"The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing." – Socrates
Every morning when I was very little, my dad would walk from our house to the nearby park where he and several other people would climb aboard a large white van to go to work with Fred Flintstone at the quarry.
At least, that’s where I imagined the van was taking him. The image of my dad riding a dinosaur and moving rocks around was crystal clear in my mind. No thought was given to any other possibility. It was just how things were.
I have no idea how I came to understand, without question, the fact that my dad worked with a cartoon character and drove a dinosaur for a living. It’s not like I spent 24 hours a day watching the Flintstones on tv; I really don’t think I watched much tv at all. What I do know is that seeing his modern office at the headquarters of Phillips 66, with a desk and chair and nary a dinosaur in sight was a monster letdown. Sorry dad.
It was at that point of discovering where my dad really went when he left home everyday that I knew something was very wrong. It wasn’t that the cartoon world of the Flintstones was nowhere to be found in the world I lived in. The problem that bugged me was that I had so incorrectly determined that dads spent their days using giant prehistoric lizards to move rocks around. I had been completely convinced that this was the way the world worked, and my little world was shattered.
And my issues with understanding didn’t end there. I also distinctly remember thinking that the new, steel blue winter coat I was wearing for my first day at a new elementary school in a new town would make me look big and muscly and make all of the girls like me. Because everyone knows that girls only like the boys who are muscly and wear steel blue winter coats. Or something like that. I also remember thinking that I had to be a good athlete, a fast runner, to be accepted by my new classmates.
As I was failing to understand the world as much as I would like, I started reading Encyclopedia Brown books, about the brilliant boy detective who was highly skilled at deductive reasoning and solved cases for his police chief father. Reading the books, part of me hoped that some of his smarts would rub off on me.
I did start to learn about the value of the asking questions, as well as the benefit of making an effort to gather, organize, and analyze information to increase my understanding. And I learned that my understanding could be limited not only by ability, but also by things like what I might choose to pay attention to or ignore, what I already “knew” or thought I knew, the accessibility of accurate information, and my attitudes and beliefs.
Over time, as I’ve gained experience, that tends to highlight the many and varied flaws in my understanding, I’ve come to believe that our perception is always flawed to some degree. It reminds me of the old adage that ‘the more I learn, the less I know.’
Countless times I have found myself waking up to the fact that I had previously misjudged myself, other people, or situations. As a result, I've come to believe that knowing without a healthy dose of curiosity can be one of the most damaging and dangerous things a person can do.
Several years ago, I remember seeing a video that was making its way around Facebook and was originally part of an tv show on ABC called ‘What Would You Do?’ The video showed three people attempting at different times to steal a bicycle from a community park. All three of the would be thieves were actors taking part in a social psychology study.
The first was a young, white male who took quite a lot of time to hack at the bike lock that held the bike securely to a sign pole. While a number of people walked past the young thief, he hacked at the lock first with a hammer then with a saw, then with bolt cutters, and finally, with a power saw. As he boldly hacked away at the lock, some people gave him curious looks. Others asked him if the bike was his then simply walked away after hearing that it ‘technically’ was not. Finally, after about a hundred people had passed and he broke out the power saw, a couple stopped to ask if he was stealing it then went off to look for help.
The second actor was a young black male. In the video, it took only seconds for passers by to begin challenging him as he tried to cut the chain with bolt cutters. In fact, a crowd quickly formed around him, with some people taking his picture, and one calling 911. One even decided to take the young man’s tools and began yelling at him. Where was this effort when the white male was trying to steal the bike? What did the passers-by in this scenario 'know' that made their behavior different than the people in the first scenario?
The third actor was a young blond woman. At several different points in time, as the experiment was run and rerun with this actor, a number of men actually stopped to assist her in the effort, even after she basically admitted to stealing the bike. As one man was giving her a hand, his wife announced that she was going to call the police. He ignored his wife and continued to help the girl succeed in her crime.
If our determination of what is right and what is wrong, especially in terms of other people’s decisions and behavior, is so heavily influenced by unrelated characteristics of the person we are judging, how is it that we trust our judgement without question?
I don’t know what I would have done in any of those scenarios above. In fact, I can’t honestly say how I might behave in any of a variety of similar situations at any point in the future. But, sitting here right now, I do commit to making an effort to both become more informed and try to act without bias. And because I know my understanding will be limited regardless, to act with compassion.
To me it seems that one of the best things I can do in any situation is to stop for a moment and question my understanding. To face the insecurity that comes with not knowing and become better informed before making a decision or taking action. I know that perfect accuracy is unlikely, if not impossible, but at least I'll make an honest attempt to get closer.
In every moment, even when we are certain that our understanding and our actions are correct, I'd like to believe that taking a moment to question both will increase the likelihood that we do more good than harm.
The photographs in this post are of reflections in glass buildings, taken in various places over a number of years. If you’ve visited some of my other galleries, you may have noticed that I have a bit of an affinity for both reflections and architecture. For the purpose of this post, the buildings doing the reflecting are stand-ins for people and the reflections represent the distorted nature of our perceptions of the world around us.
It is easy to see that these buildings distort their impressions of the world around them. I wonder how easy it is to see our own distortions. I don't think it's all that easy, given the derision I too often see on the internet, in articles, tweets, Facebook posts, comments, etc. I hope that over time more and more of us come to question our judgements before we label or condemn others and their thoughts or actions.
Thank you for reading.