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The Power of “I Don’t Know”

Rachel Alexander Jan. 15, 2014

“Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse.” Heraclitus

There is nothing like divorce to overwhelm otherwise cheerful people with negativity. Negativity, overwhelm and fear are three henchmen well known to ride together, but recently I’ve noticed a fourth figure riding powerfully along with them. This henchman is omnipotence.

For some reason the more negativity, the more certainty. It’s as if doom and gravity have the same mother. I can paraphrase the present, and predict the future, all with the false clarity provided by the thick black fog of negativity. At least in my experience, there is nothing like negativity to provide the erroneous confidence of being right. How counterintuitive! Negative states would be less intractable if we could only introduce the possibility that we could be wrong; that there might be some things we can’t see from our post on Mt. Olympus.

When I am anchored in a negative space, it is totally useless to try to reframe things in the positive. That’s like trying to get from New York to London without acknowledging the need for air or sea travel. This is where a small shift can be profound. What is more available than a complete overhaul is simply introducing this concept: I don’t know everything. Perhaps this works because it is the same language as the negative monologue, with the message only slightly but significantly amended.

Negativity goes with totality. Add anxiety and we are operating from our more regressed selves – governed by all-or-nothing, black and white thinking, a heightened, primitive sense that we must depend entirely on ourselves and what we know. Through this micro-focused lense, danger is everywhere, possibility is missing.

Positive states mingle loosely with the unknown. They often include wonder. There is a freeing humility that comes with, “I don’t know.” This humility allows connection and perspective, a more appropriate sense of our place in the universe.

When caught in a negative frame of mind, I have found one dependable way out – reminding myself repeatedly that I don’t know everything. In the unknown – in what resides somewhere out of my fixed line of sight – is change, hope, and things I have neither contemplated nor discovered.

Here we are reminded of the ancient western wisdom of Heraclitus, who taught: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”