My first job out of college (not counting my job on a beer truck for the summer after I graduated) was at Lord & Taylor on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. A friend of my college roommate suggested I apply for a job there, and having no other prospects and having always heard what an upscale store it was (and in the 1950s it still was), I did. After a short management training program, I was appointed the manager of the Budget Dress Department, the busiest and most profitable (though most sneered-at by the classier sections) department in the store. As such, it had a tough virago of a buyer, Ms Dipper, and two assistant buyers, Rita and Jerry. Rita was a black woman with a rapid-fire mind that kept track of all purchases and sales and everything else in the department, but who would never become a buyer because she was black. Jerry was the one who was being groomed for that position, and so always went with Dipper into the market to scope out the coming season’s dresses. Nevertheless, the two assistants were good friends, both with keen senses of humor, especially about their boss, who loved to intrude on whatever they might be gossiping or joking about to assert her deep knowledge about everything. And their response was always the same (after Dipper was out of earshot, of course): thinks she knows, but doesn’t. They used it constantly, and always cracked up when they did. So did I.
With hindsight and age, I’ve begun to think that their phrase encompassed a deeper truth than they knew. It applies not only to Dipper, but to just about everyone. We all of us—some more preposterously than others, to be sure, especially those with prominent ‘positions’—“think we know, but don’t.” We think we know (or ought to) what might be coming in the future—be it stock prices or corn futures or the next rain or romance or the coming World Series winner. We think we know what has happened in the past—whether it’s a key event in our family saga (often disputed by a sibling), or a crucial historical event like the French Revolution. We think we know what we are, who we are, and what’s good or bad for us. We think we know what we need, what our friends need, what our nation needs, what the world needs. And we will argue vehemently for our point of view, marshaling whatever we think will support our argument, whether it’s a rational series of facts we’ve researched, or simply the loudest and most persistent voice at the table. And the disappointing truth, and the one most people have the hardest time admitting, like old Ms Dipper, is that we simply don’t. We do not know any of the most important things in our lives. We think we know; we will fight to the death to prove that we know (witness the countless wars, religious or otherwise, that have killed millions over the centuries); but we actually don’t.
Just consider a piece I read today about new UN projections for world population growth (http://upriser.com/posts/world-population-projected-to-hit-11-2-billion-by-2100). Most previous projections were extrapolating, from current figures (world population now stands at about 7 billion), that we would reach 9 billion by the year 2100. And that was bad enough. But the new figures suggest that, given current rates of birth, it will go higher—to 11.5 billion in 2100! And most of that growth will occur in the poorest countries—in several nations in Africa, and in India, which is expected to overtake China by then as the world’s most populous nation, i.e. with over a billion people. Even more alarming, many of these new people will perforce move to the cities, and necessarily live in slums such as we now have bursting the seams of Mexico City, Delhi, Shanghai, Manila and elsewhere. But the strangest thing of all in the piece describing this new projection is the writer’s alleged “good news.” And what is that good news? Why, that there will be better outcomes for these swarms of people because diseases such as AIDS and the high infant mortality that normally reduce survival rates will be far better controlled, and so more of the growing populations will survive into old age. But wait! Won’t longer lives mean that population figures will rise even more? Don’t more people living longer mean more people needing to be fed and housed on the planet at one time? Don’t more people living longer mean a greater burden on all the oceans and aquifers and farms and structures and jobs that are now struggling to sustain a much smaller population???
Another bit of news adds to the problem. According to a report on the PBS Newshour last week, advances in robotics in Silicon Valley are now promising to reduce jobs for all those new people even more. Demonstrated on screen were robotic caddies dutifully following a golfer, robotic greeters for a retailer, and robotic guides to another ‘big box’ retailer that would eliminate the need for a real person to direct customers to the right aisle for their desired purchase. The robots did it better, and, of course, more cheaply: no weekly salary, no benefits, no sick days, no messy human drama to deal with. And the kicker is that the folks in Silicon Valley—the new Mandarins in our society—who are rapidly developing these new robotic wonders, are convinced that they are the vanguard, the new benefactors of humanity inventing new and better ways to reduce meaningless labor and usher in our brave new future.
