What does it take to say “I don’t know?” A lot apparently.
In school, it took me a while to understand that saying “I don’t know” to a teacher was possible. It did not please the teacher, but it was an answer – coherent, to the point, honest. It did elicit snickers from the crowd, but hey, it was an answer.
Starting out at work, the consequences might be a tad more serious, would they? I don’t know. Perhaps my boss’s frown might turn into bias towards my colleague, and against me. Or his blank face might be hiding possible negative judgement. I might fall behind in the competition. My career might not grow. My honesty can cost me a lifetime of opportunities.
And the list could possibly go on, unless I stop creating problems before they exist. But don’t we all do that? The reluctance to say “I don’t know” surpasses time and boundaries, is indeed parented by self-created fears and is one of the few obstacles the human mind is yet to overcome.
Fear of the consequences, an egoistical drive, or simply, the ignorance of the fact that we do not know – these factors stop us from speaking one of the few absolute truths. Most of the aspects in our world are relative, so you see why not saying “I don’t know” is colossal in importance.
A slight distinction needs to be made at this point. There are two (major) types of “I don’t know”s among others: one, “I dont know but I will try to know” and two, “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know”; the “don’t need to know” is implicit in want. “I don’t know” also has an evil twin: “that’s my personal opinion”. It is really hard to distinguish if something being said (or believed) is truly a personal opinion, or a juicy dressing for “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know”.
I feel rather unfortunate to not have come across the former type often, but encounter the second on a daily basis. Of course, no one says it out loud because we all learn to have a polite exterior, but who are we kidding, we all get the vibes. It is the single most common factor that tightly binds all seemingly opposite poles together. Liberals, conservatives, leftists, rightists, religious fanatics, atheists, patriots, turncoats, (oh, the list can go on: vegetarians, non-vegetarians, cricket fans, baseball fans, you name it) are all exactly the same when viewed from this angle.
It is easier to find someone who says ” I don’t know classical music” and then walks away from it, than someone who says “I don’t know classical music” and tries to scratch away some bit of the “not-knowing”. It is rightly a matter of interest, but then, I wonder how we gather interest just enough to form a (strong) opinion without really knowing the heart of the matter. I come across numerous opinions like these, and a “do you understand the concept you opine about” is a clear offense to people as we do not like to have our ignorance uncovered, and hence, the best person I know who can take the question from me, is me.
The first time I asked myself that was when I encountered astrology. Youngsters my age are unanimous in scorning astrology, heatedly declaring that no star or planet can tell the future, but I doubt how many of them have actually studied the concept and its gears to prove that. I was a part of the same crowd, until it sort of struck me: am I not being fanatic in my liberal views? If the “liberals” I know would have their way, they would perhaps burn me for saying this: being fanatic with liberal-labelled views is not being liberal, it is simply being conservative about a different set of values. Upholding something just because it is new does not make you a modernist; you are simply a “new” branch of traditionalism.
We put full faith in something – or reject it altogether – when we do not know it. I did the latter with astrology, yet when I asked myself if I understood the concept I opined about, I did not need an Einstein to explain the rest. Today, astrology rests its case; I stand without an opinion, because I cannot gather enough interest to back my earlier scorn with an understanding, and most importantly, because I don’t know. Perhaps the stars do govern my fate, who knows?
Astrology was followed by a lot of things. Some, I continue to learn about, some I find better alternatives to, others just settle in a box which I might open later. This stage is slippery; I end up arguing with everyone and siding with none as I cease to see the absolute angle they worship. Every learning opens a new door of ignorance, and as I brush against fanatics firmly entrenched in their elusion of “I don’t know but I will try to know”, trying times suggest that saying “I don’t know” openly amid the crowd can be a self-inflicted beating.
But trying times pass, beliefs change, and fanatics fade: what remains is the absolute nature of ignorance. It might not win arguments or garner intellectually satisfying social perks, but an honest “I don’t know” has the power to leave a deep footprint on the path to self-refinement. After all, the ultimate knowledge lies in knowing just how ignorant we are, and it’s never to late to start.
Would I succeed? I don’t know.