

Our need for closure has to cease being something we seek outside ourselves and something we reach by diving within. What we seek when we seek closure is a break in the action. When you find your own center -- unwavering and stable -- you can touch it whenever you need a respite, a break. Instead of waiting for closure to happen to us, we reap its healthful benefits whenever we need it, without missing a beat.

As we loosen our grip on the narrative order that has defined our worldview and conception of our place in it since the time of the Greeks or before, we're bound to have some hang-ups. Especially since the answer to "what now?" seems to be "anything goes." That heady rush of the college senior face-to-face with unlimited possibility? We're feeling it almost daily now. No wonder we're stressed out.

Human beings are nothing if not adaptable. We'll catch up with ourselves. We'll transcend and master these times, too. A complex dynamical system -- which is what society is -- evolves by breaking down and rebuilding itself of the strongest organisms. Those who endure, who surrender to chaos and in doing so find a new flow, will be our guides. Some of these individuals are already in our midst (hint: many of them -- not all, but many -- are under 30 and gloriously free-flowing). Maybe it's time to adopt a different narrative from the Greeks, one that celebrates the profound potential of letting go: "All I know is that I know nothing."

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