As I continue to move onward in my early 70’s I realize more and more how much I don’t know or don’t understand. It seems the natural humbling experience of growing older. Beliefs and assurances now come rarely, and sometimes not at all. Life was so much easier when I was 20 and convinced of this or that. And being an extravert by nature, I felt inclined to share these beliefs and assurances with abandon. I am reminded of a statement in Desiderata that it is necessary in maturity to “gracefully relinquish the things of youth.” Life was so much easier when things were clear for me, and so it is that am finding it necessary to think, and sometimes say, “I don’t know.”
With many people I am greatly dismayed at the tragedy and terror of ISIS, like beheadings, random shootings, and generally creating chaos in various parts of the world. My primary response to each of these tragic incidents is to feel sad, although I must admit that I sometimes fall into Trump-esque thinking of bombing the s…out of them. For the most part I agree with President Obama who a year or so ago admitted that the Administration did “not know what to do” with ISIS. Sadly, his simple-minded, simple-solutioned, and antagonistic political opponents took umbrage that someone as powerful as the President would have the audacity to say “I don’t know.” Now, nearly two years into this horror we still don’t know. And this “don’t know” comes on the heels of not knowing what to do about the new kamikaze-like suicide bombers. What is the thinking of a mother who gracefully straps a bomb on her 13-year old daughter and sends her into a room of Jews to kill herself? Certainly, this Palestinian mother would “know” why she did what seems like a heinous crime, but would her “knowing” satisfy my American mind? I doubt so. Similarly, I “don’t know” how ISIS, and similar Muslim terrorist groups, believes that Sharia law should be imposed. All I can say is that these folks have an easy answer to a complicated dilemma.
I think, and I admit immediately to thinking, not knowing, that part of the origin of the simplistic thinking involved with ISIS et al. is poverty, and the related phenomenon of envy and anger at those who seem to have coming from people who seem to have not. Many underprivileged groups who suffer some kind of poverty have similarly simplistic conclusions about how the world should operate. But not all people in poverty come up with reasons for sending 13-year olds out to blow themselves up. So poverty is clearly not the whole answer to the problem. We might even suggest that the millennia-old rivalry between the sons of Abraham (Isaac and Ishmael) is the “answer,” but this theological origin doesn’t seem to address the whole answer. Or is it the rare but real statements in the Koran calling for violence in name of religion? Perhaps. Or is it because the United States spends billions of aid to Israel and bare millions to the Palestinians. Again, perhaps. So we can only say with certainty that “we don’t know” what to do about the ISIS-based crisis.
There are other “I don’t know’s” in the world at large. Should we raise taxes or lower them? Should we outlaw all guns, regulate all guns, do more thorough background checks on gun-owners, or continue with the current spate of occasional shootings? Should we have universal healthcare, continue with increasing Obamacare, or abandon the effort all together? Should we drill oil more in the arctic or leave it alone? Should be establish former relations with Cuba, North Korea, and Iran? Or should be just bomb them too? We don’t know.
I have been speaking about “honest I don’t know’s, but there are, by the way dishonest I don’t knows. Those of who raise children or have raised children know that our children are inclined to “not know” when they have committed some minor offense. And teenagers are even worse. When you ask your teen where she is going, who she is going to be with, what she will be doing, and when she will be home, how often go you get the answer, “I don’t know.” I actually believe that most of these don’t know’s are genuine, if not always entirely true. But it is not just our kids and teens who have phony I don’t know’s. We are often called to dishonestly answer a question that someone poses that makes us feel awkward like, “Do I look fat in this dress?” or “How much did your drink last night?”
This reminds me of a question a friend of mine asked me not long ago. This was one of the few friends that I have who has very little psychological knowledge, much less interest in the subject. He just wanted to know something that seemed to him to be hard to understand: Why aren’t people honest? I found myself musing a bit and then answering in jest, “I don’t know but if people were honest, I wouldn’t be in business.” I think my jest was largely a statement of truth. “Why did I have that affair/?” a man recently asked me. And my wife often hears the concomitant, “Why do I stay with a man who has serial affairs?” I don’t know seems to be the first best answer. But then the work begins. The work of finding the answer to these questions. I have some ideas of why “John” had an affair but I know him for only one hour and I may need many more hours to help him uncover the reasons for his affair. I know this, and I told him so: there are two simple extreme answers: (1) almost everyone has affairs; it is no big deal. Get over it, and (2) there is dome deep-seated character flaw in you that needs to be rooted out. While there is some truth in both of these statements, neither is very true. It will take work to find the whole truth, the hard truth.
I think that we need to start with “I don’t know” and then work hard to know…although we will never completely know. If we work for answers, the answers we come up with will satisfy us and help on our paths of life. What I “knew” as a 20-something no longer serves me as a 70-something but it was good for me to know, even if my knowing was simplistic. It helped me come to honest I don’t know’s, and then to proceed to know something deeper and something greater.