One of my favourite phrases is “I don’t know”, which might be considered as a form of fantastic stupidity until you consider this. If I say I don’t know, then somebody will tell me what I need to know. Useful, huh?
There’s something endearing about transparency and truth telling. Of course it can be tiresome if the, “I don’t know”, means that somebody is being deliberately obtuse or sulky, but done in good heart it pays us the compliment of inviting us to impart what little wisdom we have. Somebody actually wants to know what we think, which is terribly flattering, as all too often people like to tell us what they think we ought to know.
My daughter says I am completely hopeless at hiding my feelings. Of course, I think I’m fabulously good at it and that my face is a picture of innocence, even when I’m being bored into a coma, but as soon as I hear her say, “uh oh”, I know that I must behave better or, at least, look as if I am. In my defence, it only really happens when I meet a know-it-all, or those people who, if you say something has happened to you, then it has happened to them in spades – and hearts and clubs and diamonds. “I know!!! But that’s nothing. You’ll never believe what happened to me.”
Yawn. It’s that classic joke. Somebody is going on and on about themselves. Finally, they stop, and turn to you, and for one heart-stopping second you think they may actually be interested in your presence until they say (I paraphrase) “that’s enough about me. What do you think of me?” By this time, I am generally too stunned to answer but my general unconsciousness is usually an invitation for them to carry on. “As I was saying …”
The less we know, the more we learn and that’s rather the point. The only place to start is from a position of ignorance. The great artists didn’t run around boasting. They had the humility to mess up, which led to constant experimentation. Only once they knew the rules of perspective, could they break the rules. Picasso drew like an angel then ruffled up all the feathers.
By humility, I don’t for a moment mean humbling ourselves; it is more about allowing grace into our thinking. If we can admit to our mistakes, our failures and our sheer humanity, we can be free to be ourselves. We can be authentic, because we have nothing to hide and that, in itself, is enormously liberating. Behind every know-it-all is the desire to be right (about everything) and, as the saying goes, “I’d rather be right than happy.” In other words, I would rather stay trapped in the prison of my own ego (which I would call fear) than communicate with others. You cannot have conversations if you have no humility; you can only give lectures and I don’t know anybody who enjoys being lectured – unless it happens to be Einstein, but the great man was a master of humility. As he put it, “You ask me if I keep a notebook to record my great ideas. I’ve only ever had one.”
If we are candid about our ignorance (which is essentially a form of innocence) we are less likely to end up in a tangle of small white lies, from which we are forever trying to extricate ourselves. Inevitably, we will slip up on our very own banana skin and feel more unutterably stupid than we were worried about seeming in the first place. If we pretend to have read Hamlet in close text, we’re bound to end up talking to a Shakespeare scholar. The universe is mischievous in that way.
“I don’t know” is very different from, “I don’t mind,” which has to be the most infuriating arrangement of three words in the English language. What would you like to eat? “I don’t mind.” Indian, Italian, Thai, French? “I don’t mind. Aaagh!!” Well, let’s have fried grasshoppers, shall we? “I don’t mind”
It is at this point that I hear my daughter say, “uh oh”, just before I exit stage left to go to a restaurant on my own because I do mind, very much, what I eat. And if I get lost along the way, I will say, “I don’t know where I am,” and some kind soul will point me in the right direction. People are nice in that way.