What We Know and What We Don’t Know
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
Many of us believe life, particularly spiritual life, is all about what we know. Some of us study and grapple with what we hear and what we see, struggling to know what it all means. We want to know, to be certain, to avoid ambiguity.
The wisdom of Joni Mitchell, and Albert Einstein, reminds us life is not about what we know, but what we don’t know.
When we concentrate on what we think we know our focus becomes smaller and smaller. We stop exploring and put our effort into defending what we believe we have already discovered, proving we were right all along.
As we pause to contemplate what we don’t know, what is beyond us, we begin to discover the beauty and imagination all around us.
I remember when my spiritual life was focused on knowing. My spiritual practices were all about searching and finding. I was a spiritual detective looking for clues to answer questions and solve riddles.
Being a spiritual detective was comfortable for me because I could run my own cases. I had a general understanding of the procedures and was fine as long as I did things by the book. There was plenty of encouragement to invest myself in finding answers to questions and solving mysteries.
Like every good mystery, spiritual life has layers and layers of meaning to explore. I set out in search of boxes to check and answers to put into blanks. As I continued to pursue solutions, I came to see they were neither as tangible nor as clear as I had presumed.
What We Don’t Know
I believe spiritual life is primarily about what we don’t know.
Spiritual life, I have come to appreciate, is not about me lecturing God or making demands. It is not about me listening to someone else lecturing me or setting standards or expectations for how I will behave.
We are each on a voyage of exploration and discovery. Spiritual life is all about looking into the vast expanse within us and around us and being open to what is there. We are not on a scavenger hunt, trying to find a list of things someone else has assigned to us.
Some of us can feel a little overwhelmed by spiritual life, particularly when we contemplate what we do not know. We like to feel we are organized and managing things well. It is more challenging to feel we have spiritual life under control when we consider what we do not know.
How do we even know what we don’t know? Is it even possible to understand what we don’t know?
It is helpful for me to begin in a place where I question whether we actually know what we think I know. I believe we hold onto what we know so tightly because we are afraid of not knowing. Our tight grip is our way of reassuring ourselves we understand spiritual life.
When we begin to release our grasp a little, even one finger, we start to appreciate how wonderful and attractive it is not to know. What we don’t know draws us out of our preconceived assumptions and sparks our imaginations.
I believe spiritual life is much more about our imaginations than about what we think we already know.
God is waiting for us, surrounded by what we don’t know and is greater than our expectations.
Discovering What We Don’t Know
The people who inspire me spend more time and energy contemplating what we don’t know than what we do know.
Two questions have helped me discover what we don’t know. One is What do we really mean by that? and the other is Why?
Many of us tend to hide what we don’t know under words which discourage people from recognizing it. Like archaeologists, we need to clear away layers which have built up and obscured those more significant questions.
We like to fool people. including ourselves, into thinking we know pretty much everything. If we don’t know, we at least have an entertaining explanation of why we are still thinking.
Our voyage of spiritual discovery is more about being open than about knowing. We look and listen, trying to catch a glimpse of something we have not considered before.
People who experience life in ways different from how we do can introduce us to what we don’t know if we are open to them.
We learn to listen and we begin to hear spiritual life speaking to us through them.
As we discover something new, something we have not considered before, we begin to explore.
Exploring What We Don’t Know
It is possible our explorations will take us to exotic places in distant lands, but they probably will not.
We can explore many things we don’t know where we are right now, without extensive travel or expensive equipment.
As we clean away the layers which cover what we don’t know, we begin to ask What do we mean? and Why?
Some people may not be comfortable with our exploration. They may be holding onto what they think they know as tightly as they can. We can help them, gently, begin to discover spiritual life in what we don’t know. They might not appreciate it at first.
It is not our responsibility to make them see things in new ways. We are each on our own journey of exploration. It is not up to us to force them to join us.
Our journeys will change the way we experience spiritual life. As we become more open to what we don’t know we begin to appreciate spiritual life within us and all around us.
Who knows what we might find?
Where will we discover what we don’t know today?
How will we begin exploring what we don’t know this week?
[Image by Me in ME]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.