What We Don’t Know Hurts

Does anybody believe in the old saying that “what I don’t know can’t hurt me”?  The reality is that we are hurt every day by what we do not know and, in turn, we hurt others.  It is both a shattering and humbling revelation when we come to know what we did not know and realise how so many of our decisions and choices were unconsciously made. Scientists have finally accepted that we have an unconscious and they agree that only a small fraction of what we do and say is consciously chosen.  Of course, psychoanalysts have long told us about the presence of the unconscious and its powerful influence on our lives.  But knowledge of the unconscious long precedes Freud and Jung.  The Persian poet Rumi in the 13th century speaks of it when he exclaims:

“Sometimes I forget completely

What companionship is.

Unconscious and insane, I spill sad

energy everywhere.”

Christ, on the cross, forgave those who had crucified him with the understanding “Forgive them for they know not what they do”.

Unless we become conscious of what we do now know we continue to unwittingly and endlessly repeat our flight from personal responsibility; it is only when we know that we become truly responsible.  This has been very evident in the responses of many individual clergy to the sexual abuse revelations and many leaders of banks and other financial institutions and many individual politicians whose actions – or, more accurately – whose not knowing – caused major social and economic upheaval. We believe we are Heads of our personal corporation, but there are other members of the executive committee, several invisible partners who are present and voting all the time, whether we acknowledge their presence or not.

It is always tempting to pull the blanket over our head, to put responsibility on the long finger or wait for another day, thereby successfully avoiding the responsibility of knowing what we do not know.  Indeed, we are quite ingenious at not accepting responsibility for whatever went wrong – within family, marriage, community, workplace, church and government.  We claim bad luck, bad genes and someone else’s fault and thus continue to ignore the demand of consciousness.

The question that lays abegging is: how is it that we shy away from what we most need to know – which is what we don’t know?

The answer is fear.  Fear governs so much of our lives and leads us unconsciously to devise all kinds of defensive strategies to eliminate or at least reduce the threats we encounter to our wellbeing. James Hollis, in his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life spells out the origins of fear when he writes:  “For starters, we must recall that the central, universal message of the world to the child is: ‘I am big and you are not; I am powerful and you are not; now find a way to deal with that’.”  Children do indeed find intelligent ways to do just that, but the survival strategies they create are formed unconsciously, such that by the time they come into young adulthood, they are locked into core defensive relational patterns for self, others and the world and have no consciousness of the fact that what they don’t know hurts self and others.

One of the most common ways fear reveals itself is in our avoidance of personal accountability.  We unconsciously project authority onto parents, teachers, politicians, priests, doctors, bishops, employers, institutions, churches and traditions and, unwittingly, defer what is really true for us.  It is utterly humbling when as adults we are fortunate to discover that to the present moment of conscious realisation we were not free, nor in charge of our lives and that our defensive responses posed such a threat to others.

It is paramount that we do not judge ourselves – such a response only returns us to a defensive posture.  We cannot be blamed for choices we necessarily made as children.  But, as adults, a raising of consciousness provides opportunities to free ourselves of being captive to the lives of others.  Rather than giving away our power we can find authorship of self – a personal authority that enables us to discover what is true for oneself and to live out that truth in the world.  It enables us to be accountable for the consequences of our defensive actions and this is a mature service we bring to our partners, children, friends, jobs, community and country.  As we lift the hurtful and blocking effects of our unconscious defences off others, we create the opportunity for them to come into knowing what they don’t know and free themselves to be whatever or whomever they are meant to be.

This principle of raising consciousness of what we do not know applies equally to political, economic, religious, educational, national and international conflicts.  The more individuals seek to know what they do not know and come to realise that we are, ultimately, our own problems, and, indeed, our own solutions, the more mature our society will become.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist, author, national and international speaker. His book with co-author Helen Ruddle ‘Relationship, Relationship, Relationship, The Heart of a Mature Society’ is relevant to this article.