“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” – Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the first and only Arab writer ever to do so. I love this quote because it speaks to me of honesty, of coming to terms with the fact that you don’t and never will have all the answers to anything. And of learning and accepting that no one else ever will, either.
I work in a field where answers are expected. Especially smart, clever, satisfying ones. People expect medical professionals to come up with something, anything, when their loved one is in the hospital, some reason or rationale for them being there. And it takes a brave soul – doctor, nurse or otherwise – to admit they don’t know what’s going on. To say, we are just doing the best we can, stumbling around in the dark searching for clues, turning over every stone we can think of or find. A lot times that is exactly what’s happening.
That is not much comfort to most people. And while I understand that, I also think it is important to remember that while there are questions there is still hope. And there will always be more questions, as long we are here. It is the person who keeps asking them, who keeps looking, that you want to stick with.
Answers change, time and knowledege alter them, whether they are about medicine, health, politics, art, faith, or the physical laws of our universe. We are learning every day more and more. We are learning where we’re right, and where we’ve been wrong. Both keep changing. Once we thought the earth was flat, now we know better. One day we will know better about a lot of things.
But we will still never know everything. That can be a terrifying thing, I realize, to many people. I choose to try and see it as a comfort instead, a release from the responsibility of having to be right all the time, of having to know an answer to some question that may turn out to be different tomorrow.
When we can say, “I just don’t know,” to ourselves or someone else, it is humbling, brave, true. We are admitting we are not the all-knowing, all-seeing clever beings we pretend to be. The mask comes down.
Egos obliterated, we are free to start over, stripped bare, like children on the first day of school. When we give up the desire to control, to always know, it can free us to eventually find out. That’s the great irony of it all. When we admit we don’t have an answer then we can keep asking questions, keep moving through the darkness, lighting one small lamp at at time to help those behind us, still following.