Thursday, March 17, 2011

the many faces of "I don't know"

My thesis on Evelyn Underhill is coming along slowly but surely, thanks for asking. In my last post I pointed out some of her shortcomings, which was mainly due to the fact that I was immersed in a chapter dealing with her critics. If I was to write about her today, I would tell you about her struggles and how they positively informed her spiritual journey (the current section I am working on). My thoughts tend to reflect where I am in the writing process, so please know (oops, spilled some tea, cleaned up the mess) that I am fond of Underhill and feel that I have a lot to learn from her.

Okay, now that I cleared that up, I want to write about something else I have been thinking about lately. It is the commonly used phrase, "I don't know." As a student, I say this a lot, though I try to word it more eloquently using phrases that go something like "Oh, I have often wondered about that as well." As a teaching assistant, I probably say it even more often, because questions come my way that are beyond my scope of knowledge. My clever response usually goes something like this: "That would make an interesting research topic." I don't know about you (see how I snuck in the phrase right there?), but this sense of not knowing something is a part of my world every day. However, it can mean many different things.

1. I don't know could mean that I don't have the information and will have to make some effort to get it, but someone knows it and the answer can be found. The state of not knowing is temporary and I can do something about it.
2. I don't know sometimes means there is no way I can know the answer. Will there be rain on the first Monday in May? I don't know. We will have to wait and see. This is also a situation of temporary ignorance, but I have no control over it.
3. I don't know can also reflect the fact that I don't really want to know. This means that I am content to stay ignorant about something. It is just not a priority for me to find out exactly how many screws it takes to hold my house together or what kind of tread my mailman has on his shoes. I am happy not to clutter my life with these details.
4. I don't know can also refer to a puzzling problem that many struggle with. Why do bad things happen to good people? We just don't know. People may speculate, and philosophy and theology attempt coherent answers, but in the end, this is beyond us and we know it is. However, it doesn't stop us from asking, wondering, searching, learning, trying to see part of the answer.
5. I don't know can be a scary place to live when it is the response to questions like: What will I do now that I lost my job? How will my friend recover from a devastating accident? My son is missing and I don't know where he is! Really scary stuff.
6. I don't know sometimes indicates a dead end. It can be a reflection that we have given up hope. There is no way forward that we can see. How can I go on? What options am I left with? Is there anyone who really cares?

For the most part, "I don't know" is a good place to be in temporarily. It helps us acknowledge our ignorance and spurs us on to learn something we didn't know. However, when it comes to the big questions, to those parts of life where the answers are not found through a search on google or wikipedia, "I don't know" can be problematic.

Even in the grand matters of life, I still think "I don't know" is a good starting place. It means that we have to trust someone other than ourselves, and that's good. But it is a bad place to remain, because it can lead us into despair and hopelessness. It can get us trapped in a cycle of fear and small thinking. Staying in "I don't know" can cause the world to close in on us instead of helping us to open up to possibilities that we might not have dreamed of. "I don't know" should lead me to risk trusting, lead me to risk stepping out in faith and go beyond what is known to what is hoped for. Let me believe in something bigger than myself. Let me give my troubling "I don't knows" to the one who created knowledge. Let me be content to know Someone who knows all things.
This is a photo taken of an interesting light fixture in the W Hotel in Montreal.


Shelley said...

as I get older my pile of "things that make me go 'hmmm...'" is getting larger and larger!

sometimes I don't know is a good sign of humility too!

Matte Downey said...

Good point, Shelley. Thanks.