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Three Little Words by Sal Moriarty

A sign of a lover of wisdom is his delight in not running his mouth about things he doesn't know. Criss Jami

A belief is not true because it is useful. Henri-Frederic Amiel

There are three words that, when arranged properly, are the most beautiful in the English language. You know what they are; let's say them together. I don't know. Just rolls off the tongue. They're beautiful because, when said sincerely, they represent absolute truth. The rarest achievement in human endeavors. No one trying to sell you some philosophy he can scarcely fathom himself. No one trying to convince you to come over to her side politically when she couldn't define capitalism or socialism if her life depended on it.

When a friend answers your question by telling you he doesn't know the answer, you can rest assured you're not being bamboozled. It is probably true that only a confidant can be trusted to give such an honest answer. Strangers, particularly prominent ones, rarely have the wisdom – or integrity – to just flat-out plead ignorance. Ever see a politician, of any stripe, hear a question about the complexities of the middle east, shrug, and say, “I don't know”?

Of course not. Parenthetically, wouldn't that be refreshing?

So, why the aversion to simply confess a lack of knowledge concerning difficult topics? Why the compulsion to claim we know things we can't possibly know? There are lots of reasons, I suspect. Frequently, it has to do with the accumulation of greenbacks (see self-help, politics and religion), but there are some who actually believe they do have the answers when it comes to the big questions.

I knew a woman who, based on religious conviction, offered impassioned advice to a younger woman concerning a relationship. The young woman was living with her boyfriend. She was advised to get married at once. She did. It went terribly sideways. I'd hate to have that on my conscience. She, of course, had God on her side, so she was fine with it. Sin takes many forms.

That said, I think a lot of us claim knowledge we do not possess because, deep down, we're not as confident as we pretend. Most of us suffer from plain old-fashioned insecurity regarding many of the more impenetrable topics. We wonder what kind of full-grown adult has failed to work out the particulars of relationships, the diverse and often contradictory aspects of politics, or even the larger considerations concerning eternity? A pretty typical adult, I'd argue. However, that kind of thinking doesn't go over well with our species, so we pretend we have answers. Humans covet certainty in an uncertain world.

Of course, I appreciate legitimate experts. I like the fact I drive a truck that is, to quote my late dad, “A million times better than the clunkers I grew up driving.” If you read letters from centuries past, they usually open – and close – with inquiries as to the recipient's health. It was uppermost in their minds. Obviously, we are still concerned about health, but few die now in America from tooth infections. While plane travel can be scary to many, eventually you end up safely in Nashville in a couple hours instead of sitting in traffic on the bridge at Baton Rouge.

Experts, contributing here and there over time, made (make) those kinds of things happen.

I'm all for hearing Robert De Niro discuss his field of expertise. I couldn't give a fat rip about his opinions on politics (though, obviously, it's his right to express them). I feel the same way about Jon Voight. And the guy who changes my oil.

Years ago, I was privy to a conversation between four relatives. There was a young guy, eighteen or so, two guys in their forties, and an old woman. Now, obviously, it can be a good thing to solicit advice, and it's nice for young people to value the opinions of their elders. However, the middle-aged men were quite dogmatic with their counsel. Not so much advice as admonitions. It seemed pretty clear this sprang from regret. The young man had his entire life before him and they, likely out of true affection, were laying out the direction that life should take in painstaking detail. It was too late for them.

The kid was taking it all in when he turned to the old woman and asked if she had any advice.

“Yes,” she replied. “Beware of those offering advice.”


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