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All That I Don't Know


Every time I read one of Oprah Winfrey’s “What I Know for Sure” essays, I get a feeling that is a mixture of anxiety and jealousy. Truthfully, I don’t know that many things for sure—way fewer, actually, than I’d once hoped I’d know when I reached this advanced age. Up until the time that I was in my 20s, there was so much to know that it just made me queasy. But, in the couple of decades after that, I really did imagine that I would know a lot by the time I reached my 60s. I figured I would have discovered how I wanted to live my life and what I liked to do with my time, and a million other less important, but more concrete things, like how to play the piano, make a perfect piecrust, and understand the stock market. I know none of those well, but I’ve learned a lot of other, unexpected things along the way.

Probably the biggest lesson, and one I’m still a little surprised to have gleaned, is that life is more interesting when my focus is not on what I know but on all I don’t know. It changes my perspective completely when I pay attention to the wonder of the unknown and the unanticipated than when I clutch the small collection of ideas and skills I know. But that hasn’t stopped me from many hours of arguments about who is right and countless frustrating attempts at activities at which I felt I must be a master. I expect our innate striving to know new things is at the foundation of our evolution as humans, so I’m not trying to discourage it. I’m just saying that it can actually be somewhat relaxing to let ourselves not know a lot of things.

Life unfolds most interestingly when we don’t try and control it or hold it in place or keep it from moving too fast.

In my own life, my insecure desire to set parameters has prompted me to keep a mental inventory of what I have, what I know, what I need, and what I imagine will make my life better. This personal catalog has often helped me feel safer. If I know what I know, no swirling chaos can take that away from me. My big discovery in the last few years, though, is that this is a limiting way to live. If I keep a record of what I need or want to know, I’m sure to leave things off the list, whether inadvertently or not. Focusing on this assortment of my imagined needs can also distract me from everything else. If I only think about what I need to know, I'm certain to miss all of those other things I didn't even realize were there.

As I get older, the world seems bigger and wider and richer. I didn’t imagine that when I was young and inexperienced. I thought of it more as a big cake that I would gradually consume as my life transpired. Of course it turns out that the real, wonderfully huge and delicious cake just keeps expanding. There is this nook inside that cranny, and there's that interesting quick turn I didn’t see from way down the road. Even though I’m headed this way because I have a plan to learn everything about what’s up ahead beyond that tree, I’m realizing now how much there is to see and learn if I turn the opposite direction.

These are the philosophical musings of an old woman who wants her life to go on forever, I know, but I’m also fairly sure that there is plenty of time to learn about whatever strikes our fancy each day. Many times when I was working, I would begin the day with a to-do list that exhausted me in one glance. I’d stow it carefully in my planner, get into my car and head out into the day. Within an hour, I would learn that my first appointment had cancelled and the second would be late. Someone comes in to talk to me in that open time and tells me about a documentary I ought to watch. When I find it on Netflix that night, I love it so much that it prompts me to buy a book by one of the people interviewed. Who knew?

Life unfolds most interestingly when we don’t try and control it or hold it in place or keep it from speeding by. It moves at its own pace and so do we. I’m loving the fact that my own “What I Know for Sure” list can be different from one day to the next. It’s the way life is, and it feels good to give myself the room to live in that same spirit.