What are the things you know for sure?

change

What is it that we can hold fast and know for sure? So much changes. Earth isn’t flat and isn’t the center of the universe although generations came and went believing that to be true. Gravity kept the planets in orbit and people from floating off long before anyone noticed and named it. Atoms existed before anyone discovered they could be split.

What is it that may be discovered in the future that can make sense of the way we act and feel now? Is there a key to explaining human behavior? A force, perhaps, that pulls people apart despite a deep desire to connect? What if there is another sense more important than the five we rely on now?

One thing good about change is it keeps you humble. Or should. Knowing that what we know is a minuscule speck in the ocean of all that can be known helps us stay open and curious. Where would the adventure be if we ever knew it all anyway?

Not knowing is part of knowing.

explain

There are sure a lot of people who have all the answers and are only too happy to explain the world to you at length. Puffed up chests, throats clearing, outstretched fingers to point you to the truth as only they can best explain it to you.

But do they have all the answers, really? Isn’t there much about which we must proceed on faith rather than knowledge?

What if God himself were to frame the questions? Then how would these know-it alls fare?

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. (Job 38) He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
    when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
    and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
    here is where your proud waves halt’?

12 Have you ever given orders to the morning,
    or shown the dawn its place,
13 that it might take the earth by the edges
    and shake the wicked out of it?
14 The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
    its features stand out like those of a garment.
15 The wicked are denied their light,
    and their upraised arm is broken.

16 “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been shown to you?
    Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know all this.

19 “What is the way to the abode of light?
    And where does darkness reside?
20 Can you take them to their places?
    Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
21 Surely you know, for you were already born!
    You have lived so many years!

 

Ah, not so smug now, are they, those knowers-of-everything? What anyone knows is but a speck in the vastness of all there is to know.

Maybe a bit of humility is in order.

 

What do you know for sure? Are you sure?

unsettled

As you get older, do you think you know a lot or do you believe there is a lot that you don’t yet know? As young men and women, we think we have all the answers. But as we age, our experience shows us that there are many valid perspectives to something we thought was established. We learn that there is value in the multiple points of view in arriving at a more nuanced version of the truth. We realize that people can look at the same thing, but, because they are coming at the issue with different life experiences, they may see it differently and that both of those opinions may be true. In fact, it may well be that we have no hope of getting close to the concept of truth without the benefit of many points of view. We may be limited by the fetters of our own perceptions and filters.

6

In this very insightful TED talk, Pico Iyer shares his creeping realization that the more we know, the more we see we don’t know:

I don’t believe that ignorance is bliss. Science has unquestionably made our lives brighter and longer and healthier. And I am forever grateful to the teachers who showed me the laws of physics and pointed out that three times three makes nine. I can count that out on my fingers any time of night or day. But when a mathematician tells me that minus three times minus three makes nine, that’s a kind of logic that almost feels like trust.

The opposite of knowledge, in other words, isn’t always ignorance. It can be wonder. Or mystery. Possibility. And in my life, I’ve found it’s the things I don’t know that have lifted me up and pushed me forwards much more than the things I do know. It’s also the things I don’t know that have often brought me closer to everybody around me.

For eight straight Novembers, recently, I traveled every year across Japan with the Dalai Lama. And the one thing he said every day that most seemed to give people reassurance and confidence was, “I don’t know.”

“What’s going to happen to Tibet?” “When are we ever going to get world peace?” “What’s the best way to raise children?”

“Frankly,” says this very wise man, “I don’t know.”

It’s scary to admit we don’t know. We want to know. We want to believe that we are safe and that our futures are secure. We want to believe that if we behave in a certain way, it will result in predictable results.

The truth is harder. Honest people can be accused of deceit. Innocent people can die. Tragedy can strike. Relationships can fracture. But embracing uncertainty as the only truly certain thing in life can, in fact, be surprisingly grounding. Iyer continues:

Knowledge is a priceless gift. But the illusion of knowledge can be more dangerous than ignorance.

Thinking that you know your lover or your enemy can be more treacherous than acknowledging you’ll never know them. Every morning in Japan, as the sun is flooding into our little apartment, I take great pains not to consult the weather forecast, because if I do, my mind will be overclouded, distracted, even when the day is bright.

I’ve been a full-time writer now for 34 years. And the one thing that I have learned is that transformation comes when I’m not in charge, when I don’t know what’s coming next, when I can’t assume I am bigger than everything around me. And the same is true in love or in moments of crisis. Suddenly, we’re back in that trishaw again and we’re bumping off the broad, well-lit streets; and we’re reminded, really, of the first law of travel and, therefore, of life: you’re only as strong as your readiness to surrender.

In the end, perhaps, being human is much more important than being fully in the know.

Today embrace the uncertainty of life and enjoy the present moment right here in front of you. Around the corner, there may well be a surprise insight waiting to stretch you and challenge the very things you think you know. Embrace that, too.