This I Believe

James - Mosier, Oregon
Entered on June 2, 2006

I believe in the power of “not knowing”. “Not knowing ” has not come easily to me. I am a debater by nature and constant collector of facts for buttressing future arguments. A Harvard education even in the Levi’s, BVD tee shirt and sandals of the early 70’s, left me with a presumptive belief in the power and politics of creating, owning and dispensing knowledge. Medical school, however, with two years of endless memorization from physically weighty texts, began my ambivalence toward rote knowledge not tempered by real life experience. The clinical years ahead provided the experience but revealed what knowledge could not heal. Patients die. Psychiatric residency training, divided into schools of thought named after theorists rather than theories, further shook my confidence in the power of what is as opposed to what is not known.

I am grateful for my undergraduate years in Biology studying Ethology, the study of animal behavior. Ethologists such as VonFritz, studying honeybees, Tinbergen, observing gulls, and E.O. Wilson, watching animal behavior in general, had the patience to stop and observe for hours, weeks and years on end, until subtle truths were revealed. I fear that as a culture we are losing these very skills. Our attachment to knowing and knowing right now is stealing our ability to be comfortable “not knowing”, observing, feeling and intuiting.

Over years of practicing rural psychiatry, experiencing a bit of everything imaginable, I have observed that most patient’s psychological problems result from an over attachment to a particular point of view. People become so attached to the strategies they know, that with the hammer they hold everything looks like a nail. Couples re-enact the same argument over and over again. Professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, become so attached to the power of their “knowing” that they cannot take advice or feedback of colleagues or from their spouses and children.

In the digital age, movement and control of information defines the source of economic growth and political power. Perceived control of information leads to war. We are so attached to the power of information based decision making that we are losing the intuitive and emotional power of humility, which comes from gazing into the abyss of what we do not know.

For many, in our culture of avoidance of death at all cost, gazing into this abyss first arrives with the death of a loved one. Questions without answers overwhelm. The meaning of life fades with the realization that no one gets out of here alive. Paradoxically, in accepting the inevitable uncertainty of all that we cannot know, some find the deepest truth of their life.

Information and knowledge drive us to make decisions: forward or back; attack or retreat. All too often we forget or cannot even see the third track: stop, observe, wait, conserve energy, feel your foundation, accept your uncertainty, watch for the path or truth unseen. I believe that “not knowing” may be our salvation; it has been mine.