The first time I ever heard someone admit, ‘I don’t know’ was when I asked a lecturer in Bible College why God made the world and humans if he knew it was going to end up such a mess.
I’d caught him in the doorway of the classroom and he said quite simply as he bustled past to put his notes down on the lectern, ‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t have done it.’
I was speechless for a moment.
‘Are we even allowed to say I don’t know?’
Because fundamentals always know.
We know how the world was made.
We know what God is like.
We know the truth about the world.
We know how go to heaven.
We know the best way to live life.
We know because God spoke to us/we had an experience/can feel the Holy Spirit/just sense it in our heart.
Really. That’s why we do what we do. Preach. Evanglise. Go on missions. Cos we know and they don’t.
At the end of the day though… there’s that…
That little fact that…
Know, that is.
Of course we don’t. We believe.
If we knew, it wouldn’t be belief. It would be knowledge.
I got my fear of saying I don’t know from preachers. “Those poor people out there who have no sense of meaning or purpose. They wander from one thing to another, always looking, always searching. Us, on the other hand… what wonderful peace it is to know that we have the truth.’
Saying ‘I don’t know’ is not a sign of weakness.
Actually, it takes a lot of courage to say ‘I don’t know.’
When I finally admitted those three words to myself a number of years later, (“I don’t know if God exists…), I went home, washed the residue of tears from my eyes with a splash of cold water and fell asleep fully clothed on top of our bed at 10am in the morning. When I woke up, the sloshing anxiety that used to barge into my stomach on reaching consciousness every morning never arrived. I was slipped, instead of jarred, into waking for the first time in years.
That’s what it feels like to stop lying to yourself.
It’s wonderful. Shockingly wonderful.
And horrendously scary.
Here is a video I was sent by a busker friend I met on the streets of Copenhagen around this time last year. It’s a guy called Richard Feynman, an old dude from the 80’s if the video quality is anything to go by, with a refreshing perspective on this idea of ‘I don’t know’.
“But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things. By being lost in the universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
Saying ‘I know’ limits your world.
It means we are finished, done with our exploration, have reached the limits of our discoveries. Our brain stops expanding. ‘I know’ is the catchphrase of the Middle Ages.
Saying ‘I don’t know’ opens up your world.
It means we aren’t finished yet, there’s plenty more to discover and we are always open to new information. ‘I don’t know’ is the catchphrase of the Reformation!
I love saying I don’t know.
I love being in a position to change my mind on the make up of the very fabric of the universe. It’s amazing to meet someone with a different perspective and pull out everything they think through genuinely curious questions unencumbered by an agenda. The awe I used to feel surrounded by God’s Creation is superseded only by the awe of being surrounded by such a big, fascinating world to discover.
Thankfully, there’s a small amount of ‘I Don’t Know’ in everything.
A final thought: Saying “I Know” only shows how much we don’t know what we don’t know.Read More
Geek confession; I love fantasy books. Particularly Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; Rand’s journey towards becoming the Dragon Reborn in order to defeat the Dark One has kept me entertained for over a decade now. I love it so much I have to choose very carefully the time I start a new book in the series because productivity, social life and my general ability to function significantly diminishes until it’s finished.
Hiking his way up to Mount Everest base camp in a singlet, shorts and flip-flops that he eventually swapped over for sneakers (clearly born and bred in the UK.), I met another fantasy book fan recently. Not satisfied with at least 3 readings of each of J.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, Olly brought, as his reading material for the trip, a book outlining the history of Middle Earth, in a dry, chronological way as good history books should.
So Olly got it when I explained that sometimes, having grown up in a religion like Pentacostal Christianity and then leaving it, can feel like waking up from living in a fantasy epic. Talking with him reminded me how religion’s characters and plot give meaning to life; the Creator, the war against the Dark One, each person destined to carry out a mission, the reverberation of every move you make potentially echoing in eternity… only to wake up and discover it was a dream. A fantasy. None of it was real.
Clarifying the purpose of life is one of – if not the – hardest thing to do after leaving faith.
It’s not just the eventual dying away into nothing rather than living on forever in eternal bliss that is disconcerting.
No, no. There’s plenty more where that came from.
It’s the complete vastness and randomness of the world and the sudden insignificance of our own place in it. When human lives are suddenly reduced to nothing more than a coincidental grouping of atoms and self-consciousness, rather than eternal players in an epic (but when you think about it also sort of pointless) battle between good and evil, it’s so easy to slip into a space where lives, consciousness, waking, breathing, anything really, seems completely pointless.
I had my peak of despair, although not the only one, about the purposeless of life on the beach a few weeks after arriving in Malaga at the beginning of this year. I looked up from my towel and stared at the high rise buildings, tiny boxes piled on top of each other, each box containing a life, or a number of lives, that did nothing more than scurry about their day, waking up, interacting, stressing, laughing, crying and then sleeping again, only to do it all over again the next day. And the next day after that… and the one after that… like an advanced civilisation of ants.
Ironically, the first two chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes sums up the feeling up entirely. Why store wealth? It will only be left behind for some idiot to squander. Why do good things? Wicked people and righteous people have the same fate befall them. Why pursue pleasure? It all becomes empty in the end. Greatness? It will be forgotten. Posterity? Just two generations on, I don’t know and don’t care about even the name of my great-grandparents.
When life no longer echos in eternity, as we were told it does, its so easy to wonder… ‘Is there any reason to bother?’
Of course… there is…
Moving outside of the viewpoint that only eternal actions or actions that others see or remember have any meaning is truly liberating. Discovering the joy and, in the non-spiritual sense of the word, miracle of actually being alive reverses the drive of life from the need to be significant to simply being grateful for this self-consciousness and the opportunity to experience this world and all the challenges and joys life offers. Instead of beginning with the great expectations of eternal life and a grand conquest, we begin with the incredulous fact that we are simply here and self aware, all odds against odds. This is the foundation on which we can build up purpose and meaning; simple awe and wonder at being alive.
That was a short paragraph outlining the conclusion of a very long journey. For those of you who have made the same journey may have arrived at different conclusions and I’d be interested to hear about them. I’ll be posting more blogs on this purpose / existentialism / meaning of life conundrum, from voices other than my own as well but for now, I wanted to introduce you to a great little book on the subject by a Holocaust
prisoner and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
One of my favourite websites, BrainPickings, does a wonderful write up of it here if you’d like to see some excerpts. If you’re working through your own search for meaning, after waking up from the Fantasy Epic, Viktor Frankl’s book is a must-read.