What should a person know?

Consider these words:

know

acknowledge

notice

prognosis

cognizant

acquaintance

They all contain the sound of n+o or its mutated echo. Each suggests the idea of acquisition, the filling of a space in the brain or the body. An encounter with a bit of information, an awareness, or—if we are lucky—with another person.

I love this about words: the ways they multiply and divide, their particular cellularity. Each of these words contains within it the same single cell: the PIE root *gno-.

I think of the Gnostics, the early Christians full of spiritual knowledge. I think of the power of information, what comes with knowing something and the choice to share—or not share—what you know. I think of the difference between knowledge and belief and wonder if it is real.

I think about the things I am compelled to know. Right now: pizza. I want to know dough. To be acquainted with semolinas and yeasts, and the temperature fluctuations of my oven. I want to acknowledge our stories, why we tell them, what they offer. I want to notice what makes a sentence ache to be spoken aloud by its reader.

When I think of the things I do not want to know, the list is longer. I realize that I am an agnostic at heart, against gnosis, attracted to the unknown, the not knowing. Lately, I just want to settle in there, to inhabit that comfortable, ambiguous space. I tell my students that I am more interested in their questions than their answers. Those budding engineers and scientists are confounded by a teacher who says, “Don’t write a thesis. Your job is not to prove something.” Their hard stares suggest they do not like me for this.

Not knowing reminds me of the name of Shelia Heti’s new novel: How Should a Person Be? It’s on my reading list for the title alone. I like a good, hard question.

“To know – and to present what we know as if it’s all we need to know – is deadening, really,” Dinah Lenney says about writing essays in “Against Knowing.” I wonder, is knowing itself sometimes deadening?

I have written before about love and knowing but I still keep coming back to this relationship. I think of myself at twenty, of how desperately I wanted to be known, to be loved. It seemed the one equaled the other.

Lately, I am cognizant of my desire to get married, to start a family. And also of another, stronger desire: to hold tightly to the things that I believe define me. Habits, friendships, the places I go, the things I love. I keep them close. I use them to measure potential partners yet I am reluctant, somehow, to share them. I think of my friends who are growing new humans in their abdomens, of the literal stretching, the very tangible action of accommodating another person. That willingness I once had to be pliant, to merge—I can’t quite summon it.

I feel guilty when I hit on this resistance. How can I ask someone to be knowable when I am not doing the required work in turn? It feels selfish. I wonder who or what I might need to become, what I might be required to sacrifice to fit into another person’s life. I am afraid, I guess. I am mistrustful of love. What I do know is that this kind of fear usually shows. And the impulse to try and cover it up is somehow dishonest.

“Sometimes,” J said once as I peeled the skin from his sunburned back in delicate white flakes, “I wonder if we are too familiar with each other’s bodies.”

I thought of lancing blisters on his feet, cutting stitches from his chin. I though of how, after my bike accident, he’d applied Neosporin to the gashes on my hip and thigh and ankle, saying, “You can still see the bone on this one.” For two weeks he carried me up and down the stairs whenever I had to pee in the middle of the night. If anything, I wanted to see his bones, the ballooning of his lungs, the red world beneath his skin. It bothered me, how much we couldn’t know about each other.

Today I think about the few weeks in which I knew, really knew, I wanted to spend my life with him. And of how quickly that knowledge evaporated.

“All those people who get married,” my sister said to me on the phone, “they must know something.” It reminded me of the article I read in the New York Times which explains that, when it comes to politics, extremists are the happiest:

Correcting for income, education, age, race, family situation and religion, the happiest Americans are those who say they are either “extremely conservative” (48 percent very happy) or “extremely liberal” (35 percent). Everyone else is less happy, with the nadir at dead-center “moderate” (26 percent).

The author presents this research as if it is surprising, but it seems obvious to me: the more you believe you know, the more sure you are of your decisions and your place in the world. Unhappiness tends to lie with rumination, with doubt.

I told my sister that knowing is overrated. I thought about telling her that knowing is deadening. But really, I just want her to be happy. And her happiness cannot possibly be overrated. I can’t think of much I want more. I want her to move through the world with certainty. And knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “What should a person know?

  1. Pingback: “After the rest of it had gone” | Writer In Residence | Lisa Martin-DeMoor

  2. Such an interesting post, reminds of some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. Knowledge seems to me, to be the like the size of space – the minute you think you’ve reached the center of it all, it expands in all directions.

    • Thanks, Arianna. I have always had a hard time with the concept of infinity, but it’s such a seductive (and scary thing) to set your thoughts loose one. Thinking about all we don’t know–or cannot know–does
      feel like exploring space.

  3. This is a theme that is coming up for me a lot these days, although I see that I’m 3 years late to this particular conversation lol. I think that there is certainty in uncertainty. The more that I live the more evidence of the unstable and ambiguous nature of form I see and experience all around me: Things come and go, life comes and goes, thoughts, feelings, ideas, knowledge… everything changes including what we think we know. We tend to strive for certainty because it makes us feel better by allowing for the illusion that what is unstable is actually stable… It won’t change, I won’t change, I am safe. But I find the more room that I make for uncertainty the happier I am, I can trust uncertainty because we live in an uncertain world and there is ample proof of that all around. The trust comes from my own sane recognition of what’s in front of me (and what’s not in front of me), and my acceptance and ability to roll with it. Acknowledging that it is not possible to really know something fully does not diminish what it is but rather honours it more completely.

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