Three simple words that could save humanity
I’ve been observing a debate on Facebook between proponents of tolerance for the LGBT experience and religious conservatives. It hasn’t been pretty, and I feel sad. So much judgment, anger, and contention from both sides.
Immeasurable human conflict originates from the rigidity of fixed beliefs, opinions, biases, and prejudices.
We’re all so convinced that we’re totally right and others are completely wrong. We argue and debate, badger and belittle, criticize and condemn. We use the force of law to impose our beliefs on everyone else. At times our fierce need to be right erupts into outright violence, ranging from road rage to full-scale war.
Even if we’re not physically violent, our judgment, blame, and shame are all forms of violence, which create misunderstandings and disconnection, and ultimately, suffering.
It pains me to think of how much of this I’ve engaged in. As I look back on my younger, argumentative self, I see an insecure man desperate for a sense of security, which he believes he finds in obstinate beliefs and passionate opinions. I see a terrified man anxious to force the world to conform to the comfort of his own worldview, and cloaking his terror under the seductive guise of “changing the world” and “making a difference.”
As I’ve aged, I’ve realized something that may seem so simple as to be laughable. But this simple, yet incredibly profound, realization has been my redemption on so many fronts.
It has helped me to shed shame and opened my heart to compassion. It has moved me from judgment to kindness. It has given me empathy to truly see and understand the perspective of others. It has given me new eyes to see the pain and suffering underneath people’s anger.
I’m still a work in progress and I have so much further to go in this journey to cultivate heartfelt understanding, empathy, tolerance, compassion, kindness, and love for others.
I am guided in my journey by this realization I speak of, which is as mind-blowing and terrifying as it is plain and modest.
The realization is simply this: “I don’t know.”
Three simple words, one little phrase that can bring humanity together — or tear us apart.
Depending on our orientation to “I don’t know,” it is the fundamental cause of life-stifling fear on one hand, or life-promoting faith on the other.
“I don’t know” tears us apart when we fall prey to its terror, and in that terror, cling fiercely to our beliefs. It is the terror of not knowing that causes us to close our hearts, put up defense mechanisms, and view the world with fear and suspicion. It is the terror of not knowing that creates intolerant fundamentalism (“God hates fags,” “Death to infidels,” et al).
It is the terror of not knowing that creates the deluded conviction that we do know, the fear-based and false security of belief. Usually, when people say “I know” in regards to religious beliefs, what they really mean is, “I’m terrified of not knowing.”
We think that the more we “know” a “truth,” the more adamant we should be about proving its veracity. But the truth is precisely the opposite. As Robert Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
In our blind, deceived, and terrified conviction, we label, judge, and shame. We use force to make others conform to our beliefs.
But when we wholeheartedly surrender to not knowing, when we completely relinquish our need to know, we paradoxically find peace — what philosopher and spiritual teacher Alan Watts calls the “wisdom of insecurity.”
The path of true spirituality isn’t an anxious quest to narrow down uncertainty by adding to one’s list of “I knows,” but rather a peaceful expansion of one’s comfortability with “I don’t know.”
Strangely, we tend to conflate “belief” with “faith.” In truth, they are the very opposite.
The fundamental nature of belief is fear. Beliefs are simply in our mind. In an insecure, impermanent world, a fixed belief in our mind gives us a sense of security.
Faith is surrendering to the mystery of life as it is. It is a full, open-hearted acceptance that we don’t know, and being wholly at peace with not knowing.
In the acceptance of “I don’t know,” not only do we find peace, but we also find acceptance, tolerance, respect, inclusiveness, compassion, kindness, and love.
Because none of us truly know with absolute certainty who we are, where we came from, why we’re here, where we’re going, and who or what — if anything — is running the whole show, each of us has a fundamental choice:
- Be afraid of not knowing, and in that fear, close our minds and hearts in an attempt to protect ourselves, or
- Be comfortable and at peace with not knowing, and in that peace, open our minds and hearts to love and acceptance.
Not knowing can either make us distressed and combative, or calm and kind. We can either spend our energy building walls or building bridges.
Accepting the wisdom of insecurity, we realize this: We can all just calm down. We can relax. We can stop arguing and debating. We can stop feeling threatened by the differing beliefs and opinions of others.
We can live our lives as we see fit, without trying to impose our worldview, beliefs, and practices on others. If we believe others to be in error, we can persuade with unconditional love and kindness, versus defending and convicting with judgmental shaming.
We can stand firm in our beliefs, values, ideals, yet with the underlying softness and flexibility of the implicit admission that we could be wrong, or that there’s another valid way of seeing things.
And more than this — we can truly see, accept, and love each other despite our differences.
Mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a western Buddhist nun who left the order to become a born-again Christian missionary. She then returned to the monastery to try to convert her old friends.
When many of them became upset by this, they sought the advice of their teacher, the renowned Ajahn Chah. He responded with a light-hearted laugh, “Maybe she’s right.” With these words, everyone relaxed.
And so can all of us relax in the open-hearted acceptance of “I don’t know.”
If this article makes you feel uncomfortable, I invite you to explore your feelings to trace them to the source. Why does the idea that you may not know what you think you know feel uncomfortable? Where does that come from? Do you find any insight in this exploration?
I’m not asking anyone to give up his or her core beliefs. I’m simply inviting us to understand them as such –and with that understanding that we don’t know for certain, to simply relax in the uncertainty.
I’m not asking anyone to let go of his or her cherished religion, culture, values, or principles. I’m simply inviting us all to let go of our need to control life and the beliefs and behaviors of others.
This life is uncertain and our knowledge incomplete. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve been given.
Not knowing doesn’t have to be what tears us apart — it can be the very thing that brings all of humanity together.