Last Sunday one of our class members mentioned his child’s tendency to respond to new information by declaring, “I know.”  He also pointed out that, as adults, we often still struggle with the same desire to hide our ignorance and pretend we already know something another person tells us.  He even confessed to sometimes being a “know-it-all” himself.

In our family we had a different term for a know-it-all.  We would say, “So-and-so is an expert.”  “An expert in what?”  “Oh, just an expert – in everything.”  One of our sons played bass in a band that he persuaded to take the name, “The Expert.”

It might seem counter-intuitive, but learning to say, “I don’t know,” can increase credibility.  In Master Gardener training at UT Extension, interns are taught that the best answer to a question is sometimes, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”  When your doctor says, “This is outside my field. I’m referring you to a specialist,” it increases – not decreases – your confidence in your doctor.  When people have shown the integrity to admit they don’t have an answer, we’re more likely to trust them when they do have answers.

Students (mature ones, at least) respect a teacher who demonstrates a broad, deep fund of knowledge, but outstanding teachers also model lifelong learning when they say, “I don’t know.  Let’s research that together.”  Everyone’s knowledge has gaps, so a generous teacher gives the student a chance to shine when the student knows something the teacher doesn’t.

I’ve always liked the old saying:

He who knows not,

And knows not that he knows not,

Is a fool; shun him.

He who knows not,

And knows that he knows not,

Is a student; teach him.

He who knows,

And knows not that he knows,

Is asleep; wake him.

He who knows,

And knows that he knows,

Is wise; follow him.

My father had an expression, “Often wrong but never in doubt.”  A recent political cartoon showed a man sitting at his computer, telling his wife,” That’s odd: My Facebook friends who were constitutional scholars just a month ago are now infectious disease experts.…”  I’m guessing he should shun them or at least check their credentials.

In our class Sunday we applied these thoughts to spiritual matters, specifically the impulse many people have to offer pat answers to people in crisis.  Sometimes those pat answers are debatable or just plain heresy.  Other times the pat answers might be true but ill-timed.  Pat answers can jump the gun and deprive a person of the time and effort needed to work through a problem.  It can be offensive to offer “expert” advice when a person’s real need is for sympathy.

When we had a family tragedy, our nearest and dearest friends were the ones who said, “I don’t know.  I don’t understand, but I love you.”

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