How much can we know? And how do we deal with that limitation, if there is one?
Such old questions. Yet, occasionally, when I’m quiet inside and the world seems to slow down, I hear the remnants of these questions stirring in me. For example, just last night, I was thinking about the book I just completed. I worked on it for three years and it is scheduled to be published on September 30th. But, I still don’t really believe it. It is the third book I have written, and the first to be published. Yet, how it happened is mysterious to me. Mysterious not in the sense that I have no idea how I wrote the book or no idea of all the work, inspiration, joy and heartache that went into it. But, in the sense that despite all that intimate knowledge of what I did, I still feel “Wow, I did that!” I still wonder if it is really going to happen.
And so much of what it took surprised me. I thought a book was one person’s creation. Yet when you add all the people who edited, gave feedback, who were my students, colleagues, teachers, inspirations, and then add the publisher, etc.—how many people is that?
And how is it that I know how to write a clear, grammatical sentence (usually) and yet the book required several people over several months to sharpen the writing and eliminate mistakes?
Trying to understand is one of the biggest drives a human being has, so we are always trying to figure things out. And I don’t just mean things like about how my book will be received, but everyday things like how to set up a rain barrel system in my house or learn the best route to my brother’s new home in Virginia. And in the Presidential election, we watch polls to see what the future will bring. We research and try to understand who the candidates are so we can make good decisions about who to vote for and who will help us secure the future we think will serve us best. We do the same with doctors, places to vacation, bikes to ride, shirts to wear. We try to predict the weather and understand our friends and pets.
We often think knowing and understanding means to be able to predict, control, dominate and make safe, that it is linked to our drive to survive, possess and secure. We think it means to encapsulate in words. And that once we have created such a capsule of understanding or knowledge, it is the correct one. We seem to think that our mental models of reality are the one and only truth. And this truth will set us free. The internal pressure to replace the unknown and mysterious with the known and explained has led to both great technical and scientific advances and also violence and oppression.
Due to a limited perspective on what understanding means, many people try to fill the gap between what we can know and what we can’t with undigested or untested beliefs, often mistaking such beliefs for truth. We might be tempted to try to replace what we can’t know with a willful ignorance that masks wish fulfillment or shoddy thinking. We can do this with religion, politics, intellectual systems or relationships.
We need to recognize the limits of our knowing and control. We can’t know everything, but it is fun, important, and sometimes a responsibility, to learn and understand or think things through as deeply as we can. We can’t predict the future, although we can, to an extent, prepare for it. We can’t predict or control what our friends or loved ones or pets will do; yet we can be helpful, kind and caring. We can’t know when or how we will die, but we can live as fully, healthfully, and meaningfully as we can. We can’t pave over the unknown with the known, but we can be aware of when the attempts to do so lead to suffering.
We need to be able to live with and be mindfully aware of not-knowing. We need a little more humility, and a little less clinging to our mental formulations. We need to know how to tolerate, learn from, and let go of discomfort and other ways we hurt ourselves. We need to tolerate and even value some mystery, not mystification. The sense of mystery is a sense of the aliveness of life. When a person feels mysterious to us, we could be realizing they have an inner world of their own. That who they are exceeds our expectations, exceeds what we know, exceeds what we want of them. Any person or living being is so much more than what we want for or from them or words about them. And this mystery, this life, is what’s ultimately most important. It involves a very different sort of knowing, living, loving.