The tyranny of feigned omniscience and the liberation in admitting, "I don't know."

This is how it can feel to admit you don't know something. 

This is how it can feel to admit you don't know something. 

Those  who know me personally know that one of my weaknesses is being a know-it-all. I like having all the answers, and I struggle to admit when I’m wrong. I think somewhere under this weakness is a strength-- I have an insatiable curiosity and I love to learn-- but the aversion to being or looking ignorant is simply a manifestation of pride that’s plagued me for decades. As a parent, teacher, and leader I have many opportunities to fight the know-it-all demon. I get asked a lot of questions, and it is so tempting to have all the answers. The people around me, especially my wife and family, deal patiently with such an annoying trait!

I’ve recently noticed the same tendency in my young daughter. She’s bright and she likes to learn, but when she’s proven wrong, she’ll say some preposterous things to wriggle around it. She’ll often fight tooth and nail for some trivial thing that is plainly false. She often refuses to believe me or my wife on topics she knows nothing about. If she uses the wrong word for something and you correct her, she jus renames it to what she had said it was. ("Well, I call it cheddar cake," or whatever.) I find myself often saying, “Gracie, it’s okay to be wrong,” or, “It’s okay not to know something.” I want so much for her to be free from the burden of believing she has to know everything and always be right.

You see, I’ve learned two powerful truths while fighting this weakness. First is what I call "the tyranny of feigned omniscience." I do not (and presumably into the eternities will not) know everything. Thus, acting like I do results in a special sort of slavery to pretense. Keeping up the appearance that you know everything and have all the answers becomes a heavy (and impossible) burden to bear. On the other hand, I’ve also learned the liberation in admitting when I don't know something. To simply say, “I don’t know” brings a surprising dose of peace and joy!

Especially in response to doctrinal questions, “I don’t know” can be one of the most powerful answers of all. There are many things we don’t know. Here are a few classic examples of unanswerable questions I often hear from the youth:

  • Why is coffee against the word of wisdom?
  • How did God create the earth?
  • Was Jesus married?
  • Will the Holy Ghost ever get a body?
  • What if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit?
  • What’s the deal with the dinosaurs?

I don’t think it’s wrong to ask or ponder questions like these. Questions should always be welcome. But if we’re in a position of authority, whether as a parent, teacher, or leader, or when we're sharing the gospel, there's safety in admitting we don't know. Whenever we speculate or teach as truth something that has not been officially revealed, we are guilty of what Nephi called setting “themselves up for a light unto the world” (2 Nephi 26:29). We become the source of knowledge and information rather than the word of God. And we may be wrong.

Every time we admit our ignorance, we reinforce the truth that God knows all and that we simply don’t. (See Isaiah 55:8-9) Admitting we don’t know is a valuable reminder of our dependance on God. In fact, I’ve noticed that the Holy Ghost witnesses of our ignorance just as much as he does any other truth. On the other hand, he does not back me up when I speculate.

Conjuring answers to personal questions that shape the course of individual lives may be even more risky. Questions such as:

  • Why is this happening to me at this time in my life?
  • Where should i go to college?
  • Why is my family member making such poor decisions?
  • Who should I marry?

While parents and church leaders have stewardship to counsel individuals, I try to be careful about answering these kind of questions. Sometimes "I don't know" is the best response. Adding, “But I know who does!" Isn't a bad idea.

Even God, who does know everything, often lets people figure things out for themselves. (For example, study the story of the Brother of Jared and the Jaredite barges in Ether 2-3)

One of my favorite rules in the Church Handbook is that a bishop should never counsel a ward member to get a divorce. At first I thought this policy was because divorce is wrong. But I've since come to believe that it's really because such a profound decision needs to be made solely by the couple. They have to own it. This is one of many times when the right answer is an honest "I don't know."

I once had a student stay back after class one day. This great young man, who was an exceptional baseball player, told me that he was being scouted by Major League Baseball teams. He was expected to be a high draft pick. Scouts and managers had told him that if he served a mission, he would forfeit the fame, fortune, and satisfaction he had worked so hard to achieve. They said if he left for two years, he'd never play at that high level. He asked me what he should do.

I didn't just blow him off; we talked about the pros and cons of both sides, and we talked about a few things that should be factors in his decision. But I knew in my heart that the answer to his question was not mine to know or mine to give. It was his and his alone. "I don't know, but I know who does."

If like me you find it hard to be wrong or ignorant, may I recommend finding the liberation in admitting, "I don't know." It feel surprisingly great. I believe God intends for us to ultimately learn all there is to know, but he cannot teach us if we already think we know everything. Like Nephi, we have to be able to confess, “I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). Ironically, accepting our ignorance is the first step to overcoming ignorance.