The Value of Not Knowing

you can't know everything (and that's a good thing)

When I was in graduate school, one of the most popular courses in the final year of training was one titled "Knowing, Not Knowing, and Muddling Through." We all had a good laugh at the title; it seemed sort of silly to take a graduate level course focused on Not Knowing. Weren't we working hard to absorb every scrap of information we could get our hands on? Wasn't the point to pack as much knowledge into our brains and bodies before heading off into "the real world?" And yet there we all were in our final year of training, eager to take a class that openly acknowledged a truth we had become all-too-well-aware of: You Can't Know Everything. And more importantly, Maybe That's a Good Thing.

it's a journey

Like anyone learning a new skill and entering into a new world, therapists-in-training often feel clumsy and anxious about their abilities. In this just-learning stage, it can feel calming to fantasize that with enough study and practice you will reach a point of "knowing everything" and the work then feels smooth and easy with every client in every session.  You imagine a day when you know all there is to know about _______ (choose your issue: parenting, divorce, depression, relationships, attachment, social anxiety, bipolar disorder), and that helping a client with _______ (choose an issue) will mean simply steering them towards the relevant information and then tucking them neatly into a solution: Ta-da! They're fixed! 

Well, that's just not how therapy works. And that's not really what most therapists or most clients want out of therapy either. Yes, sometimes we all crave simple answers and easy resolutions. And facts, experience, research and finely-crafted theories are certainly all essential aspects of therapy. But when we push ourselves to Know something too quickly, we miss out on an important journey--one that allows us time to dwell in the questions, feelings, fantasies and unknown. So often, this is where the valuable insights develop.

I've sat with many clients in my therapy office as they struggle through places of Not Knowing. Difficult decisions about relationships, confusion about careers, mixed emotions about any number of situations. Not Knowing is such a common part of the human experience. And yet how often do we add to this uncomfortable spot by pushing ourselves to Know something before we Know it? How many times have you pressured and berated yourself to Know something, to make a decision, to "get over it", or to "figure it out already?" This mandate to just Know often blinds us to important information: our emotions, our intuition, and the deep wisdom that comes from slowing down, going deep, and being curious about the moment by moment shifts in our experience.

an invitation to get curious

Not Knowing is like walking through a field shrouded in dense fog, and we can have any number of reactions: fear, confusion, annoyance, anger, hopelessness. We can easily become so preoccupied with our desire to just get to where we want to be that we tune out the very helpful information accessible to us. Maybe I can't see my end point, but can I focus on one footstep at a time to reassure myself that the ground beneath me is safe? Can I listen closely for sounds that might guide me? Can I hold my hands out in front of me to feel for trees? Can I give myself permission to just go slowly, or even to just sit down, catch my breath, notice the movement of the fog and where the light shines thought? Maybe I'll realize I didn't want to cross the field anyway, or I'll find a different path, or I'll learn something new as I wait for the fog to clear. And there's a chance that becoming still and quiet and observant will give me access to an internal sense of direction that I normally override in day to day life by busying myself with Knowing.

So this is how we survive in the fog of Not Knowing: we slow down, we get curious, we observe and honor our emotions and experience, we ask for help, we give ourselves permission to just Not Know yet. It takes faith, patience, a ton of self-compassion, and support from another person helps too. This Not Knowing is an invitation to get curious and go deeper, not a mandate to force a decision or drop out all together.

the impeded stream is the one that sings

As a human who does like to Know things, I frequently have to remind myself that Not Knowing is an essential part of the journey. Questions are vital. They fuel growth, creativity, a sense of adventure, mystery and purpose. What questions are you battling with, and can you give yourself permission to hold them more gently?

I have this Wendell Barry poem taped over my desk. I read it often:


The Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.