Before we can know the solution to any problem, we need to be stumped, empty, out of answers. I loathe that feeling. I loathe not knowing the answer. I feel scared and vulnerable and very much at risk when I reach not knowing and have to confront that I do not know what comes next, what to do, how to fix what is broken or not working. But when I am with that not knowing, turning the problem over and over, seeking a new way, the fear drops away and curiosity and wonder take the lead. I have to be more vulnerable, more open, more at risk to meet the answer that is not "I don't know", to be ready to learn and ready to create.
The desert monastics struggled with the same fears about not knowing, the emptiness of not having the answer. A story illuminating this struggle has been passed down through the centuries. A number of the monks have gathered to learn from Abba Anthony. Now here we are, learning, which would suggest that we do not know something and we are seeking to know what it is we do not know. Then there's a test.
Do you love tests? I don't. When I learned how to take tests, I was taught to make educated guesses about questions I did not fully know the answer to. I was taught to try to reason out the right answer. "I don't know" was not acceptable on the tests I took, and resulted in no points scored.
Abba Anthony gives this very difficult text from scripture and asks each of those gathered with him what the text means. Every one wrestled the text and, probably sweating it out, hoped they had made the right educated guess. But every one of them was told they did not understand the text.
"I do not know" can be very scary to admit in a world that values the expert but not the experimenter, the learned but not the learning, the created but not the creative. Sometimes we can be more tuned into that world of perfectionism, rather than the reality that what creates so much value in this life and what is changing the world for the better is the experimenter, the learner, the creative starting with not knowing and seeking new solutions to existing troubles, seeking new stories worth living and then embodying them, seeking a way of making hope real in every day.
Once upon a time I sat in a classroom where we had all done very badly on a test. The teacher was angry with us, as though we had not only failed the test, we had failed the teacher. By the time we reached the next test, most of us were shaky scared, throwing up scared, or too sick to take the test. We were sure we would fail. We did not do much better the next time, even though we had, as on the first test, studied very hard. Regardless of what you think about this approach to teaching, so many of us have been taught to be terrified of having no answer. We are taught that no answer is the same as the wrong answer. We could not be further from the truth.
No answer is the beginning of discovering the answers.
When Abba Anthony reached Abba Joseph and asked him to explain the text, Abba Joseph replied, "I do not know." Abba Anthony laughed and clapped his hands and smiled. "Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: 'I do not know.'
What would the world be like if genuinely admitting we do not know was a cause for celebration and encouragement to go find and create the answers? I am learning that the world is actually like this, just as it is also sometimes a place that equates no answer with the wrong answer. No answer is the starting point of seeking and creating the answers.
May we choose the path of wisdom and courage to admit we do not know when we don't, to love the search and the tinkering and the creation of solutions to persistent problems, to celebrate when we reach good answers and to share generously the search, the answer, and the next question.