Know What You Don’t Know

One of the really interesting things about life is that we never know when or where we are going to be exposed to ideas that have the power to change us as people. As a result, if we wish to continue growing as human beings, we should choose to keep our minds open, and be willing to take a critical look at each new piece of information, and if inclined to reject it, first determine if we are doing so solely because it conflicts with something we already think we “know.” We have a tendency to become frozen in a particular paradigm, by that I mean we tend to ignore or outright reject evidence or ideas that do not agree with what we already believe to be true.

We see examples of this in religion, in politics, and in almost every area in which we can have differences of opinion and belief, based upon different knowledge –sets. Even science, for all of its’ vaunted “follow-the-evidence” pragmatism, can find itself stuck for decades in a particular paradigm, even though empirical evidence to the contrary continues to pile-up. In science, however, truth and evidence almost always win out in the end, sometimes after long and often bitter debates, but if there is enough evidence for a new paradigm, it eventually carries-the-day.

This is not always the case, however, with individual human beings. Once we get a belief  in our head, based upon our own thoughts, or someone else’s, we seem to acquire an emotional investment in it, and it becomes something visceral, a gut feeling, that’s almost impossible for us to change. Examples might be a view of reality fostered by a particular religious belief, a strong political leaning, based upon evidence that you believe is true, views on questions of morals or ethics, or even on such things as work, leisure time, or sports activities.

The point is, once we develop strong feelings concerning any belief, we tend to ignore or discount new information that contradicts these beliefs, no matter how strong the evidence, or what its origins are, the only exception being new information from a source we consider to be an authority on the matter in question. Please understand that I am not pointing any fingers here, we are all susceptible to this phenomenon, and there is no segment of society that’s completely immune to its effects. My only purpose here is to point-out that this condition exists, and that there is only one way to overcome and change these fundamental beliefs, these gut-feelings, and that’s to change the basic thought process that underlies them. Change your thinking, the way you process the information you receive, the way you look at things, and your fundamental belief system, along with your feelings will change along with them.

Sounds like an easy process, how hard could it be, I covered the whole thing in only one paragraph! In practice, though, it’s a very difficult thing for most people to do. You see, the emotion associated with the feelings and beliefs acts to insulate the underlying thinking that supports them in the first place. Have you ever won an argument? I mean a heated argument (short of actually coming to blows), where the other person suddenly stopped shouting and admitted you were right all along? It happens occasionally, but very rarely, because even strongly reasoned arguments will not break through the shell of emotion that protects the underlying thinking of your opponent. It’s even worse if you become emotional yourself.

How to break-through the emotional belief systems of others, and convince them to change their thinking and follow a new course of action might be a good subject for a chapter in a book about sales, management, or debating techniques, but this book is about changing your own thinking, belief systems, and actions, something you have indicated a willingness to at least consider. To accomplish this, you are going to have to change your own thinking; neither I nor anyone else can do that for you. Oh sure, I can present all the reasonable arguments as to why you should do this or that, but the bottom line is, you are going to have to change the way you think, and the best way to facilitate that process is to begin by opening yourself to the possibility that some of your basic thoughts as to how your world works, and your place in it just might be not quite in line with reality.

Let me give you an illustration of what I’m talking about, from my own experience. As I have said elsewhere in the book, for many years I never made the connection between the “troubles” I kept having, the pain I was in most of the time, and the amount of alcohol I was consuming on a daily basis. I thought I was normal, just going through some kind of phase, and that my troubles were mainly caused by the other people in my life. That’s one side, the “outside,” let’s call it. On the “inside,” things were entirely different. I couldn’t shake this horrible feeling that, if anyone ever saw what was really inside of me, if my innards were ever exposed, if I was ever “found out,” I would be banished from the human race! Now, that sounds sane, doesn’t it? A lot of the reason I drank was because of how awful I felt on the inside, I just couldn’t face that person, and I knew that a Scotch or two would make him go away, so I made him go away every night, and became the “outside” guy, who sat there feeling sorry for himself because of all the people in his life making him so damn miserable.

