The Awe of I Don’t Know
If you’re a know-it-all like me, then admitting that you don’t know is often really hard. So let’s take a peek at that.
Some of you not afflicted with know-it-allness are probably hearing thoughts like, I never have an issue admitting I don’t know things! There’s so much I don’t know!
I hear you. I wish I were more like that. Admitting when I don’t know has been a practice I’ve had to cultivate that has grown easier with time. I’m absolutely positive this kink in my humility started early in my life—probably sometime in elementary school. Although I can’t recall anything specific, I can guarantee you I experienced some humiliation of not knowing an answer to some question. The result was shame and embarrassment. So how to avoid this kind of shame in the future? Overcompensate by becoming a crummy know-it-all and avoid admitting not knowing at all costs!
The good thing is that no matter how hard I tried, I was never a very adept know-it-all. I never reached full Hermione Granger status! I was always about 2 notches behind her, but I could totally relate to her arm-raising-gonna-pee-her-pants need to blurt answers. Knowing is power and power feels like confidence.
This is an illusion, of course. A cover. A false confidence to mask deep insecurity. At some point in my adolescence I must have received a gentle wake-up call to quit being an asshole and channel my smarts some other way. Slowly over time with great mentors supporting and encouraging me, the academician started to emerge. The one who became less interested in knowing and more interested in questioning.
As every good investigator knows, for every answer at least three new questions appear. Knowing it all becomes a harsh humiliation. The good news is that the realization is funny and the joke was on me!
But there’s a prickly side to admitting when we don’t know. There are people in the world whose unresolved insecurities mold them into shamers. They’re the ones who respond to your admission of not knowing with shitty things like, Really? I’m surprised. I would have expected you to know that. They can’t help themselves. They can’t see that the one admitting they don’t know is in a place of courageous vulnerability. Shamers struggle with vulnerability. Their mindset perpetuates the falsehood that vulnerability is weak and weakness of any kind is bad. This is their operating illusion. Not only is it painful to encounter, it reinforces a kind of self-protection that doesn’t enable us to admit when we don’t know.
See how the cycle works? The bottom line is simple. Thich Nhat Hanh said it best; Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with truth. We’re going to make mistakes--the only balance to success. We’re going to have gaps in our knowing and understanding—the energy that fuels curiosity. We’re going to be humiliated—the only invitation to humility. We’re all on the holy wide open road. The least we can do is pave the way with gentle kindness for one another.