Tuesday, November 23, 2021

For You, If You Don't Know Everything


This is for the person who doesn’t know for sure.

It's for you if you’re timid, uncertain, and aware of all sides of every issue.

If you’re not very confident.

If you preface your statements with disclaimers:
 “I think.”
“I can’t say for sure, but.”
“In my experience.”
“It would seem to me.”
“I could be wrong.”
“It depends.”

If you know how much you don’t know, and it’s a lot.

This is for you.

The world is full of people who know. They are big, noisy, and sure, speaking with utter conviction, full as a bobbing helium balloon with serene confidence.

This is not for them.

They make declarative statements. “This is how it is." "This is what it means.” “Well, duh. It’s so obvious. Any idiot can see this.”

They never question themselves, qualify their statements, or admit to not knowing everything. They never say, "I could be wrong." Because they just know all the things.

Very early on, when you were learning how the world worked, you found that the ones who knew everything got to define how things were. Whatever they said about life, about the world, about God, about you—all of it was true. They said it like it was so obvious. Everybody knows this. So you said, “Oh. Ok then.”

They were bigger and older, confident and powerful. If they said you were ugly, stupid, and bad, you knew deep in your soul that you were all those things and were always doomed to be.  So you acted as though these things were all real, and in some ways made them all come true. So they were right, after all. See? Of course they knew.

If they said it was your fault that something happened to you, then it was. They knew. It seemed vaguely confusing and certainly out of your control, but that’s what they said, so it had to be so.

If they said matter-of-factly that the pig pellets in the granary were good to eat, then they were, and you munched them when you did chores. If they said God would send you to hell for a single mistake, you faced the world with dread and constant anxiety, closed to any interpretation of Scripture that could ease your mind.

They told you what to do so often that you never learned to listen to yourself, to know what you wanted, to trust what your senses were telling you. You didn’t know how to say no, or that it was even an option.

If you tried to inject an opinion or relevant information, you were shot down so fast that you withdrew even more.

So you did what you were told but grew more and more resentful. You kept your own counsel, watched, listened, and wondered about things, because sometimes, no matter how much the confident people said, you felt deep down that just maybe it wasn’t actually so. 

I feel like I’ve always been one of the timid, easily swayed by stronger voices, voicing the opinion of the last person I talked to.

I suppose that was part of Paul’s attractiveness: that nonchalant confidence that could make a classroom of children salute and click their heels. It felt like safety and security.

Thankfully Paul was a good-hearted person, because his confidence gave him a lot of power over me that could have been abused by a less ethical man. He valued my perspective.

Paul’s whole family seemed to know all the things and state them, unqualified and declaratively.

“What’s the use of having an opinion if you don’t state it emphatically?” Rosie exclaimed one time.

One time at a family dinner, an out-of-town guest was asking me about publishing books. I said I had learned you don’t just write a letter to a publisher and ask them if they’ll buy your book.

“Yeah,” interjected a family member with serene confidence and a bit of scorn, like they were a managing editor at Harvest House, “You have to send a manuscript.”

“No,” I said with a touch of annoyance, “You need a cover letter, a synopsis, and three sample chapters.”

Can you imagine, tossing off such speculation without a shred of embarrassment if you’ve never published a word in your life?

You and I would never do that, but the confident people do it all the time.

[Also, just to be clear, today you need an agent and a very detailed proposal if you want to be published.]

Another time some cousins were talking about people who try to discredit faith in God. “And then there’s the Theory of Relativity,” one of them said, full of loud contempt. “They think everything is relative, and there’s no absolute truth.”

One of the quieter cousins, who had studied far more about Einstein’s work, tried to insert a “Well, actually….” into the conversation, but it didn’t penetrate very far.

That is how it works.

It didn’t take too long until I discovered something alarming. My husband knew lots of things, but sometimes he would say things as though they were absolute fact, and he actually didn’t have a clue. Like why some Amish allow bikes and others don’t, for instance. He would make “factual” statements without the slightest qualm, and I would look at him in confusion and alarm. He didn’t know what he was talking about! He was just guessing! I knew way more than he did.  And yet he tossed out these statements like he had a degree on the subject.

I learned to ask, “Wait. Do you actually know or are you just guessing?”

He’d tell me which it was, but he saw no need to be embarrassed at being called out. To his credit, he didn’t mind if someone disagreed with him. Most of the confident people on Facebook are not like this, which you might already know.

[Later: I had Paul read this page about himself to make sure it was ok, as I do. He said, “Hey, if everybody’s just guessing, why wouldn’t you state your guesses confidently?!” LOL. But how was I supposed to know you were all just guessing?!]

In all my almost-60 years of dealing with people who talk like they know all the things, the past couple of years have been the worst. Even living among Smuckers for over 35 years didn't prepare me. This was different and much more hostile.

Suddenly, everyone but you and I knew everything about politics, Covid, climate change, forest fires, and the Middle East. They knew about racism and women’s roles and riots. They knew about raising children, marriage, the Constitution, and who was guilty or innocent in every well-publicized hearing.

