77. I Don’t Know

When you don’t know something, do you consistently admit that you don’t know it? If you’re like most of us, there are times when you sort of know it, but not quite, and you stick your neck out. There may even be times when you have no idea, but you offer an answer with a tone of authority. There are times when someone else makes a reference, and though you haven’t a clue what it refers to, you silently nod. I know I’m not the only one who does this; I’ve seen adults and children do it plenty of times.
Once, my cousin mentioned Scott Nearing. He spoke the name as if everyone in the room would know who Scott Nearing was, and almost everyone did. I kept quiet. But the discussion became quite animated, everyone chiming in with little known facts about Scott and his wife, Helen. For a while, I nodded my head, mirrored the facial expressions I saw around the room. But soon, I could keep my silence no longer. I said, “Who’s Scott Nearing?” There I was, almost forty years old, and I had just admitted that I didn’t know who Scott Nearing was. And up till then, everyone had thought I was so intelligent, so knowledgeable. There were seven-year-olds in the room who had their mouths wide open. Can it be that this grown man doesn’t even know who Scott Nearing was?
Well, let me get on with my point. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who Scott Nearing was – you’re all learned people who read newspapers, magazines, books. And since that
embarrassing episode, I’ve read Living the Good Life, and I’ve come to admire the late Scott Nearing. I’m sure you do, too. You probably think of him as a twentieth-century Leona Purcell. And I’ll bet he would have been flattered by the comparison.
There’s a certain risk we take when we admit that we don’t know something. I’ve seen teachers, parents, and children who were afraid to take that risk. We don’t want people to think of us as ignorant. Our self-consciousness can supercede our curiosity: “Oh, Scott Nearing? Quite a guy. Quite a guy.”
I’d like to propose a truce. I’d like to live in a society where people feel free to admit that there are things they don’t know, and know that they won’t face ridicule or embarrassment. Because that emperor, though he may be wearing fine clothing the like of which has ne’er been seen in this land, may also be stark naked. And some one’s got to tell him.

Comments are closed.