In Praise of “I Don’t Know”
A scrupulously upright Quaker was known for his absolute integrity. Like the fabled young George Washington who cut down a cherry tree and refused to tell a lie about it, this old Friend was known for never letting an untruth pass his lips. One time, his two mischievous grandsons thought they could pull one over on their grandpa by tricking him into telling a lie. One of the two was in the house with the old Quaker and the other came to knock on the door. “Grandfather,” asked the boy at the door, while the other grandson slipped out a back window, “is my brother in the house?” The boy at the door hoped his grandfather would say yes, which would turn out to be untrue.
“Last I saw,” said the inerrant Quaker, “he was in the kitchen.”
I’ve heard this story told about more than one big-name historical Quaker, so chances are it’s apocryphal. But let me note a few things: First, how relatively wholesome the young Friends’ prank is! As a father of two sons, I can only hope that such will be the extent of their mischief. Second, it says something about truth-telling that “absolute integrity” is so unusual as to be suspicious. While we may deeply, truly believe in “that of God in every one,” just as entrenched is the inkling that perfectly thorough faithfulness to that Seed is so unlikely as to be suspect.
What do I take away from this tale? That old Quaker in the story was not just being canny when he began his statement with “last I saw.” He illustrates a vital point that I’ll be keeping in mind for a long time: speak from your own experience. A corollary to this is that if you want to be able to speak truthfully about what is outside your experience, read copiously and closely. Turn skepticism into study. Cite your sources. Show your work. Be prepared to say, “I don’t know.”
This issue of Friends Journal is dedicated to the “I don’t know.” Not because we celebrate ignorance (quite the opposite), but because we all need a reminder that the same drive that leads us to question authority should also spur us to exercise a similar skepticism about our received wisdom and about deceptively pat explanations of complex realities.
At the Friends General Conference Gathering earlier this summer in Pennsylvania, I asked a Friend what she was hoping to get out of it. She told me that what she wanted most was to be made a better Quaker. I couldn’t have said it better myself. For me, the Gathering is always a hothouse of human and Quaker interaction, and I win when I come away feeling as though I can be a more faithful Friend. It’s full of inspiration and connection, and also cautionary tales. This year I observed with particular clarity the pitfall of assuming we (Quakers, humans) are all the same. A workshop participant casually maligned an entire industry as evil, blithely unaware that one sitting across the circle of chairs from her had found his life’s work in that very sector. The pernicious temptation to claim experience that is not our own and to generalize is reinforced by the high-temperature rhetoric of today’s news and commentary loops. We imagine conformity among “our own kind” because to do so is easier than to examine and listen. The regrettable outcome of this fallacy is the “othering” of the many people whom—either now or later—we discover to be outside the boundaries of that imagined conformity. That’s the way to tear down community, not build it.
I hope you enjoy the Journal this month and take time to think about what it is you don’t know about your Quaker community but should. Why not find out? And if you’d like to share what you’ve learned, I hope we can help you spread that story.