Saturday, January 09, 2021

To Know or Not to Know; That is the Question

 When I was between five and ten years old, we lived in the hills of southeastern Ohio, near Zanesville. It was beautiful there, with hills, creeks, farms, and huge maple trees.

There were also snakes, particularly black snakes, impossibly long and black. We would see them when we went blackberry picking back on the “North Mountain,” as we called it, behind our house. Mom once saw one slide across her path, and, for an alarming length of time, both ends were hidden in the bushes on each side, and there was only this black rope, sliding across.

My parents loved to go to auction sales, milling with crowds of country people and buying tools or cheap furniture.

One day Mom and I went to a sale not far away. I have no memory of how we got there, or if anyone else in the family was along--probably my sisters, though. I do recall the usual farm-sale atmosphere, with piled household items and people milling everywhere. Englisch people, of course, that exotic species, with laughing, confident girls my age, with their long ponytails tied with the thick, colorful yarn bows that were in style then.

A Brady Bunch character, I think.

I also recall a two-story white farmhouse with a porch.

I stood beside Mom in the yard, watching the auctioneer, who was standing in front of the porch. Suddenly, people started murmuring and pointing. The auctioneer turned and looked behind him. From the corner of the porch roof a black snake was emerging. It kept coming, slowly, down down down the post as we all watched, mesmerized.

A few men approached it, looking ready for action. One of them stepped up close, reached out, and grabbed the snake right behind the head. Instantly, it wrapped tight around his wrist.

A collective gasp. I’m sure Mom and I were popeyed.

The man hurried out to the road. We saw him flick his wrist, several times over, cracking the snake like a whip. The head hit the pavement and soon that very long and very black snake was dead.

The man walked back into the crowd, the hero of the day.

I wondered about the people in that house, and what it was like.

If you had a snake living in the attic of your porch, would you want to know?

If you didn’t know, you could go blithely on your way, innocent and carefree.

Knowing would bring a heavy weight, especially if you were a child like me, terrified of snakes but powerless to do anything about a large snake hidden in the ceiling of the porch.

Maybe it would be better to not know. But then, what if you were reading on the porch and suddenly it came sliding down a post?

I still ask myself that question, quite often, about other information: would I rather know, or not?

Before Paul had surgery on his neck last week, I looked up articles and videos about the procedure. How, I wondered, do they access the vertebrae from the front of the neck?

I found out.

They separate muscles, avoid the aorta, and clamp all the essential tubes off to one side. They poke in a knitting needle sort of instrument and take an x-ray to make sure they’re at the right spot. Then they cut precisely, ease out what doesn’t belong there, ease in replacement parts, and affix little metal plates with screws.

Think of it, screws into bone.

Knowing is reassuring, until it isn’t.

When I was a little Amish girl, we communicated in person or by letters that took hours to write and days to arrive.

When I began to write, publishing was an unbelievably laborious process of typing up manuscripts, mailing them out, and hoping for publication in a magazine.

Social media and the internet brought instant communication and easy, free, self-directed, widely-accessible publication.

You probably have to be my age or older to truly appreciate both of those.

Unfortunately, this helpful technology also brought a flood of information, much of it about people, and a lot that I don’t really want to know. All I want to see is a tidy white farmhouse. I don’t want to know about the snake in the porch roof.

The worst example, recently, is Ravi Zacharias’s sins, coming to light after he died. Wouldn’t I be happier if I hadn't heard? I could read his books and watch his old videos explaining deep truth in a precise but humble voice. I wouldn’t have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, or the nausea of knowing.

I would like to think that the world is a peaceful, predictable place where Agnes is still with her husband, Jeffrey from a long-ago church is still a non-violent Anabaptist, and Marilyn still believes the earth is round like I taught her in fourth grade.*

And yet, I know otherwise, because they have freely informed all of us on social media.

Of course, some information still comes as it always has, even in the Amish days, directly from other people in words that replace your happy ignorance with harsh truth.

I want people to be as they appear. I would like “Harold” to be the solid, upstanding citizen he seems to be, not the angry, troubled person his wife describes in a private heart-to-heart over tea. It pains me to know that Katie, the funny teenager, is shockingly disrespectful and risk-taking. I want that well-known, articulate Mennonite preacher to be all that he says he is, and not the abuser of women and power as divulged in stories that filter into my inbox.*

In these cases, I carry the weight of knowing because it’s the right thing to do. Listening transfers some of the weight from them to me. That’s what we fellow believers and friends are here for.

But I think: what if I didn’t know? Wouldn’t that be better?

And yet, what if I were sleeping peacefully in a farmhouse and a black snake was crawling slowly in the porch attic only two feet away? Surely awareness is a good thing.

What do you think? Is it better to know or to be ignorant? And how do you make peace with knowing the complicated truth about someone who is not what they appear to be?

*All composite examples, of course.


  1. I have no answers. The burden is heavy. That's why we lay it at the foot of the Cross.

  2. I hope people take it to the Lord first and follow His guidance about sharing with others. BTW, the pic is Cindy Brady, in case you want to know.

  3. For a number of years I had a black snake in my attic and didn’t know it. I didn’t know why I didn’t have mice turds in my attic, like I did the first year I lived my my little house in the woods of Tennessee. But then the time came when one of my friends saw this long black snake crawl up the side of my house and disappear through a little hole under the rafters.

  4. Oh, Dorcas. I wish I knew. It seems some of us have a sign on our foreheads - ‘come tell me all your terrible things’, and I’m not saying that from a place of mysterious ‘I-get-to-know-things-you-don’t’.
    It’s not really very nice sometimes. Often I wish I hadn’t known......then I am spared potential awfulness because of knowing and I’m very grateful I did’s the brokenness of this world that shakes me when I see how truly shattered and self-destructing we all are, and how desperately we ALL need Jesus!!

  5. I loathe snakes!

    And when I read the news about Ravi Zacharias, I thought WHO ELSE. And then I thought, is everyone hiding a sin and some of them are just more socially unacceptable than others??

    When I was a brand-new teacher, I had a mentoring teacher who taught me so much through his example, kindness, humor, and teaching talents. He was an amazing gift to me and to the school. A few years after I left that school, he was discovered to be sexually abusing students and was sentenced to prison. I still do not really know how to reconcile the gifts I received from this man with the vileness he perpetrated on children. I do not know. I know that no one is beyond the love and grace of Jesus, but I still do not know how to think other than that. And I do really believe the truth will set us free.

    1. You explained here EXACTLY the dilemma of knowing. As you said, how do you reconcile the gifts you received from someone and what they did in secret? It really puts you in a weird place, mentally.

  6. I think we should know... especially to have our eyes open and protect children. And, "we who are spiritual" should restore the one caught in sin gently, considering ourselves, lest we also be tempted... although sometimes the "we" is the church, not us personally. (From Galatians 6:1.) Also, I Timothy 5:24, Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment;and some men they follow after." We need to see and fear that but for the grace of God, we too could fall into sin. Accountability and transparency are good!

  7. When it comes to "dirty laundry" I'd rather not know. Otherwise 100% yes. When I do listen, keeping in mind that there are at least 2-3 or more sides to the same story helps. In general, conservative Christians tend to be so naive to human evil. And what we hear or read, we believe, without checking into facts first. Yes, it takes time but is so worth it! The result could be the total opposite of what you heard or read. As to peace of mind and heart, rest knowing that records are accurately kept in heaven. He is both merciful and just. ML

  8. I had to think of the man who was big enough and strong enough, and had the hand eye coordination (to say nothing of nerves of steel!), to grab the black snake and dispose of it. Moving decisively to get the right Person involved when we DO know might be the most important step.