I believe in the wisdom of not knowing. I’m not talking about a lack of information or skill, like not knowing the capital of Nevada or how to balance your checkbook. I’m talking about questions that stop you in your tracks, when you really don’t have an answer: When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? They’re not all big questions, either: Why am I angry right now? What does my wife want for breakfast this morning?
I’m well aware that for most of the questions I just mentioned, there are any number of people in the world who believe that they do know the answers. Herein, as I see it, lies the path to separation, intolerance, and violence, with sentiments such as “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “We know something that they’ll never know.” I see this path lead to everything from marital discord to racial violence to all-out war. It is a fallacy to think that I am right and that if I can get the rest of the world to think like me, or if I can silence the people who will never think like me, that the world will be a better place.
I find that it often takes courage to admit to myself that I don’t know something. Maintaining courage is difficult and requires mindful attention to the present moment. Many times I do not succeed. Yet if I can admit to myself and accept that I don’t know where people go when they die, for example, I find that it leaves my mind quiet enough that I can listen to my sister on the telephone describing, from half a continent away, how my mother is taking a turn for the worse in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. I can do my best to listen to my mother describe to me things in her room that are not there, hallucinations induced by the drugs used to treat her disease, if I am not overwhelmed by fear of the unknown, of what this implies about her future health and eventual death.
A wise teacher once wrote that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few. The wisdom of not knowing lies in remaining open to those many possibilities. To cultivate the habit of not knowing means to invite creativity. An obvious example is writing. When I started this essay there was a blank screen in front of me and I didn’t know what to write. Indeed, there are opportunities for creativity in every moment. Not knowing what my wife wants for breakfast every morning is one small way of keeping our relationship fresh and improvisational. We may get out of tune once in a while, but life together as a jazz duo is not a bad way to be, and it all begins with not knowing. This I believe.
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