What this gets to is the persistent notion, in almost all human projections, of progress. This is the idea that, somehow, there is always an answer to every problem, there is always the possibility and even probability that sooner or later, perhaps gradually but inevitably, intelligent humans will be able to so contrive and shape the world through technology that it will be better. Always better and more sophisticated tools and methods of governance will finally enable that great society where all will have enough, where goods will be distributed equally, where food will spill forth from lands made so productive that the word ‘hunger’ will vanish from our lexicon--along with other bad words like injustice, hardship, pain and perhaps even death. In short, humans seem able—despite all evidence to the contrary—to persistently imagine an existence safe from the ills that have bedeviled humanity since the beginning. Though often imagined as utopias (or the mythical land of Cockaigne where plenty reigns), these safe havens are even more often imagined as heavens where the just will be free from all anxiety or want, or, as in one form of Buddhism, a “pure land” where the suffering and separation of the everyday world is transcended. Many of the legendary journeys written in canonic texts have such an imagined land as their goal. In fact, the journeys of Columbus were undertaken, at least in part, because the Genoese mariner had studied many of these old texts, and hoped to find the wonders and unending sources of gold and other riches described there. And when, on his third voyage, he got to the huge delta of the Orinoco River in South America, he actually wrote that his calculations, as well as his previous observations of the people and vegetation, indicated to him that the source of this immense flow of fresh water was a mountain in Paradise. In other words, he may not have found the spice-rich Indies, but he had found the Earthly Paradise.
Of course, when the great Admiral’s report got back to his sponsors in Spain, they had much the same reaction as Rita and Jerry: “Thinks he knows, but doesn’t.”
But it’s not just Columbus. It’s all of us. We all think we know what we are, what we see (seeing is believing after all), what we’re made of. But do we? What are we, anyway? As far as I can tell from the latest physics, the really bright guys are not quite sure what really exists at the heart of matter. Every time they think they’ve found the ultimate irreducible particle, it either disappears or another one pops up to tell us all it’s composed of still smaller entities. Vibrating strings. The Higgs boson. Some form of gravity or quantum foam. And every time we think they’ve got the origin of those entitites settled—to a Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago—something upsets the calculation and they and we are pushed back further into time or space or into parallel universes where perhaps everything is doubled or multiplied so many times that every possibility not taken actually is taken (in which case, Robert Frost would have to rewrite his poem, “The Road Not Taken”). Or perhaps it’s all only some monstrous hologram, a three-dimensional mirage that’s projected from some two-dimensional universe that most of us can’t imagine anyway.
Yet we accept this, just as we accept the knowledge conveyed to us by our scientifically-expanded senses, especially when it seems to promise what we’re really after: those better worlds that never quite disappear from our yearnings. Because that’s what is really at the heart of our fundamental quest: better worlds, better lives, better cities and states and better social systems that will solve all the knotty problems that come from the crappy ones we’ve got. Or at least promise us a way out. An escape from what so frustratingly is. And of course, that’s what those who aspire to govern us know how to cater to: our desperation for a way out. A better way. Better care for our failing bodies. Better food for our overstuffed minds. The constant improvement and growth of each and every one of those 12 billion people who will be yearning like the rest of us for things to get better, for their interactions to be more peaceful, for their lives to last longer. For things to finally reach perfection. Which aspiring leaders assure us they know how to achieve. They know.
Only they don’t. And therein lies both the problem and the solution.
Only don’t know. It’s a phrase that many zen teachers use. Only don’t know. The source of all our frustration and suffering, they assure us, is our assumption that we do know. That we do know what is good. That we do know what is bad. That we do know what is good and bad not only for ourselves, but for our families, our friends, our colleagues, all the people in our communities, our nations, our planet. I know what’s good for you; I know what’s bad for you. And shall help you get to that better place.
This brings to mind the famous Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their condolences for his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
In short, all of what we think we know is based on fickle and constantly changing circumstances, and essentially on illusion. There is no better place. No better place to get to. The better place is right here or it’s nowhere. Only get rid of like and dislike; only don’t know. Then the better place appears on its own. This is not easy. We are literally constituted of like and dislike. It’s our daily bread and butter. Our instant response to just about everything. Our evolutionary staple: avoid that danger; approach and get that sustenance. Which is why we’re so susceptible to the image of a better place, a better life, a more perfect union. I know what I like, and if I could just get it, life could be wonderful. Life could be safe. Somehow my life could be fully satisfying. Somewhere my life could be perfect, if only I could get there….
Nope. The only perfect life is life itself. The life we already have. Or rather, a ‘perfect life’ wouldn’t be life at all. A perfect life would be dead. Unchanging. With a discernible permanent core at its center. A known core. And thereby dead.
So if you want live knowing, only don’t know. Which doesn’t make sense because every cell in my body wants to know, for knowing is the way to conduct oneself, protect oneself. Isn’t it? This very writing, this essay points the way, doesn’t it?
Or does it, rather, undermine itself even as it says: Maybe. Only don’t know. Or perhaps, thinks he knows, but doesn’t.