It’s not often that I think along the same lines as Donald Rumsfeld. But after a mildly embarrassing experience I’ve been pondering the words of our Secretary of Defense that won him the 2003 Foot in Mouth Award:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.
My wife, Laurel, has phased down her psychotherapy practice to bare bones. She’s given up her office and, as of yesterday, had her practice phone number forwarded to our home line.
She’d told me to expect some work calls. I forgot about that expectation when the phone rang as I was walking out the door. I rushed inside and answered the call.
“Hi, this is Sam Jones [not real name, obviously]. Could I speak with Laurel.”
Here’s where my not-knowing started to take off. As soon as I heard “Sam Jones,” my mind associated the caller with an old boyfriend of Laurel’s whose first name was indeed “Sam,” but whose last name was nowhere close to “Jones.”
However, small details like facts don’t mean anything when your mind leaps in a not-knowing direction. A few weeks ago, through a mutual acquaintance Laurel had heard some news about old boyfriend Sam that she’d shared with me. So it seems that when I heard someone ask for Laurel and say that he was “Sam,” it didn’t matter that the last names were different. My mind instantly and confidently concluded that the caller was the old boyfriend.
No doubt about it.
“Why, hi, Sam. Good to hear from you. Laurel is in Eugene right now and won’t be back for a few hours.”
At this point the caller must have begun to wonder if he really was talking to a professional counselor’s equally professional answering service. What was up with this chatty “good to hear from you” stuff?
“OK, um, could you tell me who I'm talking to, please?”
“Why, its Brian,” I reply enthusiastically, wanting to let Sam know that Laurel is still married to the guy whose wedding Sam attended fifteen years ago. “Can I take a message?”
Since my tone of voice had implied that the caller was a doofus for not realizing that the person who he was talking to was Brian, the husband of still-married-only-once Laurel, he understandably spoke with even more confused hesitation now—undoubtedly wondering “What the hell kind of weird answering service is Ms. Hines using now?”
I, of course, assumed that his faltering words were those of an old boyfriend who wanted to speak with an old girlfriend, and had ended up talking with her husband instead. Not an unusual situation, yet still a bit awkward.
“Just tell her that Sam Jones called. My number is ________.”
“Will do, Sam. I know she’ll enjoy talking with you after all this time.”
On this mystifying note (given that the caller had been having recent counseling sessions with Laurel), our conversation ended. I scribbled out his name and phone number for Laurel and laid it on the rug near the front door, our usual message-leaving location.
Since Sam had left a Salem number, my mind then began to multiply further fictions on top of its primal error. How long will Sam be in town…he’ll probably want to have dinner with Laurel to catch up on what’s been going on in their lives…We were thinking of going to Portland tomorrow…Maybe we’ll have to change our plans…Wonder why Sam is calling now after so many years…
When Laurel got home I mentioned that an old boyfriend had phoned. She looked at the message and said, “Jones isn’t Sam’s last name. His name is ____.” Which I knew. Now.
And also then. I mean, my brain knew that old boyfriend Sam’s last name was ____, and that the caller’s last name of Jones was entirely different. But I didn’t know that my mind wasn’t aware that it didn’t know what it should have known. Now I knew what I didn’t know that I didn’t know before, and I was embarrassed.
When Laurel returned the call to her client she explained what happened. Thankfully, he told her that I was so friendly, he didn’t think much about the strange aspects of our telephonic interaction.
Myself, I keep thinking about this whole business of not knowing what you don’t know. What else am I blissfully confident that I’m right about, when actually I’m dead wrong? As Rumsfeld correctly observed, it’s bad enough to know that you don’t know something. But not-knowing rises into another dimension when you are ignorant of your ignorance.
Humility. Uncertainty. Openness. Yesterday’s experience helped me realize that these are virtues we all need to venerate, because we never know when what we think we know isn’t true.
“We” includes the Bush administration. Especially the Bush administration.
With a poetic philosopher like Donald Rumsfeld on the payroll, you’d think that Bush and his cronies would be wary of embracing certitudes that they shouldn’t be nearly as certain about.
Weapons of mass destruction. Deficit-reducing benefits of tax cuts. Evils of gay marriage. Fiction of global warming. The list is endless of things the Bush administration has been, and are, sure about that they almost certainly are wrong about.
Yet we have a President who is extremely unwilling to admit that he ever is wrong. His ability to not know that he doesn’t know puts mine to shame.