If you ventured online, you saw their emphatic statements. They knew with utter confidence that, for instance, Covid was a well-coordinated plan by the government to control us all, and masks were of the Devil.

There you were, nervous about Covid but simply not knowing much about it. Surely, you thought, they must be interning at the Illuminati, or they have a press pass to the Wuhan Virus Institute, if they know so much. But no, that poster was a truck driver from Missouri and the other was your cousin from Virginia who always misspells words.

How were they so sure? It was perplexing.

In your heart, you thought masks made sense if there was a respiratory disease going around. After all, you still remembered that little rhyme from kindergarten:

When I sneeze
I cover my nose
And into my hanky
My ACHOO goes.

But these people were so unbelievably sure of themselves that you doubted your own mind.

It’s hard to be the person who wonders, who isn’t sure, and who knows that you don’t know lots of things. And yet, you have a great gift: you are honest about uncertainty.

Because even the most self-assured people know only a tiny fraction of the vast world of knowledge, and they have only the tiny illusion of control that any of us have over our own lives.

I don’t know if my words carry any weight with you, but I am here to give you my permission to ignore the confident people. To disagree, to disregard, and to be very suspicious of what they say. I’m giving you a hall pass, a permission slip, a stamp in your passport: you’re allowed to say no to the noisy people who know all the things.

Your mind is as good as theirs, you have the same Holy Spirit, and your conclusions are just as valid--assuming, of course, a similar level of training and actual expertise.

Just so you know.

Most of those emphatic, confident people don’t actually know any more than you do. They are trying to make their way forward in a highly volatile world, and this is what works for them.

If their words resonate with you, that’s fine. Follow them on Instagram and learn from them.

But you can also listen to the ones who are all about nuance, who state exactly what they can prove and what they can’t, who clearly explain both sides of an issue and clarify why they choose the side they’re on. Listen to the ones who will tell you their qualifications and expertise but also their limits. “I’m a curious mom, not a nurse.”  “I’m a pastor, not a psychiatrist.” 

This is often a revelation to us little sisters, shy introverts, and abuse survivors: the confident people don’t get to decide. Things aren’t so just because they say so. 

When I wrote, a few paragraphs up, about the confident Smuckers, I realized I’m still kind of resentful. Even recognizing my resentment is a big step for me, because it’s been a long process, listening to my own thoughts and feelings. 

If you examine what’s happening inside, you can figure out what’s behind it.

I feel resentful when I feel coerced and powerless. In some ways, I'm still six years old, thinking that the self-assured people get to shape and define my reality, and I don’t want their words to be true.

See, when I spell it out like that, I can move forward. Of course it’s not true just because they say it is. They’re not God. Some of them just think they are.

You and I are not powerless, even if we’re outshouted. I don’t need to be resentful, and neither do you. The noisy blustering folks are allowed to say what they want, in the manner they want. It’s a free country.

But we don’t need to take them seriously! They don’t get to decide all the truth and verity of the world! That was all an illusion from your childhood, that the big brothers got to say how the world worked and whether or not you were pretty.

Your five senses are as valid as theirs. You are allowed to be discerning. You can listen to that little voice inside. You can choose who you will listen to and who you will disregard. You can walk away, unfollow, ignore, or laugh.

You are free to say, in your mind or out loud, “That doesn’t make sense.” “That doesn’t work for me.” “I disagree.” “That’s what they think, but that isn’t the final truth about the universe.”

I think the group that’s the most vulnerable to pressure of every kind is young wives and moms who are desperate to get it right, and I seem to hear from them more than any other demographic.

From Instagram to the church nursery, all the loud voices tell them what to feed their children, which cleaning products to buy, how to discipline children, and how to be the perfect wife to an imperfect husband.

It’s hard when you are a young mom, and you simply don’t know. They sound so sure, but it’s not working for you, and you’re afraid to say so out loud.

It’s amazing how many emphatic voices on social media are currently influencing the Mennonite world. Recently a few people wrote to me wanting my opinion about a woman who writes about marriage and motherhood online. So I looked her up. The first thing that struck me was all the declarative unqualified statements.

This is how far I’ve come: I could read those emphatic posts on overcoming past hurts and improving your marriage, and I could say, “This isn’t where I’m at,” without feeling like she got to define how things were, just because she was confident. Thus, I didn’t need to feel resentful. She reminded me of a long list of high-energy and very confident women who have written for Christian wives and moms in the past, like Cheryl Lindsay from Gentle Spirit magazine, Debi Pearl, Mary Pride, and the Above Rubies ladies.

I used to feel very intimidated and unspiritual when I read these women’s writings. After Cheryl Lindsay’s life and ministry imploded, partially due to Mary Pride's shockingly unethical maneuvering, I gave myself a lot more permission to disregard writings that made me uneasy.

Again, it’s a free country, and women are allowed to write what they want. If you like to read their writings, then great.

But, online and in person, you are allowed to disagree, to say no, to move on. If you think the latest product is silly, or you want it but can’t afford it, you can say “No” without shame or apology. If the discipline method seems overly indulgent or cruel, you can study your child and figure out what they need, rather than listening to all the conflicting voices around you. If the writer that everyone else follows makes you feel weird and queasy, you don’t need to follow them. 

