I don’t know everything. This has taken me a long time to learn. It’s a big universe out there, and I’m mostly-competent in my tiny world–coffee making, the history of western music, Biblical literature, theology, maybe the science of categorization and classification–but when I took this job at US Geological Survey, I realized how small my universe really is. About 10 yards from my desk is a journal: the Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Spatial Data Handling. I just picked up this book up off the “gift” table, where it was weeded from the library for being old information. A sample article that was considered out of date: “An Object-Based Dynamic Spatial Model, and Its Application in the Development of a User-Friendly Digitizing System.” Old? I didn’t even know what it meant, let alone trained myself to revise or update my thoughts on the topic of spacial data handling.
I bring this up simply because I don’t have to walk very far, even in my own library, to feel incredibly stupid. You think you’re exempt? If you’re a pastor, try to read 50 pages of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Read the footnotes. The footnotes take up most of the page anyhow. Or try to understand the source documentation for the ApacheMQ Message Broker. I once was asked to review a book on FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia). I don’t even know how to start reading this. With all this uncertainty, there’s a lot of room to be wrong.
For a few months, I’ve been listening to, and digesting, the following TED talk by Kathryn Schulz. Yes, I listened to it more than once. Probably six times actually. I’d recommend that everyone listen to this, and think about it for awhile. Although it’s not specifically a “Christian” idea, it’s had an enormous impact on how to conduct my living day-to-day.
I write all this because in our world, it’s a very, very easy thing to be wrong. Yet, why are we so afraid of it? I certainly am. I define myself by knowing certain things; I cast my identity as an area-expert in certain fields: the Beatles, episodes of the television cooking Program Good Eats, etc. But If I don’t know something, I feel like a failure. I might even pretend I know something, just to save face. I’m not much of an egomaniac. We all do it, I think. But it’s so strange.
Back in 1998, I had a discussion about blues music with one of my library assistants. He asked me if I’d ever listened to music by Professor Longhair. “Yes, yes I have.” I stated unequivocally.
No. No I hadn’t.
In fact, until Friday, I’d never heard anything by the guy. I knew he was a musician, with a strange name. No relation to Dr. Hook, Dr. John, or Dr. Demento. But I just couldn’t be wrong. Professor Longhair, by the way, was a blues/boogie woogie pianist. I’ve never heard anything recorded with a more out-of-tune piano. He plays with such boldness that his music is riveting anyhow.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone over the shape of a cloud? How about the existence of God? We fool ourselves in this age of post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial, post-Modern computerland, to think that everything has an answer. Everything doesn’t. Some things, the most basic things, must be taken on faith: that your mother loves you; that the government has your best interests at heart; that people are basically good.
John Keats speaks of this condition, of living with uncertainty, as a “negative capability.” He believes poets, artists and scientists are trained to live within this perpetual flux of unknowing.
We don’t like being wrong, but it’s a necessary condition in life. Especially the big questions. There’s a reason they’re questions. If we knew the answers, they’d be answers, and not questions anymore.
It’s too big a job, making oneself being right. We aren’t gods. We (and especially I) should learn to embrace this negative capability. In other words, I should develop an ability to live within this tension; to accept the reasoning of others within a framework of this. If they’re not causing harm to themselves or to others, does it really matter what their responses are?
It’s my prayer that I learn a way to navigate these waters, and to accept my wrongness; and not to strive for being correct all the time. Please, I urge you, watch the linked video. Tell me what you think. Wouldn’t be cool if we found out we were all wrong together, and that the universe still won’t fall apart, and we remain just as happy as before?