VIEW VIDEO The year I turned 21, the television show Cheers aired on NBC. I was working at Public Service Indiana and several of my co-workers wanted to take me to a bar. I had only been in one bar my entire life, the Green Lantern in Danville, when I was 8 or 9 and accidentally wandered into one Friday night after going to the movie. It was right next door to the Royal Theater. It was a warm summer night. The door was open. I glanced in, saw the lights, heard the music, and thought to myself, “That looks interesting,” so walked inside. Raymond Page, the owner of that fine establishment, looked up from behind the bar, and yelled, “Get outta here, you dumb kid.” The only other bar I was familiar with was the Long Branch Saloon in Gunsmoke, where people were routinely shot and hit over the head with bottles and chairs. So when my co-workers invited me to a bar, I thought of the Green Lantern and the Long Branch Saloon and said, “No thank you.”
But then the show Cheers came out, with Coach and Sam and Carla serving drinks, and Normy and Cliff bellying up to the bar, and I heard the theme song, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” And I thought to myself, “That sounds just like Quaker meeting.” The people even seemed the same—a kind-hearted clueless old guy, a sports jock living in the past, a smart-alecky woman, an unemployed accountant, a know-it-all mailman. I knew those people.
As it turns out, I was one of those people, which I didn’t realize until one day I was pontificating about something I knew nothing about and someone said, “You sound just like Cliff Claven.” And so it was true, I always had to be the expert. My favorite Cliff Claven moment: Sam walks out of the back room, deeply frustrated, drying his hands on a towel, and asks, “Does anyone know anything about plumbing?”, and Cliff says, “Well, Sammy, the Romans had an elaborate system of aqueducts…”
We’ve been talking about the habits we want to cultivate before we croak, our geezer manifesto, and today I want to add this to our list: I will not be a know-it-all. I won’t pretend to know the answer to every question. I will be comfortable saying, “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.” I will make my peace with the limits of my knowledge. This is easier than it sounds, because admitting our ignorance requires humility.
Sir Francis Bacon, in his book, Sacred Meditations, told us knowledge is power. If it is true that knowledge is power, then ignorance must indicate a lack of power, which explains our reluctance to admit we don’t know something. To say, “I don’t know,” is to confess a shortcoming, a vulnerability. It is humbling, especially in a culture that values certainty. Can you imagine a presidential debate in which one of the candidates answered a question with the words, “I don’t know the answer to that. I will have to think about that.” They’d be toast, because we elect people who say, “I have the best answers.”
Our need to be right, our claim to know it all when we clearly don’t, never ends well, causing us to prefer wrong answers to no answer at all.
The story is told of Abraham Lincoln talking with a man who had a reputation as a know-it-all.
Lincoln asked him, “How many legs will a sheep have if you call a tail a leg?”
The man said five.
“No,” said Lincoln, “he’ll still have four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”
Wrong answers do not magically become true through insistence. Lies don’t become fact, if told often enough. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.
The philosopher, poet and musician Criss Jami wrote, “During the flames of controversy, opinions, mass disputes, conflict, and world news, sometimes the most precious, refreshing, peaceful words to hear amidst all the chaos are simply and humbly ‘I don’t know.’”
I don’t know. When I was 20 years-old and my best friend was killed by a drunken driver, a pastor over in Danville told me it was because we were born into sin, that the world was fallen, but that nothing happened without God willing it. But when I asked Jim Wilson, the pastor at Plainfield Meeting, why my friend died, he said, “I don’t know.” I don’t know.
I don’t know. Humility. Humility, which is the realization and confession that our knowledge is limited, is a close cousin to curiosity. For when we don’t know something, and know we don’t know it, we are motivated to learn it. Humility and curiosity drive discovery. A few years ago, Harvard University surveyed scientists, asking them to name the most transformative and significant drugs in history. Eight of the ten drugs were discovered by chance, not by purpose, when curious scientists made a fundamental discovery while studying something else. Curiosity drives discovery. When we are humble enough to admit our lack of knowledge and understanding, we grow curious, wanting to learn more, thereby increasing our opportunities to grow. Humility breeds curiosity, which in turn breeds discovery.
I don’t know, but I will find out. I don’t know, but I will think about that. I don’t know, but I will talk with someone who does. It is mind-boggling to think how many remarkable discoveries began with the words, “I don’t know.”
Knowing the answer to everything is not necessarily an indication of intelligence. Just as often, it is an indication of conceit and pride, an indication of one’s ignorance, and one’s refusal to correct that deficit. Thus, we do well to remember the words of that great Hoosier mystic, John Wooden, who said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”