Friday, July 2, 2010

A Friday Essay: ON NOT KNOWING

I hear myself say these words countless times in the course of a day: I don’t know. The reason I hear myself say them so often it a simple one: I am blessed with a partner in life who is a woman of infinite, insatiable, and wholly admirable curiosity. She always wants to know. She wants to know the what and the why and the how of everything, and she does not hesitate to ask. I fear I must frequently disappoint her by being unable to come up with the answer. It humbles me constantly to be reminded of this reality: I don’t know.

There are, of course, many big things I don’t know: does God exist? How many stars are in the sky? What is the nature of good and evil? Why are we placed here on this earth at this particular point in time? Who am I? And perhaps the most vexing one of all: what happens to us after we are dead? I’m not alone in being unable to answer such questions, which are better left as questions anyway.

But there are also, as I am reminded daily, myriad little things: how much does it cost to buy a quart of milk? How long does it take to drive from here to Tijuana? How do you calculate the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius? What language do they speak in Botswana?

All these are things I simply don’t know the answers to. They are a part of my vast store of ignorance. But then there are also those things that I forget. I think of all those many books I have read over the years, the many movies I have seen; of all those things my young mind knew—or thought it knew—but which my older mind has simply left behind, scattered uselessly like so much trash along the wayside.

There are those among us, I know—I have known some such as friends, and have always envied them—who are gifted with minds “like a trap,” which snap up bits of knowledge instantly and file them away in an orderly fashion that allows them to be accessed at will. They humble me by knowing a lot more than I do.

Far from a trap, my own mind is a sieve. You pour stuff in, it all rushes out the other side. In part, I judge in my harsher moments, this is the result of inattention. I have never been good, for example, at associating names with faces…

Of course I know you. I recognize your face. You come forward to meet me with a friendly, almost intimate smile. You greet me by name. We are great friends, no? Or we have been great friends, at some time in the past. I greet you likewise with a friendly smile and warm words…

I have absolutely no idea who you are.

Sound familiar? I know I’m not alone in this, and hope that you have not been among the victims of my inattention. I have not carefully registered the particularity of your appearance at our first encounter, so I fail to recognize you the second time around. I judge it to be both uncaring and rude. And it’s the same with facts, with the plots and characters in the novels I have read, with the names of artists and writers—even those I most admire. I do not pay close enough attention in the first place, so I don’t have anything of substance to hold on to.

These days, it is as much the things that I knew yesterday that I forget. It’s that famous “short-term memory” that most of us tend to lose as we grow older. Who was that actor in the film I saw last night? What was the title of the film? For God’s sake, what was the film about? I don’t know.

I am constantly astounded by the vast universe of my not-knowing, compared to the mote of dust of what I think I know. (Much of which turns out to be illusion or delusion anyway, but that’s another topic.)

I comfort myself with the thought that not-knowing is not the same as ignorance. In terms of literal definition, I suppose, the two could be seen as virtually identical. In a wider sense, however, I understand there to be something willful about ignorance that makes it different from not-knowing. The word takes us to the border of stupidity, and I like to think that I’m not a stupid person.

Well, occasionally perhaps. But not all the time. I think I can be forgiven for not knowing something. Anything, really... And yet on the other hand I can be grievously at fault if I ignore some vital piece of knowledge which is plainly available to me. Then it begins to be no longer a matter of not-knowing, but rather of choosing not to know.

Truth to tell, there is a fine line here. To what extent is my mind seduced by the ease of choosing a path of least resistance, the path that demands less effort and commitment? I can be easily satisfied by not-knowing, content in my ignorance, permissive… I read, again, in today’s newspaper, about the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic church: how much did the cardinals and bishops—indeed, the Pope—choose not to know, rather than face the consequences of exposure? For that matter, going back to the 1930s, how many people of power and influence in the world chose to ignore the openly-stated intentions of Hitler and his henchmen in Nazi Germany—and at the cost of how many human lives? How often does fear lead us to choose ignorance over knowledge?

In this light, I find that I must keep looking at my not-knowing with critical discernment, and ask myself what intention might be lurking behind it. There is much I cannot know, and never will. There is much that remains, to my mind, genuinely unknowable. But fear and laziness are not good excuses for willful ignorance—another reason, surely, to be sure that I stay awake. So it will be good to remember to ask myself what’s really going on, when I next hear myself repeat those awfully familiar words: I don’t know.


G said...

Peter, thanks for a fantastic post. This is the most enjoyable post I've come across in quite some while. I too share your ability to forget names as soon as I've been told them - especially Thai names which may be unfamiliar to me. I knew a woman who addressed everyone as "Darling". I thought she was being friendly and familiar, until she revealed one day that she called everyone Darling because she couldn't remember their names! Now, what was her name...?

This "I don't know" response to your wife and life in general is a wondrous thing, Peter. In truth, none of us know - some of us just think that we do! To rest in not knowing - what an English medieval mystic called "The Cloud of Unknowing" - is the beginning of wisdom. For, as Socrates taught, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize one's ignorance!

Anonymous said...

And maybe it's all right not to know! Fx