The Illusion of Knowing

As humans, we do everything that we can to know what lies ahead so we can be in charge, and we don’t get caught off guard. We conduct scientific studies to exert control over the present and predict the future. We spend countless hours vetting potential life partners, so we know them better before we commit to them. Those with spiritual leanings visit prophets and fortune tellers just so they can take a sneak peek into their futures even if that involves hemorrhaging their hard-earned money or sacrificing their integrity. The unknown can be terrifying because the possibilities contained within are endless — from the unexpected news of the death of a loved one to the surprise visit of a long-lost close friend. Ironically, it’s also the unknown that keeps life tantalizing, moving, and helps us bear its gruesome side. Even though we could have gone different directions with this idea, for this piece, I will only focus on the degree to which we can know other people.

In one of his books, prolific writer and existential psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, discusses the limits of knowing other people. Yalom is a giant in the psychotherapy world and is no stranger to the practice of giving his clients his undivided attention so he could get to know them, and in return also create a space for them to know themselves better. As we all know, the counseling space is probably one of those few places where people feel liberated to bare their souls without the need to edit themselves. But even after spending many hours of listening and observing, clients continue to surprise us with yet another layer of their “inexhaustible complexity.” Yalom says this happens for at least three reasons. First, there is the challenge of translating our deep, complex, and multilayered thoughts and emotions into words. He argued that we humans first think in images but in order to successfully communicate that to another person, we have to convert them into thoughts and our thoughts into words. Unfortunately, somewhere along that journey, translation errors are bound to occur. I think we all can relate to that. Sometimes all the words in the world are just not enough to describe the vast richness of our inner world. Thank heavens for other creative means of communication that allow us to paint the terrain of our insides without necessarily having to rely on words. Simultaneously, the knower is also not immune from interpretation fallacy. The chances of decoding the speaker’s message as exactly intended is extremely minimal. As Proust eloquently put it, “Each time we see the face…it is our own image of them which we recognize.” The other most obvious reason is that we can only know people to the degree they make themselves known. If they choose not to reveal some parts of themselves, unless we have a clairvoyant nature, it’s almost impossible for us to access that which they didn’t disclose. Even though we try to convince ourselves into believing that with the right tools and techniques, we can eventually come to reasonably know the person we are hiring or marrying, the truth is that there is always a mysterious, surprising, and evolving side to every person.

Coming to this realization can have different effects on different people. The unknown, for some people is freeing, for others, it’s freezing. Being someone who tends to be frozen by the unknown, I never entertained the possibility of experiencing liberation by giving up on the illusion of knowing until very recently. Here is Malcolm Gladwell and I will close with his thoughts:

Your doubts should free you, because once you’ve accepted that, you don’t know what happens next, that you can’t predict or plan everything in your life, then you’re free to act. Because what’s holding you back? What is there to be afraid of if you’ve given up on the illusion of knowing what could possibly happen?

Feven Seifu

Share on your socials!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *