So before I get to something I’ve been taught by some of my spiritual teachers, I thought I’d first tell you what I don’t know about the young woman who works at the burger place I was at tonight. I’ll also slip in some of my latest New Orleans pics to give your eyes a break, in part because one of them provides a funky variation on the teaching (and in part because I continue to find the place so damned photogenic).
I was tempted to know that the young woman at the burger place was bored and perhaps irritated with the customer talking to her from the other side of the counter. Two and a half times her age, he dominated the conversation to the point of owning it, focusing mostly on anecdotes about his life, many of which had to do with the ethnic mix of women he’s known, and in some cases, might have liked to know better. I assumed that the young woman was bored and perhaps resentful of being made captive to his story-telling by her service job; an assumption born largely of the fact that my default is to be put off by people who strike me as disproportionately interested in their own lives and insufficiently interested in others’ (which doesn’t mean I’m not one of them, but that’s for another time).
But then, the young woman began to challenge my assumptions by periodically laughing or punctuating his speeches with reflections of her own, which in turn propelled the conversation further and even got him to ask her to elaborate time or two on something she’d previously told him.
And so they both did me a favour, reminding me that there’s a difference between what we know and what we’ve decided to know before the evidence comes in. Was she bored? Maybe. Or maybe he’s the most interesting part of her burger-flipping evenings. I don’t know.
That’s the beauty of it. I really don’t know.
This is how I recall Rabbi Alan Lew discussing the “I don’t know” practice in his book, Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life. Lew, who had been a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism before discovering a connection to Judaism, talks about the practice of periodically responding to all questions asked by saying “I don’t know.” For instance, we might be asked our opinion on capital punishment, and most of the time, simply answer with a rote response formed years ago which we have habitually repeated without reflecting on if it still holds true. And by giving rote responses to life, by forgetting how much we don’t know, we close ourselves off to what is in front of us here and now.
Which is one of the reasons I love that “think that you might be wrong” sign from New Orleans. Most signs I see there are replaced between my visits, but that one’s lasted a year. Must be because there’s some resonance to it. Or maybe it’s because taking it down would require climbing a very tall pole.
Either way…you go, ignorance!
And if you want to see the box set of images, click below: