I was trading emails with a friend recently about something near and dear to my heart, and she asked me a pretty basic but profound question. When I read it, I stopped for a moment, and my first conscious thought was, “I don’t know.” Which disturbed me a bit, given how central this question was to the matter at hand. I thought I needed to know, so I gave it some thought until I arrived at an answer that made sense to me. Except I think it was a superficial answer, and I’m not particularly happy with the answer I came up with. After I moved on from that particular subject, the idea of I don’t know stayed with me.
Since that happened, I’ve started to realize just how powerful those three words can be. In the words of the great Greek philosopher Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” It has been said that the beginning of wisdom lies in understanding the depth of our ignorance, and I agree with that. I’ve come to believe that sometimes not knowing is more powerful than knowing. Don’t misunderstand me, there are things we definitely need to know to live our lives, and ignorance is not preferable knowledge or wisdom. The realization of our ignorance does carry power though.
Acknowledging that we don’t know frees us in many ways. It frees us from pretending that we do – and in so admitting, it frees us to be more natural and authentic with others. It allows us to ask for help from others that may know. It releases us to seek that knowledge if we want it, or to discard the matter if we don’t, so that we spend our energy on the things we do want.
How many times have you heard this back and forth discussion? “Where do you want to go eat?” “I don’t know.” That’s one of the biggest dangers of these three words – here, it’s not usually about not knowing, it’s about something else. Some people use them as a shield – as if not knowing something will protect them from whatever consequence knowing would have. Very few times does that actually work.
The power of I don’t know really comes into play when we start talking about the important questions of our lives. Who am I? Why am I here? What did I come here to do? Bookstore shelves are filled with other people’s words, supposedly answering those questions, and telling us why it’s so important that we have them. But is that really the case?
I admit, at 46 years old, I don’t have a good answer for why I am here or what I came here to do. And I’m OK with that. Because in admitting I don’t know, I’m free to live the questions and experience the answers I find. If I find an answer that makes sense to me (in fact I have, partially), then I am also free to continue down that path without wondering if I made the right choice.
For the sake of completeness, I’ll give you the partial answer I found. And I wasn’t even looking for it really when it found me. I was taking a Huna class at the time. The teacher was giving us an overview of Hawaiian cosmology, and as a natural consequence, it led into the subject of why we are here. The answer he gave me makes more sense to me than anything I’ve heard so far. He said, we’re here to put more light in our bowl. Nothing grandiose, or earth shattering, just to put more light in our bowl. When we do good, we put more light in, and when we do bad, we take light out. There wasn’t any discussion about our “purpose in life”, or what we should be doing, or any of that. It’s simple and direct – that’s the beauty of it to me. How we choose to put more light in our bowls is entirely up to us. There may be a purpose, or task we’ve come here to do, but we won’t do it by thinking about it and fretting over it. We’ll do it by living our question and seeking the knowledge we don’t know.
What do you want to know that you don’t know?