Saturday, April 18, 2015

B112. I Know One Drop in the Bucket

I have told the story many times of my nephew Charlie who as a kindergartner announced to the family one day that he would not be going to first grade, because he knew all he needed to know from school. And as his doting aunt, I agree he was a smart kid, a thinking kid, a kid who had mastered all that he knew school to be. Yet there was so much that he didn’t even know existed: history, multiplication, the sciences, literature, geography, languages, critical thinking . . .

If Charlie had been able to follow through on his wishes, he would never have even known that all this knowledge was out there, and once he began to hear about it, if history is any indicator, he would have defended himself with a philosophy that said no one needed that stuff - that it just makes people less intelligent.  Like rural preachers have said about seminary graduates, and laborers have said about college students. Or conversely, as the more educated have looked down on those who go to work earlier becoming knowledgeable in practical areas outside of academia. 

What if society didn’t have scientists and cashiers and builders, and plumbers and doctors and factory workers, and teachers and inventors and police? The Charlie analogy aside, every intelligent human being knows that we all need each other, and we are all trained and knowledgeable to some finite degree, in our own specific areas.

The more I learn, the more I perceive of my own ignorance. As a teen, as a college student, as a twenty-something young adult I felt like I knew all I needed to know, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. As a high school and college educator, I can’t count the times I’ve heard a student say “When will I ever need to know this?” Basically we are all Charlies. We like to think we have all we need.

We all know so little really, when measured by our infinite untamed universe. Even with years of experience in a particular subject, if known only from the inside, or only from the outside, we are missing so much.  If I’ve lived 40 years in one town, I know more about that town than almost anyone in the world. Still if my knowledge is all from the inside, there is much I am missing. If I’ve never lived in another setting, I don’t know how to compare my town with others. If I have never studied sociology or economics or local/regional history, there is much depth I haven’t yet touched.

Personally I have studied black history extensively – multiple books/movies/documentaries, visited multiple museums and historic sites, talked with hundreds of black people about their experiences and perceptions . . . but all my knowledge is from the outside, because no matter how much I learn, I have not lived the day-to-day existence of black Americans.

Likewise I spent years during and after seminary studying the Jehovah's Witnesses. I own dozens of their books and publications, I've visited Kingdom Halls and the huge training center in NC, and I've talked one-on-one for hours with several JW's; but no matter how much I learn, I am an outsider. I am not a JW and will never have complete understanding of the JW community, nor will any of them have full understanding from their inside-only viewpoints.

And I know a lot about Multiple Sclerosis, as an insider! I've read extensively, made my own choices about treatment, raised thousands of dollars in MS Walks . . . but my knowledge is very limited. Everyone with MS has a different story to tell, and even in the collective knowledge, there is no known cause or cure. I do know that I know far too little to give anyone else advice about their own MS treatments.

The Spanish language: I've been teaching it for 28 years and have spent time in Mexico, Honduras, Argentina and Ecuador. I've studied the language's development from Latin to Old Spanish into modern Spanish, and structurally and academically I might understand the language as well as anyone else alive, but I will never be a native Spanish speaker,and at that level every native Spanish-speaking student I teach has much to teach me, and I love it when they do!

No matter what the topic, whether my knowledge is as an insider or an outsider, it will always be just a drop in the bucket.  

As will all our inside-only and outside-only political and religious knowledge.

What makes us polarize ourselves so? Why do we think that science disproves the existence of a God, or that belief in a God disproves science? When have we ever really listened, no, really listened, to someone with opposing views about immigration, abortion, gay rights, creationism . . . and do we realize that our own views might be coming from one source – our religious denomination, our cable news network, our church/political leaders who are getting their views from that same source . . .?

Are we satisfied with that? Does Truth really not matter anymore as long as we are insulated by a clan that supports our views? If the earth is round, but everyone around us agrees it is flat, are we OK with that pseudo-reality?

History gives us multiple glimpses of people seeking Truth – scientists, theologians, philosophers, social activists - none of whom have a perfect understanding of all of life, but many of whose writings and philosophies have shaped our cumulative knowledge base. And history likewise gives us pictures of generations of others who have opted to hold the world back, to cling to a faux black and white world where there are 10 finite truths and I have them all right here in my bucket.

Like Charlie in kindergarten we can come to think of knowledge as finite, as black and white facts that can be collected in a bucket until we have enough. But what if that is not the real picture? What if instead, knowledge is not about facts, but about depth and understanding? What if the more we learn the more of a void we’re able to see in our understanding? What if we could devour knowledge unceasingly for a lifetime, only to realize at the end that we still know one drop in the bucket, and that our enemies’ drops are just as important? What if the Truth we missed would have been found only if we had humbly stopped yelling at each other and just listened?

Especially in religion and politics.

Everyone I meet knows more about something than I do, just as I know more about something than every other person I meet. 

Truth exists. I don’t have it, you don’t have it, and Truth does not bend to human perceptions, not even to majority votes.  I fear we are living in an age where we have lost the desire to find Truth and have become satisfied to substitute a political, religious, or cultural construct in its place.

We are an arrogant people. We have come to believe that our own political party, or our own religious denomination, or our own whatever-it-is-that-guides-us is Ultimate Truth and flawless, and that anyone outside it is ignorant, the Enemy, and has no value in the world (unless they choose to join us). “My group owns all Truth. Outsiders can die.”

Harsh? Yes, but am I exaggerating? Do we wish everyone who refuses to be a Democrat/Republican/Christian/Fundamentalist/. . . would just fall off the earth/die/get out of our way?  Too many of us are far more interested in yelling our own perceptions and condemning those with differing views than in listening and learning, which just maybe would bring us all closer to a real understanding of each other and of whatever is the real Truth.

Although some of us know more than most others know about one, three, maybe even ten select topics, we will never know more than a drop in the universal bucket, we will never know all there is to know about even the topics we study or practice intently, and we will always be wrong in certain details no matter how adamantly we argue to convince others and ourselves otherwise.

There is redemption though, for those willing to grasp it, and it’s this: If we can trade our individual pride (seen by others as both arrogance and ignorance) for humility, if we can begin to really listen to those we think of as our enemies, if we can acknowledge that we are all both flawed and valuable, then and only then might we find the peace and brother/sisterhood that eludes us in our divisiveness.

By really listening, we might learn that the woman fighting for the right to free choice is not advocating abortion; or that the angry Sunday School teacher who sees the world in black in white was trained that way in the military so he could serve our country; or that your gay neighbor is a sincere Christian who prayed for years to be straight; or that one of your best friends at work is undocumented.

Charlie didn’t get his wish, and he’s probably glad. He’s a sophomore in college now, and for him and for us, no matter what our age, there is always more to learn. Want a test to check your progress? Here it is:   The more we learn, the more we will come to respect all the other drops in the bucket. And when we think we know all we need to know, that’s a sure sign we aren’t there yet.

photo credit: usa.thelancet

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