I Know that I Know Nothing


“We don’t know a millionth of one percent of anything”…..Thomas Edison

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”….Bertrand Russell


There are some things I just don’t understand.  Like, how two brothers from Chechnya justify killing innocent people at a Marathon or, how people can believe the Holocaust never happened.  I don’t understand why airplanes don’t fall out of the sky or people can’t stop drinking when it is affecting their job, health and family.  I don’t get war, murder, rape, racism, conspiracy theories, cancer, football or why I have gained so much weight this past year.

I suppose there are some things, like flight for instance, that I may not understand but there is actually a clear- cut answer.  I know it has something to do with air pressure, gravity, thrust, and lift.  For a full explanation, I can look it up on the internet or get a book on the subject.  But that is only if I truly want to understand it.  I don’t.  And, I can live with the fact that I don’t get it. 

But there are some things that I don’t get that are much harder to live with.     

Terrorism, cancer, alcoholism, conspiracy theories, and well, my ridiculous weight gain.  Yes, my weight gain.  I have gained over 10 pounds this last year.  Some say that I needed to.  My Doctor believes it is from chemo-induced peri-menopause.  I believe both to be true but there is something else I cannot deny.  I am binge eating at night.  O.K.  I am not eating an entire gallon of ice cream.  I do stick to the pint size dairy free vegan version.  But, I’m still eating way too much when I am not even hungry.  I know many of you can relate.

I get that being worried about my weight gain seems pretty trivial in the whole scheme of things, even a bit silly, but I assure you it is not.  Why?

There is a common denominator between all of those things I listed above.  All of these “things” are either a result of or are in service to our need to get rid of the anxiety that comes from living in ambiguity. 

What is ambiguity exactly?  Ambiguity is uncertainty.  It is the not knowing anything.  Socrates got it over 2,000 years ago when he said, “I know that I know nothing.”  This he believed to be true wisdom; to admit that we know nothing and to be able to live happy productive lives with this knowledge, or lack thereof.

But most of us are not Socrates.  Living in this unclear, indefinite, equivocal state is not just unsettling; it scares the shit out of people.  And, humans don’t tolerate feeling uncomfortable for very long.

There was a great scene in Madmen, when Dr. So and So (sorry I don’t remember his name) told Don Draper,   “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”  Then the doctor rides off in the middle of a snowstorm in New York City on New Year’s Eve at one o’clock in the morning on skis for a supposed “house call,” while Don heads upstairs to the Docs apartment to fuck the Doc’s wife.


So we drink, smoke pot, have sex with other peoples spouses, over eat, join fundamentalist causes, misuse political positions and for the truly disturbed and extreme, murder, rape and plant bombs at marathons, anything to alleviate our anxiety. 

The one surviving brother of the marathon bombing said that his older brother was “upset” by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that anger was the motivation.  He felt like he never belonged here and he didn’t have one American friend.

Not only was anger the motivation.  Fear was the spur and ambiguity the muse.

Our anxiety over ambiguity shows up everywhere.  In our politics, religions, schools and social lives as we try to manage, organize, command, control and even escape the unease from the uncertainty of life.  Dr. James Hollis, a Jungian psychologist says if we are truly honest with ourselves, “There is a fascist within each of us, a Nervous Nellie who wishes comfort at any cost.”  And Hannah Arendt wrote in Crisis of the Republic, “Throughout history the totalitarian mind is obsessed by a need for the world to be clear-cut and orderly.  Accordingly, subtleties, contradictions, and complexities are felt as intolerable, and have to be eliminated by whatever means.” 

Thank god the majority of us choose what seems like more simple vices, food, alcohol, sex, or religion.  But, simple as they may seem, you can go overboard and can cause a lot of harm to not only yourself but to others as well.

I admit I have tried a few other vices.  Sometimes they work (in the short run), most of the time they don’t.  In the long run, they always catch up with you.  And it seems when you get rid of one vice, another one takes over.  Take my emotional food binges at night.  Yes, that dairy free Coconut Bliss ice cream is to die for.  But is it really?  Is eating ice cream and gaining weight which results in too much estrogen in my body which could result in my cancer coming back worth it?  No, absolutely not, but I do it anyway especially when I am most tired and weak.  When ambiguity comes creeping through the dark halls of my soul late at night and I cannot resist the temptation of that sweet sugary something to alleviate my unease, I am putty.  

No, I need to get to the core of why I am eating if I am truly going to change.  I need to let go and accept ambiguity, embrace the unknown, learn to live in the midst of uncertainty, feel uncomfortable at times, and sit in my unease, then maybe I have a chance to not only fit into my jeans again, but maybe I can truly embrace a deeper more meaningful life.  James Hollis says, “Psychological, political, social and spiritual maturity is found precisely in the capacity of any person to tolerate ambiguity.”

I am getting there.  I really am.  I feel some progress but apparently, I still have more work to do.  I suspect we all do.

So, as I continue my journey, read the papers, watch the news, struggle with our world’s anxieties and that pint of ice cream at midnight, I will remember Socrates’ wise words, “I know that I know nothing.”  Or, do I?

One Response to “I Know that I Know Nothing”

  1. Angela Says:

    Yes yes a million times yes!

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