I wish I could find the Ann Landers (or was it Dear Abby?) column I read when I was in high school (or was it middle school?). I still remember reading it, standing up at our old kitchen table, the newspaper section folded back because someone was doing the Jumble. Ann/Abby wrote about saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know something—instead of pretending that you do know it.
Such a small thing, but I must have thought about that column a thousand times in the past thirty years. I think about it when I catch myself nodding along with the group instead of just saying, “Wait. I never heard of that writer. Who is that?” Or when I notice I’m about to state an educated guess as if it’s a fact at the board table. Or when someone mentions a landmark while they give me directions, and I say, “Oh yes, right” even though I only have the vaguest idea where they’re talking about.
I work hard to say “I don’t know” and ask questions when I don’t know something. And I’m pretty comfortable with it these days. I love questions. But it still takes conscious effort. Which is interesting to me.
We’re somehow socialized to think that we have to have all the answers to be included, respected, valued. And yet, I always respect the person who is brave enough to ask (kind, curious) questions when they don’t know. I just think that’s so rad.
I feel like right now I’m talking about the little questions. Those examples I mentioned above are kind of small potatoes. Unless you’re an art registrar like my friend Angie, no one’s really hurt if we pretend to understand a colleague’s reference to Vermeer when in truth we’re not sure if he’s a painter, a writer, or a soccer star.
And yet. Maybe being comfortable with what we admitting what we don’t know in the small moments can condition us to be brave enough to sit with the bigger questions in our lives.
Or maybe we all just need to make some art.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with arts administration guru Nello McDaniel many times over the past two decades. Since I’m a theater-maker at heart, the process of creating theater from scratch is a language I know intimately. Nello understands that, and when I’ve been stuck, he has always encouraged me to re-frame my quandary in theater terms. Staffing and volunteer decisions are casting. Parts of the work are front of house, and parts of it are back of house. Work backward from the date the curtain goes up.
Lately, though, my husband and I have been talking about another part of creating an original piece of theater—of new art-making in general—that we can carry over into other parts of our lives: being okay with starting and not knowing what the end product will look like. Saying that out loud and moving forward in the best, bravest, most curious way we can anyway. Comfort with the big “I don’t know.”
As we lead groups toward a vision that doesn’t have all the guideposts neatly laid out.
As we make big health decisions in a world where science is more mystery and art than we tend to acknowledge.
As we change jobs, make big purchases, consider debt.
As we fall in and out of relationships with lovers, family, friends.
As we parent. Oh, man. So many outcomes we’re attached to without even realizing it as we parent.
Can finding a way to be okay with the little moments of not knowing help us find more comfort with the big I-don’t-knows?
I think I’ll renew my efforts to say what I don’t know—to ask questions—in those little moments. It’s not a formal experiment. Not yet anyway. Just an intention, I reckon.
Join me if you’d like. You, and me, and Rainer Maria Rilke can confess to what we don’t know. (It’s okay if you don’t know who that is. I guarantee you that you are not alone in that.)
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ― Rainer Maria Rilke