Unknowing

I like this concept, Unknowing.

I am glad a friend told me about Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. The following by Karen Armstrong appeared in contemplations about Unknowing.

Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that the contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment, and contentment.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence.

One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight.   Karen Armstrong, a religious historian and creator of the Charter for Compassion

I’ve often thought about the importance of making mistakes. Making mistakes is a process that can be used to explore what is unknown, and begin to know something, or something more, about  it.

I have come to appreciate the wisdom of the saying “that if you do something successfully you don’t learn anything new”. You learn by making mistakes. You try something new, and find out if that worked or not, in either case gaining knowledge you didn’t have before.

Digital photography made it very easy to experiment, since the results are immediately available to see on the camera. Far different from the old film and paper processes that were very time intensive and rigorous. With digital photography, I became aware that I was purposely choosing difficult conditions under which to capture images with my camera. The more I tried to photograph difficult images, the more I learned. One of the more extreme examples was when I took over 900 photos of an 18 foot tall sculpture, in different lighting and weather conditions, over more than a year’s time. I eventually began to learn how to pull the color out of the glass inserted in the rings of the sculpture. And I learned a lot about composition as I took photos from all angles, and from inside the rings. I even put the camera on a tripod, clicked the 10 second delay, and threw the camera up in the air to get photos from above. Learning from mistakes is a way to change unknowing to knowing about the subject at hand.

I like this word, UNKNOWING. Much of my life has been about learning about what is unknown to me. I was one of those kids who enjoyed school and doing homework. One of the greatest influences of spending my high school years at Scattergood Friends School and Farm, was an even greater appreciation of life long learning, and acquiring the tools needed for that endeavor.

This love of learning eventually led to my career in medical research. Part of that work involved software engineering, and as any computer programmer knows, you have to learn something new nearly every single day. The languages, tools and frameworks used for computer programming are continually being updated, or completely new ones become available. And the purpose of research is to learn more about something unknown.

What really caught my attention in the quotation above was “one of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.” One of the greatest frustrations throughout my life has been the frustration of finding ways to tackle injustice. There are so many injustices and they seem so deeply embedded in our societies.

We do not know what it is that we don’t know. To discover what those things are, we have to learn. And we most effectively learn by our own experiences, especially from our own mistakes.

All justice is interrelated, but the area that has been my deepest concern relates to environmental destruction and chaos. The Quaker approach is to live your life as an example that others might emulate, thereby creating change. While that works in some cases, it seems not always. Nearly forty years ago I was led to see that we could not preserve our environment if everyone in developed countries owned and operated their own automobile. So I gave up having my own car. Forty years later, I don’t think I’ve influenced one person to give up theirs. Many people know my story and many have engaged with me about cars. Unfortunately, always saying they would like to give up their car(s), but…   I know simply using logic and facts does not work to convince people. I have to keep reminding myself that the result I wanted might not have been what the Spirit wanted to happen. All I can do is continue to live as the Spirit leads me.

In a similar way, I haven’t found effective ways to get white people to see how privilege and racism are built into our society. Found ways to help people understand the economic and social and environmental injustices that are built into our non-native cultures. Unable to make others see we have to return to the example of Native lives, with their respect for Mother Earth and each other, if we are going to have any success in dealing with our unfolding environmental chaos.

What does this have to do with unknowing?

At a fundamental level, I believe change cannot happen as long as a person is afraid of the unknown, when they are afraid to acknowledge their unknowing. When a person fears change, they cling ever more tightly to what they think they do know. And are too afraid to even consider they might be wrong. Even though I think they often subconsciously fear they might be wrong.

It seems to me we need to find ways to help people find the courage to embrace unknowing. To experience the joy of discovering something new. To learn that it is not only alright to make mistakes, but it is important to do so.

The reason I wanted to participate in the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March was because I was aware of my ignorance about Native Americans and their beliefs. This was one area of my unknowing.  I admit there was a little tension about the endeavor–mainly whether I had the physical stamina to walk 94 miles, but also being not only with people I didn’t know, but people of a different culture.  But I embraced this unknowing. I wanted to learn about Native Americans. I knew ahead of time I would make mistakes, and I did. But I learned new things from those mistakes.

As Manape said during the March, the reason we are marching together is so we can work together in the future. To do that, we need to begin to trust each other. To trust each other we need to understand each other. From all I’ve seen and heard, I believe we did begin to build that understanding and trust.

In our broader communities we need to work on this understanding, and trust building. But that can’t happen until we find ways to spend time, significant time, with those who are unknown to us. Until we are not only willing, but want to put ourselves in situations where we are likely to make mistakes. And to know this is how we come to know what it is that we don’t know. And to know the joy of discovering that new knowledge.

It’s ironic that the sculpture above is named “Open Eyes” (it is in front of the Ophthalmology Department at the Indiana University Medical Center.)  One way to think about approaching unknowing is to open our eyes.

A Warrior knows that the ends do not justify the means.

Because there are no ends, there are only means. Life carries him from unknown to unknown. Each moment is filled with this thrilling mystery: the Warrior does not know where he came from nor where he is going.

But he is not here by chance. And he is overjoyed by surprises and excited by landscapes that he has never seen before. He often feels afraid, but that is normal in a Warrior.

If he thinks only of the goal, he will not be able to pay attention to the signs along the way. If he concentrates only on one question, he will miss the answers that are there beside him.

That is why the Warrior submits.  

Coelho, Paulo. Warrior of the Light: A Manual (p. 131). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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