The Three Scariest Words

I found this article about the three scariest words, “I don’t know,” particularly interesting. What got my attention was this story from a surgeon:

“A surgeon tells about the time when, as a new intern, afraid to admit unfamiliarity with a procedure and ask questions, she plunged in confidently — and made an incision four times longer than the patient had been told the scar would be.”

I’m not going to even start to think about all the mistakes that are brushed under the operating table or stitched up, but now I DO know to opt for the middle-aged doctor.

What’s relevant to us is that, perhaps what differentiates those of us who don’t believe from those of us who believe, is that we are comfortable with the answer “I don’t know.”  I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know why we are here. I don’t know if anything happens when we die.

It seems at first that those who believe in God confess they don’t know either. We don’t know why God allowed this to happen. It’s not for us to know. It was God’s plan.

But this is not admitting to not knowing. It’s simply stating, “We know the answer is God.” We don’t need the answer, for someone bigger and stronger (albeit unwilling or unable to show this) holds the answer for us.

Believing that God knows all means that we don’t have to discover answers that we might not want to hear: life is not fair; people can be cruel; guardian angels don’t exist; heaven is a myth. There is a certain fear in the realization that, holy sh*t, no one is in control here. It’s just us on this planet, alone, and we’re at each other’s mercy. We are responsible for doing the right thing, even though no one is watching. And sometimes there is no reward in doing what is right–just a salve to our conscience.

By postponing indefinitely the difficult process of thinking through complex and oftentimes painful experiences in life, we avoid more emotional discomfort. Sometimes it’s a lot more comforting to think that God is holding the answers for us because the truth can be painful, because living with the unknown can be uncomfortable.

This is why we need to tell our kids from the time they are young that it’s okay not to know. Think about and focus on questions. They’re oftentimes more interesting than the answers. If we can teach our kids when they are little to be comfortable with not knowing, there won’t be shame in not having the answers. (Until they go to school, of course.) This way, too, they can be open to all possibilities.

Realizing that we don’t know the answers to life’s biggest questions can be a sign of emotional strength, for it is much scarier to walk a tightrope with no safety net. The three scariest words can also give us the most strength.


37 responses to “The Three Scariest Words

  1. Always enjoy your columns so much! It took me a long time to become comfortable with “I don’t know.” But now when an issue or debate comes up, I don’t worry about having all the answers. My concern is that I’m asking the right questions.

  2. I’m actually planning to write my next post on a topic similar to this. I think part of the problem is that many Christians feel tied to a system they know isn’t perfect but don’t feel like the alternative is ok. Living without the comfort and security of a belief in God seems impossible and/or scary, so they are left with defending the belief they have adopted with explanations like, “God is mysterious but I know he loves us.” I know of many Christians who say they are fine with doubt, but there is always the caveat that “faith” is what keeps them in and/or they would never doubt God’s existence. That’s not doubt.

    While “I don’t know” is a great starting position, it should drive us to a search for answers outside of our comfort zone, regardless of the emotional consequences.

    • MichaelB Absolutely. I’m torn because I often think, “Life is short. Why disturb someone’s faith?” I think of this especially with my mother, who is very quiet about her beliefs but finds tremendous comfort.

      • @Deb, Yeah, it’s tough, especially when you see that their adherence to a set of beliefs is continuing to cause them harm in spite of the comfort it brings them. My mom is in that place also. She spent thirty years staying married to a man who basically did nothing but use and abuse her because it’s “just what you do.” Now she feels like damaged goods and will probably never seek a healthy relationship with a man despite many good years of life ahead. It’s sad.

  3. Teachers struggle with those three words, too. Students ask us questions and we’re supposed to know the answers. When I was a young(er) teacher, I used to trot out some BS answer; when I became an old(er) teacher, I’d try to talk my way out of the situation, “Yes, erm, good question, because if we were to entertain that idea or its consequences, we’d have to ….” Now (though I’m still not old, I don’t think!), I say with confidence, “Yeah, don’t know. Anyone know the answer to this question?” Or these days, it’s more like, “Yeah, don’t know. Who can get on google quickly and find out?”

    The thing is that the religious don’t know either, and they will admit it openly when they say that they have faith, which is the antithesis of knowledge. It’s when we say that faith is a BS coping strategy that they get all pissed and say, “Oh no, I mean, because I have faith, I know that Jesus will save me.”

