Did you know that there is a part of your eye that is actually blind? Yea! I won’t go into all the details but basically there is a spot in the back of your eye where the optic nerve fibers pass through the retina so that there aren’t any light detecting cells on the surface. What the brain does to compensate is to interpolate the blind spot using the surrounding visual information. Basically the brain takes an educated guess as to what should be there! Similarly, you know those dreams where you’re being chased by a terrifying giant banana – well, it’s just the brain screwing with you again. Though this is only a theory (activation-synthesis model of dreams), the brain processes flashes of activity in the limbic system (amygdala/ hippocampus) that is involved in emotions, sensations, and memories. It attempts to link the bits of random information activated during REM sleep and results in outlandish and often psychedelic dream sequences that leave you questioning your own sanity.
Alright, so lightening up on those seemingly random psychology anecdotes you can see that the underlying thread is that the brain is one saucy swag-bellied enchantress (all creds go to Shakespeare on that one). The brain can’t stand to not know something and so it just makes something up from thin air. Granted, there is a bit more science to that air but the fact remains, from nothing, the brain created some logical something.
During one of my last days of high school, Mr. Matteson asked us to come up with the three hardest words to say. Classmates all around me tossed about words like “antidisestablishmentarianism”, “remuneration”, and “yellow.” I sat there at a literal loss for words, suddenly unable to bring to mind anything more sophisticated than Mary Poppin’s “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – and I didn’t think that one counted. Once the laughter and SAT vocab died down, a thought provoked silence settled on the room. Taking on a new angle; I blurted out “I am sorry.” With this, a volley of “I love yous” and “You were rights” flew across the room. Finally we stumbled upon the answer.
The hardest three words to say are “I don’t know.” So seemingly simple yet they carry the weight of one being uninformed, ignorant, careless, or unqualified.
In school, we were always discouraged from saying “I don’t know” unless it was followed up with some mildly intelligent guesswork or with an impressive albeit random fact. The teacher could never stand in front of the class and say “I don’t know” without prefacing with the intention to look up the answer. A politician cannot say “I don’t know” without looking like a complete and ignorant fool. And a doctor cannot say “I don’t know” without losing the trust of his/her patient.
I’ve been thinking about why this is. Basically it comes down to expectations. We Americans are so accustomed to the privilege of information access through the internet, freedom of speech/ press, and America’s role on the global stage that we have gained an exaggerated sense of entitlement. It’s as if there is no excuse in not knowing. We are constantly blessed and bombarded by more information than any individual could possibly process. And perhaps this is the point. More exposure to information doesn’t necessarily imply that people are processing that much more of it but it does mean that at any time, the information is available to be processed. So there’s the expectation I was talking about.
So, you don’t know something; what now? Well, first of all there are two different kinds of “I don’t knows”. There is the kind where you are simply unfamiliar with something tangible like the capital of Malawi or whether George Washington was the first or twenty-first US president (AP US History, oh yea). And then there is the kind of unknown like what job you’ll have in ten years or whether you’ll end up as an eccentric vegan astronaut who likes collecting candy wrappers. Some things you can predict or research while others are left up to the stars or fate or the weather. They’re uncontrollable, unpredictable and there is no point in being afraid of them. And yet, people want to know.
We want to fill that void with some stability. Where along the line of man’s fundamental drive to explore and create and push the bounds of reality did we decided not knowing was a sign of instability, of weakness? Even our brains are so reliant on predictable, logical processes that it must make up or rearrange visual/ auditory/ etc. information fit our expectations of reality. (And other than the fact that I thought they were really interesting, that was my only connection between the human brain and this social criticism gone philosophy rant.)
Every time I tell people about my Global Citizen year they inevitably ask “where will you be staying”, “what will you be doing”, “who will you be staying with”, “what language do they speak there”, “what kind of community will you be in”, “will you be able to use Facebook”. And this is my simple answer: I don’t know.
There is so much that I don’t know and yet, I’ve come to not only accept it but to embrace it. The training I will be going through will help me to act respectfully and safely – as this is the responsibility of a foreigner. But there is a kind of freedom in the greater unknown. It isn’t blissful ignorance. It is the simple fact that it’s too early to arrange. I’ll figure it out, of course, but all in stride.
And this is what my year in Senegal is all about: breaking away from all preconceived notions of how to live, the meaning of success, and the role of community. One of the reasons I sought out Global Citizen Year was because I couldn’t believe that going to college to get a job to have a family to retire and to, well, die was all there was to life. Yes, it is a path to stability but what about the big wide world beyond the Golden Gate and our Lady Liberty?
What about exploration and self-discovery? What about talking to people about their culture and learning from their traditions? I want to understand people, all kinds. I want to listen to their stories and I want to take part in their lives.
I want to experience. I want to feel.
I want to feel discomfort.
I want to feel fear.
I want to feel anger and sweet serenity, and I want to feel profound sadness and passionate love.
I want to laugh and to cry and to sing and to dance.
I want to be swept away by “man’s fundamental drive to explore and create and push the bounds of reality”.
And yet, by taking this new path,
I don’t know where it will lead me. I don’t know what it will require of me. I don’t know where it will begin and I don’t know how it will end. I don’t even know what I don’t know. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more there is I don’t know.
For the first time in my life, I look ahead and see a wide open world stretched out before me – sans labels and definitions and expectations – waiting for me to step into it.
When I say “I don’t know”, I’m not saying that I don’t care or that I’m being left in the dark or that I’m ignorant. When I say “I don’t know”, it’s with a confident smile lit with anticipation. To me, “I don’t know” is a symbol of infinite potential, of freedom, of adventure. When I say “I don’t know”, I realize that this is the first step to exploration and creation and discovery. Because though I may not know now, I sure as hell am going to find out.
P.S. The anteaters? Besides being super cool – and don’t lie to yourself – pretty adorable; they happen to be another thing that I know very little about!