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COLUMN: You don't know what you don't know

‘Until we open our hearts, our minds, and our opportunities we don’t know what we don’t know,’ says columnist

“How do you know you don’t like it? You haven’t even tasted it yet!”

What parent hasn't said this to an opposing five-year-old before? We make up our minds so quickly when faced with the unknown and yet, we don’t know what we don’t know. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. This is true of our personal growth. When we are challenged with something different or changing, we are quick to dig in our heels and rebel like the five-year-old. But what happens when change is upon us unknowingly and we cannot go back?

Many of you will remember the musical tale of Eliza Doolittle, a flower selling street vendor who was plucked from her poverty and reformed. The famous, ‘enry ‘iggins, as he was known, had a frivolous bet with his mate that he could turn any woman into a “lady” with time and effort. The Cinderella story slightly altered from the ‘andsome prince and forest animals to a woman given an interesting opportunity. The music reflected her story and as she changed, society thought she was better off. What an opportunity to be refined and trained to live among the upper-class society of the era, yet as she walked among those she once knew, to them she was the unknown.

I am a huge fan of the show Downton Abbey. I can watch it over, and over, again. If it were a book, it would have weathered and dirty pages from coffee spills and finger marks. It would be ear marked and fanned open from so many page turners.

Like The Sound of Music and Anne of Green Gables, I find comfort in the familiar. All these shows represent coming to the age of learning and realizing what we never knew was possible. I grew up on Anne of Green Gables and always felt kindred to her. She was my icon for finding love in unusual places.

Eliza Doolittle learned about upper class society norms and accepted behaviours. Downton Abbey shows us the separation between upstairs and downstairs in the Abbey and what happens when a chauffeur dares to cross the line. Maria learns what it means to know human love alongside her love for God and Anne of Green Gables is given a gift of belonging, knowing she is worthy with red hair, temper, and perceived flighty ways. All these characters teach us what it is to live in ignorance and grow into something more.

Every January I look out at the snow, the lengthening days and wonder, ‘What can I learn this year? How can I improve and grow? What is out there I don’t know yet?'

We never know what we don’t know! I remember learning this in the first course of my undergrad in 2007. A wonderful teacher and subsequent spiritual director, Fred, sat on the desk at the front of the room and smiled out at the class. He had the class list and my name was recorded as “Cynthia” my birth and legal name. I had been “Cindy” for 47 years. That day I let “Cynthia” stand and was known from that point on as Cynthia. Today 15 years later, only family and a few close friends still call me “Cindy”. I was Eliza Doolittle in a different way.

Fred stepped up to the board and drew a circle. He told us the circle represented our whole mind. He then put a dot in the middle and drew lines out to the circle’s edge. The lines were about half an inch apart. He explained how that sliver represented what we know we know. We know we have parents, siblings, and that we can drive a car. We know we are embarking on a journey to gain a degree in university, and we know we dislike Brussels sprouts. We know we are cold when we go outside without a coat, and we know when we smile at a baby there is likelihood the baby will smile back.

Then he drew a line beside the first, again taking up about a half inch of the circumference, and told us this area represented what we know we don’t know. He suggested we don’t know how to perform brain surgery, and further suggested most people know they don’t know how to finish a Rubik’s Cube. He suggested we don’t know why some can touch their nose with the tip of their tongue. We don’t know how to fly a spaceship or solve a complicated math problem. We know what we don’t know.

The rest he said represents that which we don’t know that we don’t know.

What did he mean by this? He meant until we try something new, like the child with the new food on their plate, we don’t know whether we will like it or not. Once we sample something we learn whether we like it or not. We learn whether it is a valued learning and whether we want to adopt it into our lives. Until we open our hearts, our minds, and our opportunities we don’t know what we don’t know!

After the ball, Eliza Doolittle was set free with a whole set of new clothes, a new way of speaking and a taste of a different life. While the movie ends with an air of ambiguity, she now has choices. The writers left the ending up to the viewer to decide her future with Henry Higgins. She stood her ground with her new learnings and came to her own decisions based on what she now knew. The journey was hard as she learned and struggled with her new life.

Going from what we know to what we don’t know yet is a process. The other learning is we can never go back to that place of unknowing, or to the before where we did not know what we now know.

The bell cannot be unrung,

The tea cannot be unsteeped,

The sad news cannot be untold,

The death cannot be brought back to life,

The drop cannot be retrieved from the ocean,

Life cannot be unlived.

Once we know what we did not know before, life changes. We choose whether it is changed for good or for naught. We choose how we incorporate the new learning into our lives and how it affects the future. We make the decision just like Eliza, Maria, and Anne to be who we now are with this new understanding.

Who are you?

Cynthia Breadner is a grief specialist and bereavement counsellor, a soul care worker and offers specialized care in Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy with special attention as a cognitive behavioral therapy practitioner and trauma incident resolution facilitator. She volunteers at hospice, works as a LTC chaplain and is a death doula, assisting with end-of-life care for client and family. She is the mother part of the #DanCynAdventures duo and practices fitness, health and wellness. She is available remotely by safe and secure video connections, if you have any questions contact her today!