A Window Opens Somewhere: on being with ‘not knowing’
Donald Rumsfeld famously said, ‘There are known knowns…, known unknowns…and unknown unknowns.’ As I remember, his quote received quite a bit of comedic response. But at the time I heard this it did make me stop in my tracks. The concept of unknown unknowns had never occurred to me until I heard Rumsfeld’s press conference. In one moment, the quote provided me with new way of looking at the world, helping to deepen my understanding of myself and others. It has also informed my writing.
Now, as I write this post I know I know about Rumsfeld’s famous quote and how it affected me and I know that I don’t know much more about it. I also know, to be perfectly honest, that I don’t know where this blog post is going! It’s a bit scary to sit with that. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’d like to post this in time for tomorrow morning. My mind is prodding me to put my known knowns onto the page – perhaps even berating me for my known unknowns. And here in this moment of my mind’s push-me-pull-you, I have to pause and tell myself, as uncomfortable as it feels, that not knowing is an opening up to, rather than a closing down of learning.
So, I head off into the ether-world – archives, newspaper articles, journals, using ‘known unknowns’ as my launch pad. There’s stuff here I didn’t know I didn’t know. For example Luft and Ingham’s Johari Window that provides a visual framework for understanding ourselves and others better.
Then there’s the concept of ‘Digital Twins’ – a computer-based model that ‘reflects observed reality’ in order to uncover hidden behaviour and to predict how things might look like in the future. I have no idea what that means, how that works or how it might help me! But there it is – a previously unknown unknown, now a known unknown. Nothing discovered is useless or value-less.
Sitting with ‘not knowing’ is difficult. I used to feel real shame at not knowing something, often nodding wisely if someone imparted a piece of knowledge I wasn’t aware of: of course I knew that!, I hoped my wise nod would imply. The pressure to know stuff is huge. From the earliest age we’re tested on (and rewarded for) what we know and never on what questions we have about the world. That’s pressure right there.
One of the tenets of mindfulness is ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – coming to yourself, to others, to the world and to your mindfulness practice every day with fresh eyes – from a place of gentle questioning and curiosity. I still find that challenging. But I keep going, reminding myself when I or others expect me to know something-or-other that saying ‘I don’t know’ is not an admission of failure; it is window opening onto potential; it is air, blue sky, freedom.
In her poem below, Lesley Saunders offers us a glimpse into something unknowable.
The nature of regret is delicate, a door
that should have been there, but is not;
what happened back up in the hills
was a matter of luck, nothing personal –
the fact of the forests, the leaf-moths,
the fork in the road. (There are no images,
save for the river running to sand, saltWith kind permission of Lesley Saunders. From her collection This Thing of Blood and Love
on the tongue, the pulse of previous stars.)
Is the poem about regretting an event, the regret of not knowing what comes next or the regret of all that we do not know about the universe? Maybe all of those. Maybe none. Is it even about regret? I don’t know. What I do know is that Saunders’ poem has deepened my understanding of the paradox that is both the wonderful ability and the exquisite inadequacy of language to contain the unknowable: ‘A door/ that should have been there, but is not;…’ what a magical way to describe both regret and ‘not knowing’. The whole poem is an exercise in simply sitting with and finding peace with our desire to know something unknowable. With each reading the poem seems to open up new channels of questions – and that is, in a very real sense, a route to understanding rather than a cul-de-sac of knowing.
It strikes me that often, in order to understand, we have to let go of knowing.
Phew! Feel that window opening. Is that discovery wafting in?
Have a good week, my friends. Go well.