Know Less, Know More

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Mr. Dickens eat your heart out.

We’re a nation of experts, we’re a nation of idiots, we know what we know, except to not know, or know less. Comparison loves antitheses, despises uncertainty.

But we need uncertainty.

Counterintuitive? Maybe, but uncertainty doesn’t always mean indecision.

We’ve come to expect sharky debate. Wait-and-see gets exploited, so it’s avoided, and not having answers looks dumb, especially on national T.V., but for the person practicing a principled uncertainty, these are learning moments. Data-gathering missions. Necessary episodes in order to form a more complete picture—a picture unknowable until a singular moment in time.

It’s known as the master’s journey.

Mastery resists foolishness. Most of us want results, want them now, but mastery pushes back. Its trajectory isn’t always straight, and it chucks sandbars at you when all you want to do is stretch out and swim. Mastery won’t play by your rules, dang it, but that’s okay, you can play by his, and that’s healthier.

Practice. When we practice, we get better, (as my son’s Taekwondo instructor is fond of saying) but practice also teaches us what to value, product, or process. Too bad so sad, Mastery happens to believe in process, believes in it so much, he likes to knock us on our butts when we don’t hup two.

Socially, we’re expected to practice (there’s that word again) clearly defined political ideologies, and for the most part, we conform. We consume media reinforcing our world views, we practice anger at those who believe different things, live different lifestyles, vote for different candidates, we’re comfortable (usually) knowing what we know, feeling what we feel, and believing the world would be better off if everyone else could just get with the program.

In short, we’re all too dang sure.

Knowing what we don’t know. We’ve all heard that phrase, or some version of it, and maybe you’re someone who’s a natch with humility. I’m not. I’m a natural blow hard. (Can you tell?) Worse, I must have some kind of internal mechanism, a monthly quota for getting myself stuck out on a limb (at least once or forty-three times, depends) and then I feel like an idiot. There, I said it. Problem is: I’m a closet theistically-inclined agnostic, a liberal-minded conservative, a superstitious rationalist. In short, I’m a hot mess of contradictions.

But I don’t think I’m the only one. In fact, I think it’s our internal contradictions shaping the world into right and left, believers and infidels, good and evil, because that’s easier to process, and we enjoy practicing easy, because easy. But what happens when we practice?

We get better.

Deep down, we know the world doesn’t compartmentalize so easily. Life is a spectrum of experiences. Sometimes we’re reminded of this, get slapped down, maybe a well-intentioned friend challenging our ideas, maybe we resent looking wrong. (No, not being wrong—are you crazy?) Anyway, we’re not prepared for it. We forgot to practice for this moment. We don’t know what to do. Maybe we get angry—but hey—no sweat: We practiced that, remember?

Uncertainty really does have its virtues. It closes fewer doors, for one thing. Recall earlier I made a distinction between uncertainty and indecision. In music, for instance, that might translate into retaining options; a jazz improviser will have practiced multiple riffs, spontaneously choosing A, B, C, or D, as context informs which way to go. A concert cellist (something I know more about) practices similarly. A passage might go faster or slower when played with others, with one fingering or bowing working better in this context or that, depending. In practicing flexibility, we get better.

Mastery is about (among other things) principled uncertainty. That’s not naval gazing, it’s simply admitting we don’t know everything. And what’s wrong with that? We can’t know the future. We can’t be right one hundred percent of the time. Uncertainty is a thing to include in practice. It helps us to retain options and a facile mind. It promotes a world with fewer experts, and who wouldn’t want that?