I can vividly recall a most disturbing sensation I’ve experienced more than a few times. It would overtake me on those occasions when I found myself face to face with a reality that belied what I was certain I knew to be true. These weren’t so much factual assertions as positions I held about life or about a person or relationship. Things about which I felt so sure.
Confronted with such discontinuity, I would feel the earth fall out from under me. I was thunderstruck by the realization that “if I don’t know this thing I thought I was so certain of, then I must not know anything at all.”
This was a full-body feeling, one of sinking inside, of feeling my stomach dropping sickeningly all the way to my knees. And then there would be a nauseating drop like that one when the roller coaster finally crests after a long slow climb and suddenly plummets all the way down.
It was as if there would never be a stopping point because in fact there was nothing solid underneath me. I couldn’t even be sure there was anything solid underneath anything.
I never get this feeling any more. But its absence isn’t because I no longer am confronted with such discontinuity. It’s because now I do know one thing absolutely for certain and that is that in fact I don’t know anything at all.
Socrates famously said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” This has been taken to mean many things. One interpretation is that to keep learning we must not believe that we already know everything. Another is just that we should never claim to know what we actually do not know. My sense of not knowing is much simpler than this.
I know that I don’t in fact know anything for certain, that what I think I know can, and generally will, always be subject to revision. And knowing just that one thing makes all the difference. It makes everything so much easier. It keeps me from feeling like I have to hold this whole picture together at all times and all by myself. And thus the ground is always right there, right under foot where I like it to be. Knowing nothing, I know all I need to know in this present moment.