I believe in the power and purpose of ignorance. That all encompassing epithet hurled at the worst offenders of bigotry and narrow mindedness, the most egregious perpetrators of crimes against fellow man. I believe in the transcendent and liberating power of knowing absolutely nothing and having everything to learn.
I lived for a long time in a country where daily life was informed by a series of ghastly events; beatings, ritual slayings, incendiary devices, real bombs and bomb threats. Security alerts, random searches and shakedowns were a part of life for ordinary citizens. Seldom were they reported outside the provincial borders. The rest of the world opted for more spectacular, high profile events.
Such day to day brutality insinuated itself in the warp and woof of our lives. This was a hatred made manifest in a deep division in the society. Their tribal identities every bit as polarized as the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, and their intransigence just as legendary.
My very first visit to Northern Ireland coincided with a particularly dramatic upsurge in violence in a moment’s madness at a cemetery outside Belfast. It was one among many violent events I experienced and I came to understand that each incident had a symbolic resonance that I could only ever vicariously understand .
A single man opened fire in a graveyard, where a funeral procession was heading for the final interment of three fallen IRA soldiers. The details would unfold over time, and some questions would remain unanswered. However, in the tradition of what I came to call the ‘land of the twitching curtains’, someone, somewhere already knew what had really happened, and would never, ever tell.
What remains strongest in my memory of that day wasn’t the incessant TV replay of the same footage; the same mourners, the same chaos and bloody outcome. What is indelibly etched on my memory is the same question I was asked, almost as incessantly. “What should we do”? It was meant to be half-heartedly rhetorical, this I already knew, but I also knew that they wanted an answer.
At first I was flattered. In my naiveté, I believed that I was someone who might proffer my opinion, if not an answer. As a relative newcomer, I knew I would be excused some ignorance of the situation. After all, I was used to holding my own in U.S. political discussions but would I bear up to the scrutiny of people who were living the kind of history that gives the rest of us nightmares?
What I learned surprised me, and remains to this day, a belief I hold dear. I know nothing. As long as I held forth an opinion for someone somewhere, in that troubled land, I held out a false hope. I allowed them to continue believing that somehow, somewhere, someone else had the answer.
Now I find that back in the U.S., I can apply the lessons I learned. I can approach each day with the absolute certainty that I know nothing.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.