I have already related in an earlier chapter what happened the day I quit drinking, and the events that led up to it, except for one, the “final straw” that finally precipitated what the professionals call the “Crystallization of Discontent,” the point at which the addict realizes that the costs of using outweigh the benefits, and they see themselves as they really are. Some call it a “moment of clarity,” some an “epiphany,” some think it’s a spiritual thing, but in my case, it was purely cognitive. It happened the night before I quit.

I was sitting on the couch in the living room, listening to Johnny Cash, as I remember, about ten in the evening, when my teen-aged daughter came in to say goodnight. She asked me what I thought of the poem she said that she had read to me earlier that night, when I was sitting out on the deck, drinking. I gave her a blank stare, and I don’t remember what I said to her, but I realized, through the fog, that I had absolutely no recollection of her reading a poem to me at all! None! She was crying, and very upset when she left the room. Who wouldn’t be?

I don’t know why that particular incident had the effect it did, there had been many such incidents in the past, but for some reason, I just couldn’t’ shake the feeling that I had really hurt someone, someone I loved a great deal, and wouldn’t hurt for the world. I looked at the half-full glass of Scotch next to me on the end table, and decided, I mean really decided, that I wasn’t going to have any more to drink that night. Guess what? Somehow, from that time to about one AM, when I passed-out on the couch, the glass kept filling itself, seemingly without my knowledge. As much as I wanted not to drink, the glass kept filling itself.

I woke up (or rather came-to) the next morning really, really scared, when the events of the previous evening came back to me. I couldn’t stop drinking the night before, no matter how much I tried. Of course, I didn’t understand then, the difference between a sober alcohol-dependent person craving a drink, and one who is already had a drink. The person craving a drink has a choice, the person already drinking has made their choice, and the mere craving becomes an almost overwhelming compulsion to continue. On the way to lunch with my friend, I considered not only the events of the night before, but also many things that had happened over the previous several years. It took me two or three drinks to get up the courage to broach the subject with my friend, but, as I have related previously, when I left him that day, I had fundamentally changed the way I thought about myself, my belief that my drinking was normal had disappeared, and in it’s place was the belief that I could not drink and predict the outcome, in fact, I now knew that this had been the case for years, I had just been unable to realize it.

Some months later, I had the opportunity to ask a guy named Lou M, who had been sober for 50 years, what he considered the most important single factor in staying that way. His answer, which made no sense to me at the time, was: “Pete, you have to know what you don’t know.” I must admit, I pondered that one for quite a while, before I finally understood what he meant. When I finally figured it out, I realized that for many years, the failure to question the basic belief that my drinking was normal, and the rest of the world was nuts had kept me frozen in a paradigm that was literally killing me. I was addicted to alcohol, and didn’t know it, in spite of all the clues over the years; I never questioned the “knowledge” that I was OK. I didn’t know that I didn’t know! For me, it took a series of seemingly unrelated events, culminating in the living room incident I just related, to begin to question the fundamental belief that I was OK. I began to know what I didn’t know about my own condition.

Over the last twenty-plus years, there have been a few other fundamental beliefs of mine that have changed because they simply wouldn’t stand up under rigid scrutiny, and most of them, I have found, were never really well-thought-out in the first place, they were either inherited or they were adapted because of misplaced obeisance to false authority. The point is, that now I question my beliefs, no matter how deeply held, as a matter of course. I can’t afford not to, mainly because I care, and care deeply whether my beliefs about myself, and the rest of the world are true, and also because it’s very important to me to know what I don’t know.

This piece will end up in the book, I’m just not sure which chapter as yet. Probably chapter nine.

About the Author Pete Soderman

Pete is an author, blogger, and podcaster who makes his home in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. His primary interest is in helping others recover from self-defeating behaviors.

Leave a Comment:

Ian Mason says April 10, 2011

Just finished reading Kathryn Schulz’s “Being Wrong”. Some parts are relevant to what you are describing.

    Pete Soderman says April 14, 2011

    Yes, I have read it. This post needs some serious editing, but it pretty much explains what I was trying to get across – that our version of reality ain’t necessarily what’s really so.

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