Do We Always Have to Know? Part 1: Thinking, Waiting and Not Knowing in Life. Written by Dr Linda Berman.


Degas  ‘Waiting.’

‘For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’

HL Mencken.

Why should anyone want not to know?

Now, in the twenty-first century, much of our social discourse is constructed around the value of the quick-fix solution and formulaic, over-confident, upbeat, ‘positive’ thinking.

There is little room, or respect, for doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity, or wondering. This rapid evolution of thinking may lead us into a precariously shallow and superficial state.

Over the last twenty years, ours has become a short-term culture, demanding immediate gratification. In this rapid-fire, financially-pressurised, digital, competitive, fast-food, push-button society, we might wonder whether there is a place for thinking at all. We are bombarded with digital images,websites, apps, icons. They are everywhere around us.

In this world of high speed information, cutting edge technologies and quick-fire solutions, not-knowing might appear highly undesirable. The urge to know, and to find out quickly, is regarded as ‘cool’.

In fact, developing a capacity not to know can be highly creative and freeing. Instead of rushing to find solutions, what if we were to allow some degree of uncertainty, wondering, curiosity? Could we take the risk of facing the unknown and give ourselves, and others, some space and time to wait and see what emerges?

Then we might engage with fresh possibilities, discover new truths. In pausing to discover what might arise from such a space, we allow for an evolving kind of self-expression:

Leap out into the air to begin
you’ll find more of a footing
there than you thought possible.

(Hilda Morley “A Lesson in Floating’ quoted in Tobin)

Such a ‘free-fall’ is chancy and ‘not knowing’ feels like a risk; however, it is often a risk worth taking, for the rewards are considerable.

This is a state of relaxed acceptance of uncertainty, something resembling Keats’ ‘negative capability,’  when one is ‘without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’

In this state, Keats was able to create poems like ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ in which the poet ‘feels into’ the object. This resembles my ‘becoming animal’ in a previous post. Both states represent an openness to an encounter with another; in this case, an object, and all it might mean to the poet:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

This ‘not-knowing’ is akin to a mental slowing-down, curbing the tendency to jump to conclusions without thinking. It avoids the distortions that come with quick certainties, as discussed in a previous post. Keats almost becomes part of the urn, the object, going into it and addressing it and the characters upon it.

In order to do this, one needs to gaze at the object whilst suspending knowledge of boundaries. Such boundaries might be those between what is regarded as ‘real’ and ‘not real,’ between ‘person’ and ‘thing.’

In this state of ‘negative capability,’ there is the chance to open the mind, allowing confusion and doubts to simply be, free of social and conceptual constraints. Such receptivity and flexibility enable insight, empathy and awareness, without the necessity to find answers and solutions.

In his book The Object Stares Back,’  James Elkins describes being constantly in a state of feeling watched, surrounded by many ‘eyes,’ both animate and inanimate. Yet he does not regard objects as inanimate. He describes such an encounter with his surroundings and with objects as a ‘waking vision.’

However, whilst Keats see the drawings on the Grecian urn as still, fixed suspended in time, Elkins takes his seeing even further. His objects move:

‘The night has reduced a picture hanging on one wall to a gray smudge, and as I look, its outline undulates in the half-light. It moves in response to what I try to see: I think I can make out the hilly landscape that I know is there, but suddenly it assembles itself into a staring face, and then into a little mannequin chopping wood…… It performs in response to what I imagine: it knows I am here, it sees me. For a while we look at one another: he smiles at me as best he can with his stick-figure face……’

This principle of waiting, of slowing down our thinking, of not-knowing, holds true for most creative endeavours. Quietness, stillness and having space to think, differently and imaginatively, are crucial.

In this constantly moving world, in these Liquid Times, we need more than ever to find space to face uncertainties. We need time to decelerate our thinking, allowing for reflection and for a meditative journey into the deeper reaches of our thinking selves.

Sometimes it is important to create this internal relocation in order to think clearly and to develop empathic vision:

It’s the man who steps away from the world whose sleeve is wet with tears for it.

(Bill Viola, quoted in Iyer)


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