“I don’t know.”
There is incredible power and creative potential in these three little words. Yet it’s in human nature to avoid them like the bubonic plague.
By the age of 25, I felt I’d looked into most of life’s Big Questions and come away with some definite answers. By the age of 35, I’d arrived at equally definite answers to many of the same questions — only the exact opposite answers. These days, at 45, I have very few definite answers to life’s many mysteries. I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the subtle wisdom of I don’t know. The good news is, you need to know very, very little to enjoy a beautiful fall day, time spent with loved ones or your favorite TV show.
Humans are hard-wired to know things — or at least to pretend to know things. The amygdala is part of the brain that manages emotions like fear. It’s there to keep you alive. When you’re around a potentially dangerous person or situation, the amygdala triggers a fight or flight response. However, the amygdala isn’t so good at distinguishing between a real bodily threat and an imagined threat to your most cherished ideas or core beliefs. When someone challenges your most deeply held political or religious views, your body responds much as if you’re being chased by a tiger. You lash out, defend yourself, or you flee the situation like a burning building. The amygdala tries to keep you alive by coming up with definite black and white answers, and in a hurry.
Most of life’s conundrums are not black and white. Should you really be dating this person? Should you leave your job? Is your best friend telling you the truth? Often, we’d rather have an answer right now, rather than the right answer later. We tend to make impulsive decisions, then defend those decisions as if life depended. Our brains try to remove internal conflict–what therapists call “cognitive dissonance”–from our long-held views or important life decisions. But enormous freedom comes from admitting to yourself, and to others, that you simply don’t have all the answers. When you become more comfortable with internal contradictions and tensions, you no longer need to rush to prove yourself, or defend your viewpoint. You start by simply recognizing these internal tensions. You really want to quit your job, yet you’re also terrified of losing your job. You derive intense pleasure from cheating on your spouse, yet you also derive intense guilt. It’s not one way or another. It’s both ways. It’s neither way. Recognizing how your internal experience follows no clear set of rules or regulations can be liberating. When you quit insisting on being right, judgment–of yourself and others–falls way. Compassion, authenticity and self-acceptance begins to take its place.