Living with Uncertainty: Graduation 2018 Keynote Address

By Nathan Sokol-Margolis

You may know the name - Wislawa Szymborska, she’s a poet, - and when she accepted the Nobel Prize (in ’96) - she said "'I don’t know’ flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. "

I want to repeat a critical phrase here: "'I don’t know' flies on mighty wings." Szymborksa was born in Poland in 1923, survived World War II, as a railroad laborer, and lived through the socialist People’s Republic of Poland.  She recently died – 2012. Writing throughout her life, in all of these varied environments, she recognized that not knowing was a subversive act. Not knowing was an act that contradicted or reversed the values and principles of a system. Not knowing could transform an established social order. This makes ‘Knowing’ the realm of dictators, fanatics, and demagogues; they present themselves  - as holders of knowledge. For Szymborksa, power and its corruptions rested on one side having the corner on truth and denying anything that questioned it. 

Making the idea of “I don’t know” a core part of one’s life is challenging. Not knowing does not satisfy our egos. It feels good to have the answers. In fact, through much of my life, not having an answer to a question didn’t seem like an option. Regardless of my state of knowledge, I frequently had an opinion and thought that you should be interested in knowing it. In high school, my friends even dubbed it “Nathan-ing.” verb: to offer an opinion confidently, sounding as if you know what you’re talking about, despite the fact that might not. They joked and we laughed, but this phenomenon plagued me for much of my life and can still occur. I find myself doing it at the dinner table with my family, when my brothers and I argue over real estate renovations. I still do it with my friends, when we discuss filmmaking and whether or not a director is making the right choices. More dangerously, it can rear its head in the classroom. A student might ask, “How does Kant’s categorical imperative apply to euthanasia?” and I answer the question but how much do any of us really understand the implications of Kant’s categorical imperative?

But, I’m just a teacher and an administrator at a small school here in JP, however, this widespread phenomenon poses a grave danger when it’s employed by those who have real authority and power in our broadest culture.  

Nicholas Carr, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist text The Shallows, has written about how in our culture of instant media, as issues arise personalities are forced to pass judgement and voice conclusions with little time to collect evidence or express the nuance that subjects deserve. There’s no time for a politician to say “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.” In this climate, positions are reduced to talking points that lack intellectual rigor and partnered with our egos, this phenomenon creates a dangerously polarized political and social climate.

Luckily, you all are Meridianites.

As graduates today, you’ve struggled with many moments of “I don’t know” when it comes to completing projects. “What medium should I work in for this creative expression project?” “How can I say what I want to say in this other language?” “How am I supposed to write a paper about math?!” And in not being able to answer a question, you’ve learned the lesson that in the quest, and sometimes, in failure, answers are often found. This willingness to admit I don’t know, to explore the unknown, this comfort with the temporary state of “I don’t know” is key to life as a Meridian student. I’ve observed that many of you even find your greatest fulfillment and joy when you acknowledge you don’t know something, and dare to explore the myriad of answers available, building and deepening your understanding of yourself and your place in this world.

I’m grateful for your attitudes - because the world today is an uncertain place and needs people who are comfortable with the realm of “I don’t know.” In the past seven years, you’ve seen the economy rocked by wealth inequalities, which challenge our devotion to finance and capitalism. You’ve seen the rise of Black Lives Matter, which drew back the veil of racism that many of us wrap ourselves in. You’ve watched the #metoo movement come forward and force us all to confront the trade-offs we have so willingly made to be entertained. And perhaps most similarly to our Polish poet, Szymborska, you’ve seen a wave of nationalism sweep politics and the rise of leaders across the world who not only deny scientific facts such as climate change, but also refuse moral truths, such as basic human principles of equity.

These struggles can make it difficult to get out of bed, let alone, take action.

But we can look to another poet, Rebecca Solnit, for advice. In her 2003 book Hope in the Dark, she writes: “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world...It is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.” 

When we’re presented with today’s headlines, the dismal certainty of an upcoming apocalypse, is the easier path to travel. We all claim to “know” where our problems are going to lead us. We mumble that our actions don’t matter since the sheer quantity of problems seems to be insurmountable.  

However, this is not the route of resistance, or a subversive act, perhaps more important to recognize: this dismal certainty is not the path of history. History has proven that it does not move in a predictable pattern, but edges unevenly across landscapes of pain and joy. To explore these landscapes with curiosity – to seek to understand - is the critical subversive act. 

When you leave here, and find yourselves not knowing the answers to all of the questions you encounter - bask in this unknown - allow yourselves to admit that you don't know. Ask questions that you don’t have answers to and discuss your questions with those around you. Danielle Allen, in her 2014 book Our Declaration, gives us the grandest vision of why our questions, and the conversations they inspire, matter. She writes that: "this country was born in talk."

So, when you’re looking for a way to survive, when you’re searching for a better world, when you want to consider yourself a member of the resistance - sit down with another person, ask a question that you don’t have the answer to and live in the curiosity that it inspires. Discuss and then talk some more: it is here that innovation, change, and revelation exist.