Wednesday, April 10, 2024 #40

 Now deep into the ‘weeds’ of ‘not-knowing’ as a central tenet of one’s orientation to both theology and the world, one seeks for sources of such ‘not-knowing’. In an ethos seemingly dominated by the ‘psychology’ of how to relate to, endure, confront and perhaps ideally dissipate anxiety, uncertainty, ambiguity and what has come to be dubbed as ‘vulnerability’ or ‘weakness,’ one reads eminent psychologists’ lists for coping. Rhea Marshall Denton, PhD, writing on, in a piece entitled, The Art of Not Knowing, April 2, 2019, directing readers to reflect on what uncertainty means to us:

Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  Worrying to solve uncertainty: Worries are often plans, predictions, and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel ‘productive’ to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an ‘intolerance to uncertainty strategy’ and only leads to more worry.

 Reasurance seeking: Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to ‘feel certain’.

 Searching online: Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and , ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that into9lerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones.

 Double checking: Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more.

 Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting: To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

 Avoidance Strategies

 Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing.

 Avoiding new opportunities: Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether.

 Cognitive avoidance: Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

 Beliefs about uncertainty:

 It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go. (‘I will not be able to mange’).

Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

 This last section, ‘beliefs about uncertainty’ offer an appropriate turning point from psychology to theology/philosophy. And we live and swim in a river that resists their dissection, separation and isolation from each other.

Agnosiophobia is defined as the “fear of not knowing”. And this fear can emerge about various issues including but not restricted to:

·        a gap between what I ‘know’ I can do, and what I really am able to accomplish;

·        a perceived gap between what others ‘think’ or ‘belief’ I can do, and my own consciousness of my capacity

·        a gap between what others expect and what I am comfortable and capable of accomplishing

·        a gap between my orientation to mystery and the world’s (including parents, schools, churches, and culture generally) discomfort with mystery, and the not-knowing.

Given the premise that our existence is ‘falsely’ dependent on our ‘success’ and the ‘opinion’ of others of my person, many of us naturally gravitate to things psychological, as our ‘method’ of self-talk to paddle our way through the ambiguities, uncertainties, and the anxieties that these ‘situations’ and perceptions hold. Similarly, from a spiritual perspective, the canard, ‘how does/will God regard my person’ in the deeply embedded Christian (and possibly other faith) proposition that, as sinners, we are obligated to ‘be redeemed’ and to ‘be transformed’ and to ‘be saved’ from our sinful nature in and through the grace of God, implicitly also embeds a foundational ‘belief’ in the minds and hearts of millions.

Good Samaritan acts of compassion, along with a plethora of ‘good works’, themselves the result of salvation, rather than the cause of salvation, from the Christian perspective, are promoted and emulated, imitated and adulated in a culture fraught with the fear of failure, however that failure, whether here and now, or in an afterlife. That is not to argue against authentic altruism, which abounds among millions of philanthropics, and the kindnesses of care and compassion among and between friends and families. And, to be sure, there is a deep resonance of ‘certainty’ in the course of enacting a noble authentic act of compassion or empathy.

However, this cultural elevation of ‘ego’ as the master-controller of our existence, is quite flawed, and perhaps even, ironically a self-sabotage. The ambiguity, uncertainty, and ‘not-knowing’ of something variously known as ‘surrender’ from a psychological and spiritual perspective is a dynamic (perhaps the antithesis of dynamic, a state of stasis) with which the contemporary western world is unfamiliar, resistance, abhorrent, or even in total and absolute denial.

What would the beginning act of ‘surrendering’ our ego even look like? For starters, it would begin with the notion that both our own, and all others’ person is not defined by our personality. Whether or not we are or appear to be arrogant or selfish, or narcissistic, or insecure, or (and this one really digs!) ‘troubled,’ would not be the ‘first thing’ that comes to mind, that enters into our conversation when speaking about a person we ‘know’ in common. Not as a way of denying the personality and the ‘ego’ but as a way of resisting the reduction of both ourself and another to a mere ‘flimsy, glib, and cardboard-like descriptive,’ we might find new ways of perceiving ‘the other’ and even more importantly, new ways of ‘identifying’ who we are from the perspective of our inner consciousness, and in possible, our unconscious. Cliches like ‘we are all broken,’ while not uttered and perceived in malice, fail to accomplish the kind of surrender that might emerge from a perception and approach that sees behind and/or beyond the personality.

If we could begin to acknowledge how demeaning and how dismissive are those adjectives that we all use as our ‘window’ and then our ‘decision’ about how to engage and to ‘treat’ the other, the high value we all place on the ‘nature’ (from such a fleeting, and falsely objective and judging perspective) of each of the persons we encounter, we might begin to shed the illusion of ‘knowing’ that other person, an illusion we all know we participate in expressing and thereby enhancing. In bald terms, we really do not ‘know’ the other person, unless and until we have spent considerable time in her/his presence, listening, watching, sensing and even intuiting and imagining another deeper level of that person.

This hypothetical exercise cannot happen, however, unless we all move in the direction of seeing beyond and behind the mask we all wear. Of course, we will not be either able or willing to bare our deepest secrets with everyone; suffice it to say that we can, hopefully, with those we hold dear. And, in holding those in a more unknowing and non-judgemental ‘place’ in our mind and heart, there is the possibility that we will learn to know ourselves even more deeply.