    Intellectual self-delusion.

    • @deosullivan3 That’s a good way of putting it, “Intellectual self-delusion.”

      • It takes more strength to say that I don’t know than it does to say that God or baby-Jesus did it. It is like we as parents have to grow strong enough to be able to tell the kids that we don’t know.

        The difference is that in many cases we can continue with…but I’ll find out whereas those religiously locked have no such possibility. God is the ultimate answer.

        The only difference between delusion and religion is popularity.

  4. Sometimes I think this is as much of a gender thing as it is a belief-system thing. Being in a male-dominated career, I find I am much more willing to say “I don’t know the answer” than my male colleagues. They are more likely to make up some total bulls**t answer to avoid saying “I don’t know”, but they answer confidently and loudly so people take their word for it! I’ve never been afraid to say “I don’t know”… I think when you are confident in your intelligence and abilities you don’t need to feign ubiquitous knowledge. There are far more things I don’t know than things I do know.

    That being said, I always felt the exact same way as you, only about atheists. I always felt like believers were more okay with “not knowing” than non-believers. I think a lot of people don’t accept God because there aren’t clear answers or “evidence” or “proof” of His existence. I have never needed evidence or proof; I have never expected it. So, I think its somewhat inaccurate to assume religious people have all the answers… believing requires that you are okay with having unanswered questions. In fact, most religious doctrines include “holy” or “sacred” “mysteries” i.e. things that we just can’t comprehend. Isn’t accepting things without knowing called faith?

    • @Molly. Interesting observation about gender. Don’t know if it is just that particular industry, but I never saw much difference between Rick Perry and Sarah Palin! :).

      As for your views about not knowing and believers. I think the believers you describe sound a whole helluva lot like agnostics.

  5. Not long after I left my religion I was seeing a therapist who made the comment that it was easy to live under a dictatorship. When the decisions are made for you, and you don’t have options or choices, in some ways it’s a much simpler way of life. When I left organized religion and began living in a democracy, so to speak, life got really complicated. Oh my gosh, I could do this, or this, or this, or this! And if I do this, this will result, and if I don’t, then this will happen, or maybe this, who knows, we’ll just have to see! And it’s all up to you, you can’t blame someone else for a bad decision, or say something’s in God’s hands, because it’s all in your hands. And you better educate yourself pretty darn quick about life. Ultimately, I still don’t know the answers to those big why are we here questions. But I think that the decisions I make now are going to be the same whether I know the answers or not. Because who I am and what’s best for me aren’t affected by how we got here or where we’re going. I just am. I’m just here, living, for whatever reason.
    The one belief system that still holds some appeal to me now is Buddhism. Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun who’s written many books, one of which is called “Comfortable with Uncertainty”. It’s easy to say, and harder to do. Our human nature wants to have an answer or a reason for things, it helps us sleep better at night, but so often there is none.

    • @Angie – Good point. I remember having an interesting disagreement with an evangelical woman in college who did not like that the psychology textbook explained that many born-agains have side-stepped the path to true maturity by supposedly leaving all their decision making to their interpretation of their dogma (while ignoring that how to interpret the dogma is itself a decision usually left to whoever they assign as their peer guide).

  6. Ego and laziness, eh Deb?

    She needs to always be humble enough to seek clarification, even at the risk of personal discomfort.

    Science is […] a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”
    Charlie Rose: An Interview with Carl Sagan, May 27, 1996.

    “There are no stupid questions, just stupid people.” – Mr. Garrison,

    • Angie- Very nice comment. I think it is overwhelming when you realize you are the only one in charge-and look at all the choices you have.

      I will check out that book by the Buddhist nun and Theresa (who comments here) would probably be interested, too. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Humans want to have a reason-that’s why kids don’t like “just because” any more than adults do. :0

    • @LT. Definitely ego!

      I guess it’s not such a bad thing when kids question authority because it trains them to be skeptics later. (Although when they constantly question, it is annoying!)

  7. I see this a lot when I conduct interviews, and I’ve actually been known to hire someone because they have said those three magic words. “I don’t know…” Typically, in the professional world, what I look for right after that is, “… but if I had to figure it out, I’d go here/try this/talk to this person.” That tells me that the person knows how to self-educate in the face of new ideas. They aren’t closed off to learning.