To do this, you need to listen hard, not to all the clamoring voices around, but to the Holy Spirit within, to what your eyes and ears are saying, to your gut instincts signaling danger. You need to notice patterns in your life, and what works and what doesn’t. You need to listen to your husband’s perspective, not because he gets to define reality, but because you are a team, your choices affect each other, and his support can give you courage to stand alone.

The end of the story isn’t written yet. Many of the emphatic voices will be proved wrong, but don’t wait around for them to admit it, because they won’t. Meanwhile, it’s ok to do the best you can with the information you have. It’s fine to withhold comment until it all plays out.

It’s healthy to admit uncertainty.

You are not the only timid person out there. There are many of us, here in the shadows, wondering about things but not knowing for sure.

Sometimes we find each other, and that is a delightful meeting of kindred spirits. 

Take courage. You’ll be amazed at how things play out while you wait, your eyes and ears open, watching and listening.


37 comments:

  1. Thankyou! I appreciate your words!

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  2. Wow! So much truth here. Thank you for being one of the voices even though you think you aren't. So glad you write. Pat

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  3. I wish we could get together and talk comfortably about our uncertainties. It would be such a soothing break from all the noise around me.

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    1. I would enjoy that very much.
      I wish you grace and peace.

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  4. I believe God led you to write this for my benefit. Right now I am going through breast cancer and need a second surgery. The "voices" insist I have a mastectomy, but that is not what I want. It's almost like at the lowest point in my life people that should be supporting me are bullying me instead. Anyway, my surgeon, husband and I are going with the less invasive procedure and radiation. Thank you for this essay. It made a difference knowing I am not alone.

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    1. This blessed me. Good for you, listening to your husband, your surgeon, and yourself.

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  5. Michele Gregory11/23/2021 1:22 PM

    This is just AWESOME!! 👏

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  6. My dad would say, after stating why someone's opinion or way of doing things was wrong.
    "Thing is, he's not really very bright. He wouldn't understand if you explain it."

    This seems like the epitome of arrogance, but the effect is good. I don't bother arguing with people who bring bad information to the table, if they could understand, they would. This annoys Facebook Scientists and Theologians who then carry both sides of the argument easily, as they aren't encumbered with facts

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    1. "If they could understand, they would."
      Wow. Very interesting.

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  7. This is quite possibly the most comforting and reassuring thing I’ve read in months. Thank you.

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  8. Yes! Why is it that our critical thinking skills are seemingly “phoose! Gone w the wind”?! I am amazed at what people take as fact and firmly believe but there is no proof for. I, too, have been on a journey of learning to how and when to calmly try to bring reason into a conversation or relationship-while all the while trying to keep my own heart in a place of humility and rest in Christ.

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    1. Bless you. I think many of us are trying to find that balance.

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  9. I would love to sit down with you with a cup of tea. I made the mistake of joining Instagram last year out of boredom since our state was shutdown. I didn't know it was owned by Facebook which I don't have because I wanted to avoid the know it alls. Little did I know the "I Know Better Than You" people would be there too.

    I've learned in the year that I've been on IG you just can't argue with people who are 100% wrong but they won't hear you so I just keep quiet. Because after all,I don't know anything.

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    1. It's hard, isn't it. I wish you a cup of tea with someone who understands.

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  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  11. Your husband and In-laws sound just like mine! If everyone just listened to them the world's problems would be solved!

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  12. As always Dorcas, your thoughts echo my own, and affirm.what God is speaking to my heart. I appreciate you so much!

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    1. Thank you, Holly. This warms my heart.

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  13. I love your perspective, Dorcas! When I was a confused new mom, I came across a phrase that helped me SO much when I saw what other moms were doing: Good for her, not for me.

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  14. Sheryl Zeiset11/26/2021 5:08 PM

    From a timid one who has withheld comment to all the loud voices, thank you, thank you. It is validating...someone actually gets me?

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    1. Hugs from me. Maybe we can give each other courage.

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  15. Rosemary Eberly-Lebold11/26/2021 5:27 PM

    Your words provided space for me to breath deeply and release pressures from within and without. Thank you for voicing permission to those of us who are uncertain to trust our feelings, our senses, our wisdom-the Holy Spirit within.

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    1. I am so glad to hear that you could take a deep breath. I wish you wisdom and peace.

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  16. Id be interested if you can elaborate on the confident Smuckers?

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    1. Hmmm.
      Well, they are endlessly entertaining, I'll say that. And good-hearted, in that they would never tell you you're stupid, and they're not vindictive or manipulative.
      But they just sound so utterly sure of themselves in ways I could never be in a thousand years.

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  17. Wow! So well written! Thank you! I’ve been on both sides but normally when coming across as the confident, self assured one, it was actually cover up and out of a place of insecurity and a need to prove something. Thanks for speaking words of life and giving me the permission and courage to tune perspectives I don’t agree with. People with deep spiritual insight, ministers and authority figures are the hardest for me to have the courage to disagree with. Internally or verbally.

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