At a family wedding recently, my younger brother and I were talking about what I’ve been writing in my blog about our parents and childhood. He expressed his amazement at what all I remember, especially dates, because he feels like he doesn’t remember details about the past. We joked about how I should wish him and his wife a happy anniversary a week ahead of time so they can remember to celebrate. I, of course, always remember that June 7 is their anniversary – and further, I know that next year, in 2014, they will celebrate their 40th anniversary.
I do remember a lot of specific dates, like when our family arrived in the United States from Africa (December 22, 1961), when Dale returned from two years in Zambia (August 23, 1970), my first day on the job that I’m still doing part-time (August 18, 1992), when we moved to our current home (January 9, 1993), when my dad passed away (June 12, 2003), when I had colon surgery (September 29, 2004), when my mother died (February 20, 2005), when I had my last car accident (June 20, 2009) that led to buying my red Prius (July 17, 2009). And I remember the birthdays and anniversaries of most family members and many friends.
How and why do I remember details like this, especially when I don’t remember other stuff about the past that seems far more significant? I tried to explain to my brother why I remember the year Dad died: my granddaughter Alecia, who was born in January 2003, was a baby at his funeral (the only four-generation photo I have of my mother, me, my daughter and granddaughter was taken at the funeral). I remember the year my mother died because I was in the middle of chemotherapy for colon cancer, and I had been diagnosed in the fall of 2004. I remember the year Dale returned from Zambia because I had just finished graduate school and was about to start my first job which I had from 1970-1973. I remember the year our family returned from Africa because I was 13 at the time, and it was winter here and right before Christmas. So one explanation is that I’m able to put things in a larger context. But that only explains how I remember the year and not the specific date, and of course even remembering the context involves remembering stuff many people like my brother apparently forget. All I can say is that I have a mind for certain kinds of trivia; it comes in handy sometimes but it’s often not a good substitute for other knowledge I wish I had or for the ability to remember even more about the past than I do.
And there’s so much I don’t know. Dale and I have been having the following conversation a lot lately: one of us asks a question (perhaps about something we’ve just seen in our travels), the other attempts an answer, more questions follow, and the back-and-forth finally ends with one of us saying, “I know nothing.” We feel a little like Sargeant Schultz in the classic TV comedy, “Hogan’s Heroes,” who frequently claimed, “I know nothing, I see nothing.”
Of course, Sargeant Schultz was trying to protect himself from any culpability in the antics of Hogan and his fellow prisoners of war, and Dale and I aren’t usually absolving ourselves of responsibility connected with knowing something about the topic at hand. But as I thought about these words we’ve taken to saying when we feel like we are at the end of our own knowledge and understanding of some topic, I started to unpack more layers of meaning behind the words, “I know nothing.”
Cutting off further conversation: Usually this isn’t what either one of us is doing when we say to the other, “I know nothing,” but it could be. When we don’t want to talk about something for whatever reasons, it’s easy – although probably not the best idea for the health of our relationship – to stop things cold by just saying, “I know nothing” as code for “I don’t want to talk about it.” Or perhaps one of us is just tired of answering questions that don’t have easy answers, like when a child keeps persisting with “why” questions.
Expressing regret or embarrassment: Said with the appropriate inflection, “I know nothing” conveys the frustration inherent in feeling like one doesn’t really know much about anything. It’s like saying, ” I wish I knew more, but I don’t,” or “I should know, but I don’t.” There are times when I feel really ignorant and devoid of knowledge – how could I possibly have lived this long, gone to college and graduate school, held responsible jobs, read books and newspapers, traveled, watched the news, etc., and still not know this, whatever “this” is at that moment? Other people seem to know so much more about so many things than I do.
Demonstrating humility: Sometimes it seems like it’s very difficult for people to say, “I don’t know.” They always have something to say, some opinion to express – they’re never at a loss for words and can always hold forth on almost any topic. And they’re often so sure they’re right. Being able and willing to say “I know nothing” or some variation recognizes that the world is complicated, issues are complex, there’s very little that’s black and white, and one could be wrong. This kind of humility is something I’d like to see more often in what passes for political discourse these days.
Being open to new ideas: Part of the humility I’m referring to is recognizing that in the great scheme of things, we really don’t know much. There is so much more to be learned and experienced, plus we often have only our own very limited perspective to go on when we draw conclusions. I am constantly amazed at how two people can see things so very differently, how they can look at the same set of facts and each come to a totally different conclusion about what those facts mean. This gets us into trouble and is at least part of what happens in situations of conflict: parties on all sides think they know the absolute truth of what happened when in fact we all “see through a glass darkly,” don’t know the whole story, or choose to interpret what we do know in a way that isn’t fair to the facts or that suits our own purposes. Being open to new ideas indicates a willingness to hold our conclusions lightly, recognizing that we probably don’t have all the information at our disposal.
The humility and openness to new ideas that can be part of intoning “I know nothing” relates directly back to the memory issue with which I started. The reality is that even though I may remember lots of details about the past and have the kind of mind that can store and retrieve facts like dates, I’ve made mistakes sometimes and there’s so much more I don’t remember. Memory is a tricky thing, and the older I get, the more careful I am about declaring with any kind of certainty that I’ve remembered something accurately or that I know much about anything. It often really feels like “I know nothing”!