    Deb, did you see this one on SDL this week?

    And of course, this one that I sent you a few days ago 🙂

    • Hi Shanan, I had not read that site before, but the guy is inspiring. I like his outlook on life!

      Well, if I ever have to go for another interview, I hope it’s with someone like you who will appreciate the answer, “I don’t know, but I’ll sure as hell try my best to find out!” 🙂

  8. I just had a discussion about this a couple of days ago with a friend (who happens to be a believer). Her daughter is in her first month of college, out of state, and got a concussion last week when she slipped while walking through campus. My friend, obviously upset, was trying to get answers from the doctors, because there were some strange things going on that seemed unrelated to her injury. She was told that the girl’s residual symptoms were “stress.” Not one of them would admit to not knowing what the problem was. They were all completely confident in their diagnosis of stress, and appeared to have no interest in any further investigation or testing. I see this alot with the religious set; they are confident that they have the correct answer (“god”), and have no desire to hear any other points of view that might disprove it. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing – the problem is when you don’t want to know.

    • @Theresa Yikes. That’s awful that her kid got a concussion walking through campus. It does make you wonder if something else is happening. It’s like when my dad kept saying his back hurt, and three different doctors said it was exercise. One gave him steroid shots in the back. But all along it was pancreatic cancer….It’s the proverbial things are not always as they appear.

  9. I agree completely. Great post. My theist coworker said to me: “Something can’t come from nothing. How did this all begin?” I said “I have no idea. But you’re saying you don’t understand, so God Did It. Science has a chance to ultimately answer these questions, better than two thousand year old myths.”
    I enjoy your blog, Deborah.

    • @Chris That’s been my response, too. We don’t have to make something up just because we don’t know….Wait. Maybe we’ll know. Maybe we won’t.
      Besides, it’s the first cause argument…okay, who made God. Something can’t come from nothing….

      • “Who made God” is always my default answer to “God made the Universe because something can’t come from nothing.” Way too much of a logic background, I guess. I just wish people would learn how to say, “I don’t know” and then go on with life.

        Personally, I say “I don’t know” and then I wrap myself up in the blanket of wonder than surrounds it all. For me, it’s fascinating, the things we don’t know. It’s an infinite universe of infinite possibility. I love the concept of infinity… and I’ve passed the fascination to my kids. Last night, our dinner discussion focused on how there is no “last” number… that numbers go on forever… but more than that… between the numbers 1 and 2, there are infinite number of numbers. And between 1 and 1.1, there are an infinite number of numbers…. and between 1 and 1.01… and so on, and so on… it blows their minds as much as it does mine, but they love it. You ask my 7 year old son what his favorite number is, and he’ll say “Infinity” (or sometimes it’s Pi. LOL)

        • @Shanan Winters Love that. What a great discussion what the kids!

          I am always amazed that we have consciousness! How cool is THAT?!! It allows us to enjoy our place in the universe.

          When my kids and I talked about the infinite numbers between 1 and 2, it led to a discussion that, if you look at the present the same way, then we are either living in the past or the future. My oldest is in his first year of college and majoring in physics and in ME and his understanding of the universe and of time has now wayyyyy surpassed mine!

  10. I agree with you here. I know for me, the hardest thing for me to admit to myself about the major questions about a philosophy of life is that in the end “I don’t know”. It is scary to realize that, but good to do so. For me, in the end, my view about who or what God is (or even if there is a God) is I don’t know.

  11. @Gakeat That’s pretty much my take, too. I don’t know or I’m highly skeptical!

  12. I spoke with a few soul hunters at the county fair a few months ago where we had words about this very thing. I explained to them that I was not a believer, and the first thing they asked was, “Well, then how did everything get here? How do you explain **the beginning**?” When I told them we don’t yet know how life began on this world, or the conditions of the universe at the exact moment time began, they acted as if they had scored a point for their side. (When I told them how morality was the product of evolution, their eyes glazed over, but that’s another story.)

    Folks in that line of work tend to use the “how can you explain … ” approach as a way to try and show the inability of atheism to provide the certainty – and comfort – that only a belief in God can provide. As you said, it defers grief by providing an afterlife, it gives order and meaning to the random events in our lives, and it bestows upon the believer a sense of certainty that their morality is correct.

