What is it exactly that we dislike so much about being wrong? What is it about not knowing, about not having the answers, that is so sharply defined as being unenviable? Of course, as with so many questions about human nature, one can look at the process of evolution; survival and advancement have long been predicated on finding the answers to questions big and small. Being wrong might cost you the chance to mate with a preferred specimen, or it might cost you your life, lest you pull a McCandless and eat the wrong berry. We view the pinnacle of human achievement and progress as answering questions that have heretofore eluded the grasp of human understanding. Advances in medicine, technological innovation, literary feats, all are lauded for their enlightenment, and rightfully so. But as is common when comparing two similar entities, we tend to make them rivals. Superman or Batman. Sosa or McGwire. Muslim or Christian. Drip or espresso. The similarities are tossed aside in favor of scrutinizing the differences. Such is the case with certitude.
“I am certain of nothing” is an ancient Greek saying that speaks to the idea that at any given moment, one can have their certainties shaken, their truths upended, their reality altered. It speaks not to being devoid of beliefs, but to an openness to having new information come in, and realizing that you were entirely wrong about whatever position you previously held. To me, it is a humble admission that whatever knowledge one possesses, more exists in the world outside of what you have understood than any you have retained. Avoiding this precise scenario, when you realize you are wrong, or you are stupendously ignorant, or that you no longer know which direction is up, is a guiding force for many people. For the majority of my young life, it dictated my pursuits, my interests, my relationships. I avoided being wrong or incapable at all costs. I took personal affront to challenges to my truths. I dismissed as uninformed stances that undermined my own. And not just in the big stuff. No, more often it was the little things that I found to be grating. Someone telling me that socialism was better than capitalism was less likely to upset me than a claim of a chicken thigh being better than a chicken breast (I now know that thigh>breast, 100%). Not finding immediate success in something bothered me more than moderate failure in a pursuit I was already ‘ok’ at. Being revealed as unschooled, even in topics that I had no familiarity with, left me feeling dejected and worthless. To stave that off I would learn just enough to engage in something, or lie about my knowledge altogether. Fake it till you make it.
One of my first professors in college was an enigmatic, slightly crazed, extraordinarily over-caffeinated Italophile, whose manner was about as familiar to wide-eyed freshmen as beef brisket is to a vegan. As the common tale goes, he inspired me and sparked in me an interest in my eventual major, pushed me to think critically, blah, blah, blah. While he surely does not dwell on our interactions, David Balaam remains one of the most influential people in my life to this day, because he sat at a table in a classroom in Tacoma, Washington, listened to my well-reasoned answer to a question he had posed, and said with great finality and fervor,
“Nope, not quite right, that’s okay we’ll find the answer.”
The conversation continued on, but I tuned out, at a loss for what had happened. As a student, I was reticent to ever offer up an answer that I thought to be questionable. My worst nightmare was what had just occurred: Produce an insight and be shot down, made a mockery of, in front of everyone. But somehow, in the way that Balaam said it, my incorrect answer was okay, or at least it didn’t hurt as badly as I had anticipated. It seemed to him that the wrong answer I had provided was an essential ingredient to finding the right answer. That shooting and missing the target was a way we could know if we were close to our scholarly pursuit in the first place. The exchange was the first time I had ever viewed being wrong as a positive. It was the first time I came to realize that not knowing was deeply powerful and revealing. The rest of that semester (and college) was spent wading deeper into the water’s of my own ignorance, exploring just how little I know about the world, and how cool that is.
Fast forward five years, and I now live in Juneau, Alaska. I spent three of the past years in school, constantly rediscovering the truth that lies in “I am certain of nothing.” Despite my experiences in Tacoma, nothing could have prepared me for the depth of inability one feels upon moving to Southeast Alaska. People do stuff here. They fix things, they make things, they build things, they know things. The culture of Alaska Natives is evident and powerful. The presence of the largest temperate rainforest in the world, the largest national forest in America, is tremendous. The city of Juneau lies along a channel, skirting up against mountains that run up to the shores of the Inside Passage, as if the forest itself had purged the city, and the only reason it still exists is because the ocean pushed back before it fell into a watery grave. Feeling and seeing the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian history in this place is to be immediately aware of the shallowness of one’s understanding of how humanity has interacted with the natural world. Noting the experiential nature of knowledge here makes one understand that bullshitting and fudging things just doesn’t cut it.
There is a profound freedom in acknowledging the limits of your knowledge and the depths of your ignorance. Where I once would have loathed living in a place like Juneau — a place where you cannot hide what you do not know, because you are either doing it right or you aren’t — I cherish it now. Being certain of something — a belief system, a way of doing things, a preconception of a place — is the very basis of learning that there is an alternative. In the short time I have been in Southeast, I have already resisted it; annoyed at the work it takes to have my assumptions shot down and be forced to see things as they are. Frustrated at the dedication it takes to learn things, how there is a necessity to trying, being wrong, and getting dirty.
My friends recently bought a sailboat. A serviceable 22 foot Catalina yacht that is perfect for going out and exploring the channels and passages that connect the communities of Southeast. In the short time it has been in their possession I have taken great pleasure in vocalizing my ineptitude with all things nautical, while eagerly taking every opportunity to fill in this gap in knowledge. It has been difficult to face the absolute impotence that I have while on the water. Much more in the way than helpful. But I have learned, and will continue to learn. It is but one item on an unending list: Things I Know Nothing About.
There is irony in having my paradigm shifted on having my paradigm shifted. I believe that to a large degree, life is about the ways in which the world is colluding to get us all to move — physically, spiritually, emotionally — and our responses to those calls to action. I have found enormous growth in becoming less resistant to those forces that take us to an entirely different plane of understanding; not that the calls are easier to heed, but the fruit that it bears is identifiable. A willingness to be wrong, or to have my understanding flipped on its head has been the best thing I’ve ever embraced. Being certain is overrated.