Hooked On a Feeling
Is there anything wrong with knowing that we don’t know?
The shower in our basement bathroom never worked, and there were spiders in every corner, and the toilet was probably haunted. So the nine of us shared one bathroom, which was easier for me, the youngest, and a boy, than it was for my sisters. Our dad shaved every morning, because BYU didn’t allow otherwise, and because “the brethren” shave every morning. On mornings before school, we took turns shuffling sleepily to the toilet while our dad shaved. We listened to his cheerful morning song and he listened to our bladders emptying. He was a morning person.
On weekend mornings, when we didn’t have to be ready in time for family scripture study, he let me shave with him. He propped me on the counter, patted my face with Barbasol foam, and handed me a fake razor. I watched the mirror and did exactly what he did: scrape the razor across my cheek, make a stretchy face, rinse white foam down the drain. I started shaving when I was five years old.
At about the same age, I stood at the front of a Mormon chapel and innocently declared, “I know the church is true.” Like most of my Mormon peers, it seems I’ve known it since I was five years old.
But of course I didn’t know, and of course I wasn’t shaving. I was merely mimicking members of my tribe, practicing my culture’s script. We smile when preschool children bear testimony because their innocent affirmation makes our own faith seem more real, not because we believe they’re really capable of knowing.
We grow up following a script that creates a feeling of knowing
that’s like a warm blanket around our brain.
By the time I took up the adolescent task of discovering an identity of my own, I had been telling people I knew the church was true for close to a decade. Self discovery begins with a first draft forged for us by our families, communities, and traditions. Like a rubber band attached to a nail, we can stretch, but we don’t get to choose what’s in our first draft. For most Mormons, that draft includes a personal history of telling our peers we know things we haven’t ever explored. We grow up following a script that creates a feeling of knowing that’s like a warm blanket around our brain, and most of us need a good reason to consider taking it off to face the chill.
Psychology texts sometimes use this exercise to help students recognize the feeling of knowing. It only works the first time you see it, so stick with the ground rules: Read the next paragraph at normal speed, paying attention to the chatter in your mind. Are you curious? Confused? Frustrated?
A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is better than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom ever get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.
You can probably feel your mind looking for a solution to satisfy the theme. Each sentence makes sense on its own, but when we try to connect them to each other we get that unsettling feeling of not knowing. Now notice how your mind reacts when you read a single word: kite. When you read the paragraph again, with just one new word to provide context, you’ll feel things fall into place in a way that’s pretty close to pleasure. This is what we mean when we say we “know” — every idea fits with its neighboring ideas. Everything has meaning, and meaning feels good.
Now that you know what the paragraph is about, try on alternative interpretations. What if I told you it was about fishing? You could make most of it work with a little effort, especially if your peers agreed. How about sentences pulled at random from spam email messages? No, randomness doesn’t satisfy you anymore — you already know it has meaning. Like eating when you’re already full, the feeling of knowing makes it hard to consider alternative interpretations.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities;
in the expert’s mind there are few.
More than a thousand years ago, a brilliant Chinese scholar named Tokusan is said to have sought knowledge from Zen Master Ryutan. At one point, Ryutan refilled his guest’s tea cup, but didn’t stop when the cup was full.
“Stop! The cup is full!” said Tokusan, as tea spilled across the table.
“Exactly,” said Master Ryutan. “You are like this cup; you are full of knowledge. You come and ask for wisdom, but your cup is full. I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you have to empty your cup.”
The feeling of knowing keeps me from learning. It closes my mind, feeds my ego, and reinforces the otherness of others. It tricks me into spending my time justifying my actions instead of living my life on purpose. Knowing is the Plan B of thinking: it denies seminal thought the chance to become an idea worth considering.
My youngest son is now five years old — beautiful, curious, and eager to learn. I love watching him practice his culture’s script, but he’s not likely to stand at a pulpit and say he knows any church is true. I don’t want my son to grow up with the warm blanket of knowing; I want him to lean into the discomfort of not knowing. That is where his potential lives.
I’m beginning to understand that I really don’t know much more than my son does. But not knowing is beautiful. It’s the path to curiosity and wonder — our natural, most powerful state, and the one most likely to lead our lives toward real meaning. If I want my son to follow truth and discover his contribution to the world, and if I want the same for myself, there might not be a better phrase than “I don’t know.”