This semester, in one of my most enthralling courses, I am learning the art of questioning. The course is RELI286: The Examined Life: Religion and Philosophy on the Art of Living. True to its title, we spend our class time examining absolutely everything, attempting to reach beyond preconceived notions and to uncover the true meanings of words as weighty and ambiguous as “happiness,” “goodness,” and “the self.”
I have always been an avid believer in asking questions. But this semester, I have even begun to question the questions. I am venturing to ask such terrifying questions as, why ask? Why learn? No word, no idea is impenetrable to this line of questioning.
For those of you to whom this sounds like the clear path to a massive headache, I understand. I do not expect everyone to share my deep love for philosophy. But the skepticism that I have developed as a result of studying philosophy in many ways mimics the doubt that plagues most of us in daily life. Each of us confronts this fear of the unknown in a different place. It might be the midterm to which you just couldn’t remember the answers, a conversation with a peer who holds so much knowledge on a topic about which you know so little, the rows of books in the stacks of Olin or on your course syllabus whose words you have yet to devour. The fear of the unknown strikes us all at some point, but perhaps “fear” is the wrong word for encounters with the unfamiliar. Perhaps the unknown is actually an invigorating opportunity for growth.
Most of us understand this basic concept, especially those of us here at a liberal arts institution, committing ourselves to the expansion of our horizons and the acquiring of new knowledge. We have been taught from youth that there is nothing to fear in the unknown, despite how frightening the abyss may appear.
Yet not fearing the unknown and truly embracing the unknown are two entirely different ideas. Leaping the gap from toleration to excited invitation of the unfamiliar into our lives requires risking something that can often seem so important: our pride. True intellectual curiosity can only manifest itself after we have given up a bit of our confidence—just enough to say, “I don’t understand this.” We become brave enough to ask the question and to accept our true status as “ignorant” about a certain topic, and through this we open ourselves up willingly and completely to the unknown.
The University is an extremely collaborative environment; students genuinely want to learn from one another and to enrich themselves by exploring new, diverse areas of knowledge. But even under the best of circumstances it can still be so easy to shy away from all that causes us uncertainty. When we hear about that upcoming lecture on contemporary poetry or digital media, it can be so instinctive to say to ourselves, “That’s not my thing.” It comes naturally to us to confine ourselves within the areas of our own expertise, or where we feel that this expertise is gradually developing. This is not to say that we all must become well-versed in every topic in existence; rather, we must not let the fear of possibly being the least-informed person in the room prevent us from trying something unfamiliar and leaving just a bit less ignorant than we were when we arrived.
Realizing the acceptability of ignorance is important, but viewing this ignorance as a precursor to progress is more crucial still. We should not hide from the unknown, but at the same time we cannot permanently accept it. Looking up at my bookshelf and realizing just how many words I have yet to deposit into my personal storage of knowledge, how many ideas I have yet to think through, I feel small and scared. This immensity can be paralyzing. It can be enough to make me wonder if it’s all worth it, if the understanding that I might gain this week or this year even matters in comparison to the knowledge of others or to every aspect of the world around me that can be known.
Yet I know that I must reach up to the shelf, pick up a book, and start from the first page. As I begin, I am aware of all of the other words that I am not reading at that moment, all of the other pieces of knowledge and understanding that I might never internalize. But instead of drowning in the immensity of knowledge, I try to remind myself of the excitement of that fact. It reminds me of how many of these exhilarating moments are still ahead of me, the moments in which new comprehension dawns, new questions arise, or a phrase in a book sparks a feeling like no other.
I don’t know all of the answers. I doubt that I will by the end of this semester. I doubt that I ever will. But the excitement of the possibilities that the journey of discovery might yield is enough fuel to keep me moving forward.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.