There is another aspect of this ‘not-knowing’ that may be even more significant than the impact on interpersonal relations. If we can ‘see’ and ‘acknowledge’ and operate in a mind-set and perspective that, while we really cannot know ‘fully’ or completely, how the universe works, or how we relate to the ineffable, inexorable, impenetrable and inexhaustible mystery of whatever we wish to call it, Tao, Braham, God, Yahweh, Buddha, Allah, we are open to the infinite both in that mystery and in the mystery of ‘the other’ as well as the mystery of the being I am. Having begun the process of moving away from a ‘personal’ relationship with other persons, (based on the perception of minimal and superficial information) and, then becoming more open and receptive to the not-knowing of ourselves, of the other and finally of the infinite, ineffable mystery of the universe, we need not to surrender any notion that the universe is without ‘plan’ or ‘order’ or processes all of which we can observe, acknowledge, and attempt to integrate into our world-view, our theology, our philosophy and our identity.

Indeed, the intersection of acknowledged ‘not knowing’ firstly in a literal sense of those words, as well as in a psychological sense, from a cognitive, emotional, philosophic and even an ontological perspective, we release much of the burden of ‘having to know’ as a path toward enhanced identity, enhanced capacity for relationship, enhanced possibility of an after-life of some kind of reward, as well as a dogmatism and determinism and ‘frozen-ness’ that seems to grow barnacles on any person, ideology, theology, and/or philosophy so far extant. This state of not-knowing, however, is not to be construed as a state of sin, immorality, fallenness, or even depravity, as some would have our identity characterized. Innocence, while given a bad name’ deserves to be re-visited, from the perspective of an honest acceptance that we are all ‘in kindergarten’ on most questions we face in our lives. Naivety is defined as a lack of experience, a lack of wisdom, or a lack of judgement, or a lack of sophistication or worldliness. As puts it, ‘naivety is important at an early stage-in life or in an undertaking-but a definite impediment later on.’ In a culture that obsesses in trying to develop children into ‘adults’ as quickly and as completely as possible, in order to serve the needs of those adults, (this is not about child psychology!), naivety is quietly literally and metaphorically shameful, while maturity is virtually sacred.

The notion of ‘not knowing’ in this space, at this time, is not proferred as a menu for ‘mindfulness’. Rather it is perceived and reflected upon from a cultural, and historical and a political/religious perspective. Nor is it offered as a prelude to ‘transforming’ not knowing into an opportunity to ‘accomplish’ some goal, as if it were a means to an end. Indeed, this space continually, perhaps exhaustingly, refutes the transactional ‘means-ends’ equation by which and through which we too often judge ourselves, others and events. We are not only NOT the means to another’s ends (Kant); we are also much more than the means to a collective ‘just society’ as consumers, employers, workers, tax payers, and voters (to borrow from the original Trudeau). And in the vortex of being engaged, perhaps consumed, with the processes of making a living, seeking and securing a job, serving as a parent, leading a community or a project, of even a political party or an ecclesial institution, we make lists of the ‘things to do’ each and every day and then we ‘accomplish’ and ‘perform’ those tasks only to erase that list and replace it with another.

I once asked a high school principal, ‘What would you be doing with your life, if you could do whatever you wished?” To which he blandly and blindly responded, “I have no idea!” And that question lies at the heart of this piece.

Assuming our identity through roles, or more recently in and through our gender, and then basking in the rewards of career success (salary, status, office, home and vacation preferences) or in the conflicts and prejudices and contempt (battling for equality, equity, and respect in our families and in the broader society), all of these narratives dependent on and slavishly embodying a pursuit of ‘more’ and ‘better’ and a ‘healthy ego’ and that vaunted social and political goal, ‘maturity’ and ‘mastery’…we inevitably fail. Having both set up and then become dedicated (addicted) to this model of entering and surviving in a world that idolizes both success and wealth, we have effectively committed a radical and cultural form of sabotage.

How do those of us raised and educated in the West in a culture that idolizes science, literal and empirical evidence and the many academic disciplines that have been rooted in this ‘epistemology’ shift to an epistemology that begins with ‘not-knowing’?

First, we need not abandon a notion of an effable, ephemeral deity. Nor can we abandon the notion that the universe has a ‘way of unfolding’ that both attracts and confounds us, as do we all of each other and ourselves. Plumbing the various ethnic and cultural roots, histories, traditions and rituals of the many tribal and ethnic cultures humanity has both lived and left as their legacy, we might begin, in a spirit of awe and wonder, not merely in a method and attitude of scientific objectivity, to probe new horizons. Acknowledging our historic pattern of oscillating from one ‘fad’ (industrialization, for example or artificial intelligence, for another), to another ‘fad’ as a healthy and life-promoting pattern is a short-sighted and failing proposition, might also help. And then, could we possibly begin by listening to the Buddhist exhortation to utter these words, following each of our sentences, “I do not know!”?

It may seem trite and obvious to speculate that neither Mandela nor Gandhi saw themselves as mere ‘transactional agents’ of politics, history or ideology. Nor were they slaves to their own not-knowing.


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