What if “not knowing” is more important than “knowing”?
For many of us, our identity is wrapped up in “what we know.”
What if real wisdom is being open to what you “do NOT know”?
We spend so much time in our early years acquiring knowledge so that we can be “experts” in our chosen fields or endeavors.
This is not a bad thing in and of itself.
However, there are problems with becoming settled with knowing.
The Problems With Certainty
Here are two issues:
1) When our knowing becomes reified, we stop paying attention or listening because we already know the end of the story. When we do that, we close ourselves down to what might unfold.
The energy of “knowing things” and being certain can close us down to new truths emerging.
Psychotherapist and author Estelle Frankel writes,
“Certainty may calm our anxious spirits, but it closes the door on possibility.”
How many times have you said, “Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” — because your assumptions, your knowing, closed you down to possibilities you hadn’t even imagined? For example, someone apologizes who you never thought would.
2) When we mistake what we know for who we are. All of us by now have encountered incredibly intelligent knowledgeable people who know little about kindness and empathy. The truth is that who we are is SO MUCH MORE than what we know.
When “Knowing” is Revered
“Knowing things” is especially revered In the Jewish world. Scholars and rabbis are people who KNOW a lot. They answer questions.
I went to rabbinical school at the age of 47 and I worried that I would never be able to learn enough to feel confident as a rabbi. Knowing was intimately related to adequacy and competence.
However, in the course of my intensive, five-year course of study, I realized that the more I learned, the less I “knew.” Knowing all there was to learn was impossible. I began to understand that my identity could not be tied up in how much I learning I could acquire. There was an entire universe of knowledge that I could never acquire. Every avenue of knowledge brought new questions I didn’t even know I had!
I learned about the paradox of knowledge:
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Albert Einstein
And then something opened up for me. I became comfortable with not knowing. Saying “I don’t know” brought enormous freedom.
Not only that, sinking into that place revealed a much deeper truth than any externally acquired information: being willing to say “I don’t know, let’s look it up” in response to a student’s questions modeled a way of being that communicated that it was “ok” to not know. Asking questions is what is important as well as being open to learning.
The Importance of Questions & Curiosity
Rainier Maria Rilke wrote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”
For example, when we are in a conversation with someone and we think we know where the other person is going, we listen for what will affirm our own expectations, rather than being open to something totally new.
Or – when we get sick, we may think we know the progression of our illness because knowing feels safe.
However, what if we took it one day at a time and stayed present with exactly what is? We may find that the trajectory is quite different than we imagined.
If you have engaged in “Self-diagnosis via the Internet”, especially those illness chat rooms, you know what I mean. Your path will inevitably be different from all the worst case scenarios you read about.
In the drive to “know” so you can prepare yourself, which feels safe and familiar, what if you decided to say – I really don’t know the trajectory:
Let me stay open and present to see what emerges, and I’ll walk through each stage as it comes.
When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in my third year of a rabbinical school, I was terrified. I saw myself in a wheelchair, never being able to finish school or work as a rabbi. After scaring myself unnecessarily, It turned out that I have a pretty mild case, and as long as I can monitor my work/rest, I can function pretty normally.
This Month in Hineni: Not Knowing
This month in our web-based Hineni community (Hineni means: “I am present”) our theme is “The Power of Not Knowing.” I have some wonderful, eye-opening texts from Jewish and Buddhist sources on “not knowing” as well as spiritual practices we each can experiment with to learn to be more open and curious. We meet twice a month on Tuesday nights (recorded as well).
We will be exploring what it is like to live with these responses to life:
I do not know…
Tell me more…
I am not sure how this story ends…
What else might be true?
If you are facing an unknown in your life or you want to walk in this world with more comfort in uncertainty, this is a great month to join us.
Question For You
How do you relate to this topic?
When have you learned something vital by dropping your certainty?
I’d love to hear —
Laura Haddad says
These words couldn’t have come at a better time. I lay awake most of the night thinking about things that are coming up in the next six months. Trying to figure out the best way for them to all turn out perfectly. And reading this makes me realize I can plan and also let them unfold not knowing all the answers.
Rabbi Jill Zimmerman says
Thanks for writing Laura. Yes, we can do all we can but at some point, we’ve got to unclench our fists and let things happen. I am happy to know that this spoke to you. Love the questions, as Rilke said 🙂