On knowing, despair, unknowing, joy and the wisdom of the body


Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Mysteries, Yes

I am a recovering expert. For many years, I was paid to have answers: to advise clients on the best approach for their project; integrate the work of structural, mechanical and civil engineers; and design details that keep the weather out while looking great, costing little and lasting years with no maintenance. In short, I had to know how to juggle a staggering number of variables, get along with others, and tolerate a high potential for disappointment or even failure. It was stressful.

During his recent online course, “The Space Between Stories,” Charles Eisenstein made the observation that thinking you know anything is a prerequisite for despair. He illustrated with a recognizable litany of things we know: We know the world is doomed because of climate change, species extinction, human trafficking, genocide. We also know how things work and what’s possible, so we know it’s not possible to fix any of this. We’ve tried. Consequently, we know we’re doomed.

His point is that despair arises from the delusion that we can know these things with any certainty. It’s exhausting trying to solve such big problems. We become caught in a snare of our own making, like one of those Chinese finger traps. The more we struggle to know and solve, the more entrapped we become. Until we come smack up against the reality that all our tools are useless. While frightening, this sort of breakdown can be a relief and a doorway into joy.

Despair delivers us out of knowing into unknowing and mystery. This is territory far beyond our usual ways of making things happen. It’s uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and not culturally sanctioned. Very few—if any—people will hire an architect who says, “I don’t know,” let alone, “Look!” while laughing in astonishment and bowing her head, as the poet Mary Oliver prefers. Not that she would have enough money to hire an architect, or even need one—but that’s another story.

This perspective leads to some surreal experiences. I recently attended a lunch-and-learn session sponsored by my local Green Building Council chapter. Two lawyers lectured about the recent adoption of a green building code by the City of Baltimore, on its face good news for those who care about the environment. As they read from wordy Power Point slides about the language intricacies of this code and its implementation, I could feel my body tightening.

I became more anxious and frustrated the more charts and standards they reviewed. My internal monologue went something like this: Damn, this is seriously complicated. Why is it so complicated? Only lawyers can understand this. The presenter just said he doesn’t give a crap about global warming; this is just a great business opportunity, since now all buildings are required by law to be built to a green standard and we would be stupid to miss out. The way he talks, he comes off supremely confident. Anyone in this audience who is at all doubtful, anxious or confused (which is to say, all of us) must feel a certain relief knowing that at least one person has this all figured out. Guess I’ll have to hire him to help on my next project, so I can avoid being sued by the client.

And isn’t that how leaders get into positions of power? We’ve made our constructed world so complicated; we then have no choice but to rely on the lawyers to lead us through the maze. As a consequence, we become convinced there’s no way we could get through the maze on our own wits. We see ourselves as “less than” by comparison. Sitting there, I thought that anyone with common sense (again, all of us) surely must see the absurdity of it: the convoluted language of the code and of the City Council bill adopting it. I’m not the first to think that lawyers play inside baseball, setting things up so only they can understand and interpret.

Being in a space of unknowing isn’t just controversial or unappealing in this world. It’s anathema. For some reason, I kept thinking of an update to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” called “The Empire’s New Code.” Saying green building is strictly a business opportunity and that climate change doesn’t matter is the anthem of the Story of Knowing, the Story of Experts. The old stories that brought us this world will continue to give us more of the same.

Saying “I don’t know” is a courageous act of honesty. Yet, even in the place of unknowing, there are things we can know. They tend to involve our body and senses. I used to be ignorant, for instance, that my body is a perfect early warning system for my emotional state, and that emotions are a good thing. Raised the way I was, this is counter-intuitive in the extreme. Wise people advise that we run into trouble when we resist strong emotions, harden around a situation, and cause the whole thing to fester unresolved. On the contrary, when I have allowed a wave of grief or anger or loneliness to wash through my body without resistance, I feel joy and gratitude in its wake. More alive, clean and sparkly new.

Relying on experts to interpret complex problems and tell us what to do by proxy robs us of our power to experience our innate wisdom, which is different from having answers or taking specific actions. A friend I met during the “Space Between Stories” course said it well:

“I used to try to be ok with being uncomfortable with uncertainty (the title of a Pema Chodron book)…but now, after this course, I am comfortable with not knowing…a subtle, yet powerful difference. Uncertainty suggests that there is something to be certain of, but that I just hadn’t attained it yet. Being in the not knowing however, allows for the possibility that there may be nothing to know, or nothing to know beyond what I already know. The shamans I trained with say that there are three things: the Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. When you learn something of the Unknown, it moves to the Known. The Unknowable, though, can only be experienced. Being in the Not Knowing is like being in the unfolding of what is, and can only be experienced.”

Part of the shift to new stories involves trusting our bodies to carry us to and through these experiences. I am learning to appreciate strong emotions as valuable information, a dynamic steering system, calling me to attune more deeply to the present moment and allow my intuition and sensitivities to fire up and guide me. When I can do this, I don’t have that burning need to know, to have things figured out. Things tend to figure themselves out.

Knowing (or trying to know) is sourced in and leads to fear. Unknowing (letting go) comes from and leads to love and joy. Good thing we all have this gift of a body with which to dance these opposites.

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