One thing I’ve noticed in working with people is that some always have an answer, even when it is clear they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve never become comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.”
We all want answers because we hate ambiguity. We all want answers because answers give us a sense of control. When they are incomplete, or rooted in beliefs, not facts, answers can turn a good situation bad, and make a bad situation worse.
We do ourselves and those around us a tremendous favor when we become willing to say, “I don’t know,” instead of jumping to conclusions or insisting that we have an answer when at best we have only some of the facts or even, only our firmly held beliefs.
I see this need to make up answers without the benefit of knowledge or room for doubt happening in two different situations. One, when the speaker has only some of the information needed to know the truth. Rather than asking questions, these speakers try to fill in the blanks in their knowledge by marshalling the facts they do have into a plausible story.
At best, they concoct a story that considers only the facts that fit the story they want to believe. A good example of this is public opinion about a high-profile trial or the speculative reports put forth by some news commentators in the first hours following any disaster.
At worst, in the midst of a conversation, they let their imagination run away and the things they imagine fill them with fear and anxiety. Rather than keeping an open mind to what is actually being said, they jump to conclusions and then react to their own conclusions based on what they imagine has been said or will be said. Many a family argument could be avoided if we could manage to let the discussion unfold and listen to what has actually been said instead of what we predict will be said.
The other situation where this happens is when neither the speaker nor anyone else can possibly know the truth. The speaker supplies an answer based on firmly held beliefs. Life is full of events that have no single, definitive answer. “Why was our baby stillborn?” “Why did I get passed over for promotion?”
I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure God doesn’t take lives because angels are in short supply in heaven. And that promotion? Whatever the reason, it’s not because you’re fundamentally unworthy.
I do know that we don’t have to have the answer when we comfort someone who is grieving or hurt. We don’t have to have an answer to be a good friend or colleague. We just have to be willing to listen and to share the pain. Yes the pain is still there, the disappointment or the loss is still there, but the truth is, the pain, the disappointment, the loss, all of it is still there whether or not we have offered an answer.
I also know that we don’t have to have the answer in the midst of a discussion; we can keep an open mind, listen carefully to what is said, and wait until the other person finishes speaking. Then, we can ask questions until we’re certain we understand. And then, we can still say, “I don’t know.”
Life Is Honest, Open and True: We don’t have to have an answer to every question. We are honest and embrace the truth when we admit our ignorance. It’s time to become comfortable with ambiguity and doubt. It’s time to become comfortable with the answer, “I don’t know.”
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