The skies above this part of the world are often very clear so I’ve taken to star gazing at night when I can. Wherever I point the telescope it shows me more stars than I ever knew existed. It’s hard not to be humbled by the immensity of it all. But what struck me last night as I looked at the stars was how much I didn’t know.
It’s not a new thing for me to wonder about what I don’t know. I remember years ago reading an article in the British Medical Journal about medical education saying that all the best ongoing education starts with saying “I don’t know” – yet that was the one phrase we were all terrified to say as we our teachers singled us out to ask us questions on teaching ward rounds or in the lecture theatre. It’s a phrase which brought shame and condemnation. If you didn’t feel an idiot before you said it, you sure did afterwards! So, it was refreshing to read the opposite – to read the idea that only if you could say “I don’t know” could you open up the chance to learn something.
Many, many years later I came across the works of Montaigne, and was delighted to find that one of his most used phrases was “Que sais-je?” (not exactly I don’t know, but “what do I know” – still a humble admission of the limits of personal knowledge).
Throughout my career, although I practiced as a holistic doctor and was fortunate enough to work for much of my life in a service which prioritised time spent with patients, I often found myself saying to patients that even if they’d told me things they’d never told another soul (and that was a common remark made by patients), I thought it took a lifetime to try to really know yourself, let alone another person, so although I was about to share some insights with them about what was happening in their life, those insights were limited by the small amount I knew about them. You see, how much you know is always a relative term, but it surely is always (in the bigger scheme of things) a small amount.
When I posted yesterday about the Japanese lantern I had to check out on wikipedia just what those lanterns were and yet again I was faced by having to say to myself that I didn’t know enough about botany.
Strange that that awareness and the sharing of it is still something which comes with a discomfort, because, really, I believe that the world would be a much better place if we were all more aware of the fact that what we don’t know is always so much more than what we do know.
While I was writing this, Hilary (who didn’t know what I was writing about) read out a quote to me –
The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.
Earlier today, what provoked me to write this post was reading the following quotation from Parker Palmer on the Brainpickings site –
What I really mean … is be passionate, fall madly in love with life. Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.”
Offer yourself to the world – your energies, your gifts, your visions, your heart – with open-hearted generosity. But understand that when you live that way you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail.
To grow in love and service, you – I, all of us – must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success… Clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn – that’s the path to a life lived large, in service of love, truth, and justice.
I couldn’t agree more.