Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Power of "I Don't Know"

"Now these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forbear."                - Alma 37:11

       There is a quote attributed to Confucius that says “True knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance.” Whether or not he actually said it, it's a great quote. We're trained from a young age to fear and avoid the statement "I don't know." We think to admit ignorance is to admit defeat. Those who have the answers are revered. Those who honestly admit they don't know are seen as slow. But the fear of "I don't know" is actually cheating us out of a fuller life. "I don't know" is empowering. It offers us an open door to truth. 

       There's a tendency to think the truth is always pristine; that it should come neatly packaged in perfect symmetry. Classroom lessons are given this way. Subjects are presented to students in terms of perfect systems that function with clockwork precision. All knowledge is broken down into a step-by-step recipe format. In order for something to be true it must be repeatable and observable. It must be cleanly laid out with all the answers readily available. Somewhere down the line our society has been duped into the belief that truth consists of that which is fully revealed and perfectly understood. But that's often not the case.

       Learning truth is like putting together a puzzle. Sometimes you'll be working steadily, putting everything in its place, reaching a certain point only to find a piece missing, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of what was just starting to become a beautiful picture. If you were putting together a real puzzle, you would never try to fill the hole by grabbing the wrong piece and shoving it into place, would you? But that's exactly what we try to do in our personal quests for knowledge. When we are handed truth in its messy form there is a strong temptation to "fix it." We fill in the gaps ourselves with half-baked theories and assumptions. We do anything we can to fill the hole that's ruining our puzzle, rather than continuing to work until the right piece presents itself.

       This is especially true in the Church. We Latter-day Saints love to have things just so. Our meetings run on a predictable schedule, we have step-by-step programs like Personal Progress and Scouting, and every missionary is expected to know the missionary handbook by heart. While this approach is very efficient, it has left us with a big weakness: we Mormons are not trained to handle uncertainty. When issues arise, big messy issues that don't have clear explanations, we try to force things into a more picture-perfect form. We oversimplify things in order to keep our Mormon worldview neat and pretty. 

       Here's just one example. The question often arises that asks "If God is loving, why does he let bad things happen to good people?" The answer I hear most often from my fellow Mormons is that "God sends us trials in order to teach us things we couldn't learn any other way." In some cases this answer is true. God does allow trials to teach us and help us grow. The problem is that this theory is often presented as a universal truth - a quick fix. It's a one-size-fits-all approach that lets us think about the world in neat and simple terms. Presented that way, this statement carries some very problematic implications. (Do people who suffer have more to learn than people who don't? Do things like genocide teach people lessons they could learn no other way?) What starts out as an innocent attempt to comfort those who suffer can become a gross oversimplification that isn't very comforting at all. 

       So if not all suffering is meant to teach us, then why does God let bad things happen to good people? The answer: I don't know! I do know there is a God and he loves his children. I do know suffering can sometimes teach us powerful lessons, but I don't know why bad things happen to good people in every case. I'm not saying the answer isn't out there. All I'm saying is that I haven't found it yet so I'll just have to wait until I do. That might seem like a cop-out but it's actually not. It's an honest statement that leaves the door open for the answers to come, eventually.

       The scriptures demonstrate this idea artfully. In Moses 5, an angel comes to Adam and asks him why he is offering sacrifices. What does Adam say? "I know not, save the Lord commanded me." He doesn't try and fudge the answer. He doesn't share his own theory on why he's offering sacrifices. He just tells the truth, plain and simple: I don't know. After Adam gives that answer the angel explains the real reason why he was commanded to do it and Adam has an epiphany about the Atonement of Christ and his own role in the plan of salvation.

       In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi sees a vision and he is asked if he knows the condescension of God. Nephi's answer? "I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." Notice that he acknowledges the pieces of the puzzle that he does have, and he stops there. He says "I don't know" and waits for the other pieces to fall into place. Nephi is then shown the remainder of his vision and he learns all about the condescension of God, something he may not have learned had he not first admitted his own ignorance on the subject.

       The best example I know of someone who embraced the power of "I don't know" was Socrates, the Greek philosopher. Socrates was really smart: so smart that the oracle at Delphi declared Socrates to be the wisest man of all. Surprised at this, Socrates decided to test the oracle by interviewing every man in Athens whom he considered wise. But every man he encountered was quite ignorant of many things, and what's worse, they were oblivious to their ignorance, as well! None of them could admit there was something important they did not know. Pondering on this discovery, Socrates concluded that, if given the choice, he would rather remain ignorant and know it rather than living his life believing he knew everything. This attitude led Socrates to a life of enlightenment wherein he wrestled with important ideas rather than accepting them all at face value. But once he began teaching his ideas he ran afoul of the local authorities, who put Socrates on trial for "corrupting the youth" with his teachings. Socrates gave a brilliant testimony at his trial, but still he was put to death, forced to drink poison.1 Even though it killed him, Socrates was never afraid of "I don't know." He knew that saying "I don't know" was actually the first step toward finding the truth. 

       Now, I do not wish to convey the idea that it is best to simply go through life accepting ignorance. Accepting "I don't know" means you're not afraid to be ignorant, not that you adore ignorance and that you are content not ever knowing anything. Socrates wasn't some kind of existentialist hippie who went around in a haze asking "what is love?" while he played the bongo drums. Nor did he sit, paralyzed, refusing to do anything with his life until he finally had all the answers in front of him. Socrates lived life to its fullest! He taught, debated, and made a difference in people's lives. He accepted the fact that there were things he hadn't quite figured out yet and he lived with it while he kept on learning. 

       This is how faith works. You take what things you do know and hold onto them as you navigate through what you don't know, believing God will give you the answers when the time is right. Elder Holland related a story which illustrates this beautifully. He said "A 14-year-old boy recently said to me a little hesitantly, 'Brother Holland, I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.' I hugged that boy until his eyes bulged out. I told him with all the fervor of my soul that belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for 'only believing.' "2

       So when issues arise with your faith and your perfectly-constructed gospel paradigm looks like it's about to come crashing down, just relax. It's not an all-or-nothing game. You can still believe in the church without having all the answers. And when someone you know has doubts and doesn't see how they can keep their testimony afloat, tell them it's okay. The truth can be messy sometimes. Even with the gospel in our lives we can't know everything perfectly. That's kind of the point. We're here to have faith. Sometimes that faith has to be served with a healthy sprinkling of "I don't know," and that's okay! Remember what Alma said: "And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true" (Alma 32:21). "I don't know" always walks hand in hand with faith.

       So try this out next time you encounter a question that would cause you doubt or anxiety. Just take a breath, dig down deep, and say those three magic words, "I don't know." Here are a few to practice on. 

Q: Why can't women hold the priesthood?
A: I don't know!

Q: Why was Joseph Smith commanded to practice polygamy?
A: I don't know!

Q: Why is "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree" so darn catchy?
A: I don't know!

       See how well that works? Notice how the world doesn't come crashing down when we admit we don't have all the answers? Stop and feel how amazing it is to say "I don't know." Drink it in. Mmm...yeah. That's the liberating power of "I don't know." It tells you what you have left to learn and leaves you open to finding more answers. Next time you find yourself in a state of ignorance, acknowledge it fearlessly! Say it! Let it fly! Shout a nice, big "I don't know!" to the world. Those three words can work wonders. They can open the door to lifelong learning and faith. They are the prelude to every truth you will ever learn. Remember what Confucius said: "True knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance." Did Confucius really say those words? That's a great question! Answer? I don't know.

1. Burnet, John. Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
2. Holland, Jeffrey R. "Lord, I Believe" Ensign, May 2013.

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