The Pilgrim’s Pensieve #12

The humility of knowing that you don’t know

Knowledge is a funny old thing. For the past couple of days I have been trying to write a new post for this blog. I started out with an idea I fully agreed with in my mind (it always sounds great as long as it remains in your head.) When it actually came to writing it I was about a page and half through then frustration set in. For hours I was stuck and I couldn’t figure it out. I am very familiar with the challenges of writing but this was different. The ideas I put down were good but together they weren’t cohesive. (When you face such an obstacle as a writer it really affects your mojo.) As I poured over my piece trying to discover what was really wrong with it and how I could make it work it suddenly dawned on me: the problem was that I knew.

I was tackling a lofty topic and thinking I had a good handle on it. What I knew crippled me because I was depending on something insufficient. Knowledge not ignorance was the problem here. By my “knowing” I had disrespected what I wanted to make better known. I had disregarded the true greatness of what I was dealing by acknowledging only a little of its greatness. Knowledge has that wicked sense of humour. When you think you know she delights in embarrassing you with the truth of your stark ignorance. However, when you come with humility before her she rewards your ignorance with knowledge. In the end you really don’t know what you don’t know.

One of my favourite quotes is from Sir Isaac Newton, he said,

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

When we talk about knowledge we often refer to it in a positive, self-affirming manner. We talk about it as something we acquired, our own possession, a merit that we managed to achieve for ourselves. Perhaps like Newton we need to start defining what we know by what we don’t know. At the heart of learning is discovery which means it was already there but we didn’t notice it. Discovering something does not make you anymore entitled to it than the jungle belongs to its explorer (I wish the colonialists got that memo.) It’s a matter of perspective here. In the grand scheme of things we are but children, newcomers to this ancient world that has gone on happily without us. Perhaps to really know something is to better understand your ignorance of it. Again in the words of Newton,

“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.”


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