    It’s because of these very things that make me think – whenever I hear a street preacher or the like ask questions like “where did it all come from?” – that what they’re really asking me is, “How would I possibly be able to cope with life without the beliefs I have now?”

    • @Jason Yes–great point. And it makes sense because when you say, “Well, then how did god get here?” those folks are then okay with not understanding, with saying, “he just always was.”

      • Exactly do, Deb. I really feel kinda bad seeing or hearing people lie to themselves. The religious are willing to judge, comment and question anything even remotely scientific (ie real) but won’t allow any such towards their delusion…sorry faith.
        Even the smartest of the pious fall to that trap – God has just always been, end of discussion.

  13. I’m curious as to how you all answer that question when it’s posed by religious people: How did life begin? I have had that discussion with many people and can’t seem to make anyone understand that it’s ok to say, “we simply don’t know.” They scoff at that and act as though I’m the one that’s delusional. Does anyone else have an answer or a comeback that makes people actually think, rather than spouting off whatever they learned in Sunday School when they were 8 years old?

    • Kathy, I just point out that they can’t explain how god began either. We’re still working on it–our understanding of the universe and our place in it is still a work in progress. In the meantime, I’m not settling for someone else’s guess about how we got here.

      I’m sure others have better comebacks than that, but it’s what I point out when questioned….

  14. You commented above: “I think it is overwhelming when you realize you are the only one in charge-and look at all the choices you have.” That’s probably the best reason of all the raise your kids as atheists — so they’ll know from the beginning that they are the ones in charge and therefore must learn to make responsible decisions.

    There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know” as long as it’s followed by “but I’ll do my darndest to find out.” Following with a lie or pretense is the shameful part, especially when it’s something like a doctor trying to diagnose and treat someone.

  15. Deb, nice one!

    I was fortunate to have a truly astounding seventh grade teacher for social studies. Mr. S began the first class I had with him in a brilliant fashion: he asked each student a question s/he could not possibly answer unless s/he was exceptionally brilliant. Not one kid had an answer. Mr. S then made a statement I will never, ever forget:

    “Not knowing something is not a crime, but not admitting you don’t know is. The best place to begin anywhere in life is understanding your limitations.”
    [For the record, I still have the notebook in which I wrote this down. To be fair, he made us write copy the statement.]

    Ignorance, I learned from this teacher, was not the sin: stupidity was the sin. In the two years I attended that junior high and in the three classes I had with that teacher, I learned about learning. Mr. S removed the fear of not knowing or understanding something for many of his students, at least for me. The phrase “I don’t know” was not only appreciated and considered acceptable, but at times it was the only honest answer.

    That was the point Mr. S was trying to teach us: intellectual honesty. Some of the best and greatest intellectual adventures I ever had or will have started with saying “I don’t know.” The corollary to making this admission is, “But I want to know.” This is where education, real education, starts. When I was teacher, I tried not to teach my students facts: I tried to teach them a process whereby they could teach themselves. I tried to teach them to acknowledge their ignorance and use it as the reason to learn. I became a teacher in large part because of the influence of Mr. S.

    My good fortunes ran further in my life. I got to teach side-by-side with Mr. S before he retired. I got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me as a young person and what he inspired in me as an adult. I got to show him his lesson was still in effect. Religion was never an issue or a topic for us. He knew I was an atheist, but never went further than knowing that fact.

    Atheism for me, in large part, is a constant quest to beat back the shades of ignorance and stupidity. I find religion stymies thinking, especially free thought, and teaches stupidity. Religion cannot tolerate being questioned. It must always be right, even when it doesn’t have the answer. Religion doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and this is the harm it inflicts on its followers. It teaches fear instead of curiosity. It makes the world, the universe, a scary place. This is the disservice it does to its followers. This is the intellectual crime of religion.

  16. Winston Churchill has said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

  17. Two “I don’t know” jokes I remember —

    Student – Why was this question marked wrong?
    Teacher – Because you wrote “I don’t know.”
    Student – But that was the right answer!


    An observation that students are often punished for having inquisitive minds —

    A student reads a test question to himself – “What’s the capitol of New York?”
    He thinks, “I don’t know…but I’d *LIKE* to.” and leans over to read the answer off the student in front of him.


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