I don’t know everything and I’m no longer shy about admitting it.
In my mind, admitting ignorance on a topic is a virtue because it allows clarity in discussion, and also means there’s an opportunity to learn something new. From experience, though, I can tell you that not everyone agrees with me. In fact, the self-professed expert without sourcing to back it up is actually quite common, even in pagan circles.
As my intro line indicates, I wasn’t always willing to admit my ignorance. I’ve played the “I’ve heard of that” game once or twice, hoping that someone else would explain something without my having to come clean. I’ve finagled my way through discussions of esoteric topics without (I hope!) revealing my shortcomings, and even held my own in discussions on topics where I had absolutely no clue what I was really discussing. I could make a ton of excuses for this behavior, none of which would come close to the admission that I was afraid to admit that I didn’t know something…or I could just say it:
I was afraid to admit that I didn’t know something.
I don’t know if this same fear plagues others, but I tend to think it might – fear is a human condition, after all, and it is likely that one human’s fear might be the same as another human’s fear. I know it was difficult for me to admit that I was afraid, and that I somehow thought revealing my own ignorance meant that no one would trust me on any topic at all…
(…and see how the intricacies of my brain work? It’s exhausting sometimes.)
Part of my own problem with ignorance is knowing a ton of random things; I do really well at Trivial Pursuit, for example, because my brain is crammed with information I don’t use on a daily basis. This also means that, in routine conversation, I’m likely to know something about any number of topics and while my knowledge isn’t exhaustive it often contains fairly obscure facts. For example, did you know that trees should be planted so the root flare shows above the ground and shouldn’t be mulched with wood chips? Did you know that monotremes are mammals that lay eggs, thereby making “all mammals give birth live” incorrect? Or, how about the fact that coffee is tied to the Age of Enlightenment?
See? Random knowledge. I collect it like some people collect stamps, and I’ll trot it out from time to time as occasion allows…which also doesn’t help with the whole “I don’t know X” admission. But, I’ve learned over the past ten years or so that it is better to admit when I don’t know something because (1) the person I’m speaking with can then tailor the conversation, and (2) I can learn new things to be dropped into other conversations. It’s a win-win!
One thing I’ve noticed is that people who don’t want to admit ignorance will go to lengths to hide it. They’ll chime in on topics they don’t understand, hoping to avoid being questioned directly by participating peripherally. They’ll have an example for every situation that comes up, and the examples will have an element (direct or implied) of one-upmanship*. They’ll talk a lot about what they know and how they apply it…in abstract. They won’t give sources, and they’ll vociferously argue with anyone who asks for one. And then…some of them will ask a question on a topic they don’t understand but frame it in such a way to imply that they’re just checking to see if others know the answer.
Quite frankly, behaving in this fashion is exhausting. I know – I used to do it and sometimes even now I can feel myself pulled in the direction of “pretend to know, and you’ll eventually figure it out”. I can usually snap myself out of the mindset with concentration, but it isn’t easy. I didn’t really get good at it until I started having to teach other adults and realized that no one was going to smack me if I told them I didn’t know something, and that I’d have to get back to them. Figuring out that the world wouldn’t end if I didn’t know something was a revelation.
On my religious path, self-knowledge is key, and part of knowing myself is recognizing that it is okay not to know. There is a ton of knowledge out there, and no matter how I try I will never know everything. It’s one of the things that makes me human and, as I’ve said on many other occasions, being human is not the end of the world. The fact that I know some things that others might not and they know things I might not makes life all the more interesting, and the sharing of knowledge between humans builds community. That give-and-take upholds ma’at, and strengthens the bonds we have with one another.
Isn’t that something worth doing?
*Note: some people do have a lot of experiences to share, and the fact that they share them does not mean that they’re trying to one-up someone else.