Thursday, September 18, 2008

What we know and don't know


We don't know much; but we don't know it.

We all think we know this, that and the other thing. Time and time again in my own work, I find that I think I know something, only to discover I was wrong. I knew only part of it--or maybe very little of it-- but I thought I knew a lot.

Understanding unfolds within the context of knowledge. It's the understanding that tells us how little we know, in the moment that it blooms, if it blooms--and then only after we have collected a very great deal of knowledge. Our weakness lies in our continual misunderstanding of knowledge as understanding.

One thing that puzzles me a great deal is the ubiquitous habit of self-righteously preaching at others about the overall lack of knowledge or understanding.

When one does this, one secretly assumes that one's own knowledge is, of course, on the other hand very groovy indeed, and ought to be listened to. And the standard trump card when others try to impart something of their experience or understanding is to pounce by saying that "we can't know anything."

This is a great way to shut out new information you don't want to be bothered with having to ponder. I see it used all the time.

We are miraculously impenetrable when it comes to absorbing knowledge and understanding from relationship with those immediately around us, unless we have--by virtue of our own infallible opinions--carefully selected the person who we are willing to absorb knowledge and understanding from by virtue of our own superior ability to know who we should be listening to.

To compound matters, we are ever eager to absorb understanding--or what we presume to be understanding--from highfalutin' books written by complete strangers, while ignoring practical and very real understanding that could be gleaned for real relationships with living breathing people who are right in front of us. Our best friend could speak from personal experience and tell us the exact same thing the highfalutin' book says, and we would dismiss or completely ignore it as worthless.

Books, you see, are more important and valid than real people, in the same way that stupid new theories about how to run banking institutions and loan money have recently trumped hundreds of years of common sense.

In my own experience, it's often the very people I assumed I didn't need to listen to--whom I roundly rejected as a result of my buffers and my reactions-- who turn out to be the most important people to listen to.

But in order to find that out I have to be willing to sacrifice a great deal of my own self importance, and most especially the assumptions I have about what I need to hear and who I need to hear it from. I need, in other words, to acquire a little humility.

I've got a suggestion--an exercise that is worth trying on for size. The next time you run into anyone who is saying something you feel isn't important, or who you have an immediate negative reaction to, try to go directly against that and see what it is that you're missing in the exchange.

Is it possible that that reaction, that rejection, that reflexive dismissal of the other as unimportant is in fact totally wrong?

I'm asking the question because it increasingly appears to me that this is in fact the case. We miss a great deal of what we need to be hearing because we have automatic mechanisms that shut it out before we even know it's happening. I see that happen so often in myself that I have recently become quite suspicious of it. Nine out of ten times it's taking place because my ego wants to make sure I miss something important.

What it is that I'm missing isn't perhaps even so important. It's the act of seeing how my reaction interferes with my ability to discover anything real in the substance of actual exchange with a human being that matters.

What is the substance of that exchange? Am I honoring the person I am in relationship with, or using my reactions as a shield? Am I willing to give anything up in order to learn something new about life?

What am I willing to pay to have a relationship with someone else? A real person--not a book, or a theory, or one of my clever ideas.

I should stop trying to base my relationships on what "it" likes or does not like. The question is what the immediate, sensed value of a relationship is, not what I like or don't like.

Live a little, folks. Cut your friend, partner, or associate some in-the-moment slack today. Try to let something new in.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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