Kavi was relieved to be back at sea. After leaving the people who worship the God Who Dwells in the Mountain, he found that he’d learned a lot from his first seafaring voyage. He was beginning to notice that the stars were in exactly the same place every night, and that if he only pointed himself towards a recognizable group of stars, he could be certain that he was heading in a constant direction. He felt sure that he would not be at sea so long this time.
He was right. After a week, he came upon another island. When he landed, he found himself face to face with people who looked much different than he did. They were much taller, with darker skin and strange looking eyes. But they were friendly, and invited Kavi to stay and learn from them.
At dinner, the Island Sage came to visit him. He asked many questions — so many that Kavi began to grow weary. Where was he from? Where had he been? What were the people from the last island like? What did they do? What did he do while he was there? What did they say about the mountain of fire? It seemed that he had told his story twenty times before the Sage bowed deeply and said, “Thank you for sharing your experiences with me.” Quietly, he slipped away.
For a month, Kavi stayed with the Sage’s people. They seemed to know many things. They made small devices called “compasses” that made navigating at sea much easier. They knew how to preserve food so that it would last months instead of weeks. They had beautiful clothes with patterns and colors he’d never seen or even imagined.
After his visit was over, Kavi sat down with the Sage and said, “I have a question for you. When I was with the Elders, they told me that they were very wise and that there was a god who lives in the fire mountain. They warned me that if I did not stay with them, I would be punished severely on an invisible island. Do you know of this god or the magical island?”
The Sage looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “I have heard of the God Who Dwells in the Mountain, and of the people who worship him. What do you want to know?”
“Sage, is there a God in the mountain? Is there an island of punishment?”
“I do not know, Kavi. I have never seen the island. How could I if it is invisible? I have never seen the god, either.”
“But you seem so much wiser than those people, Sage. Your clothes are more beautiful, your food better preserved, and you have given me an incomparable gift with this compass. Does it not burn your heart to not know, when you know so many things already?”
The Sage nodded serenely, and his voice lowered to almost a whisper. “Kavi, I will give you one more gift before you leave us. I will tell you the secret of my people’s success. We have learned that ignorance is often the greatest wisdom of all.”
Kavi looked perplexed. The Sage continued. “When humans are young, they are like sponges. They want to absorb knowledge and fill every empty place with an answer. But when a sponge is full, it no longer absorbs water. Likewise, when a mind has all the answers, it has no more room to learn, even if some of the answers are wrong. We must be careful to answer questions only when they are ready to be answered.”
“The Elders at the island you visited believe in a God in the mountain. But they have never seen it, and they have never seen the island of punishment. They have answered questions in their own way, but if they have enough knowledge to be ready to answer, I cannot say.”
Kavi nodded slowly. “I think I understand, Sage. You are saying that it is wise for me to be ignorant rather than to appear wise without knowledge. I thank you for your kindness. I will leave in the morning to continue my quest.”
It took me many years to learn to say, “I don’t know.” Those three words can be very scary. I have always loved knowing things. When I was a young child, I devoured encyclopedias and books about nature or outer space. I could name thirty-odd species of shark by sight at the age of seven. By twelve I could recognize the geometric structure of over a hundred crystals. I knew every snake in the southeastern field guide. I was a sponge for knowledge.
It’s easy to understand why it was difficult for me to learn “I don’t know.” Ignorance became equated with weakness in my mind. My identity became intertwined with what I knew. This is what I know. It is me. If there is something I don’t know, it is equivalent to a character deficiency.
When I left Christianity, I left behind a lot of answers. As a young teenager, I read nearly every well known apologist on the planet. When internet bulletin boards became popular, I found myself defending my Christianity with as much fervor as any preacher or apologist. And frankly, I was pretty good at it.
So it seemed, anyway. After leaving, I realized that I had not so much won arguments as bored my interlocutors into leaving or browbeaten them into insincere submission.
On my own personal quest for real knowledge, I discovered something disturbing and fascinating — Scientists delighted in unanswered questions! Rather than fumble over their ignorance, they told me in great detail just how much they had to learn, and what it would take for this or that hypothesis to be accepted as a working model.
I wish my journey had been as simple as Kavi’s. Kavi has made two visits and learned two valuable lessons:
- Fear that threatens becoming is meant to be overcome.
- Patient ignorance is the path to real knowledge. “I don’t know” is the beginning of a quest, not the admission of a failing.
How much more would I know today if I had followed these two mantras for my entire life? How much could any of us do if we lived them sincerely?
There is a hidden lesson in the actions of the Sage. When a new source of knowledge appeared on the island, the Sage’s first task was to ask him as many questions as he could. Even though the Sage was the wisest man in the village, he realized that questions precede answers. We learn more from listening than from talking. Uncertainty is more powerful than certainty.