You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Credit: Robin Breeding


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I was once told, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” It took a minute or two for me to wrap my mind around what was said, but eventually I realized it was not a compliment. At one level, it inferred an absence of knowledge.  At another level, it inferred a lack of understanding. At best, it was a warning that things were afoot, and I’d better wrap my void of information brain around it before it was too late.

Conversely, I have also been told, “You don’t know what you know.” Again, it might have taken a minute or two to comprehend its meaning, but I soon understood the omission of the word don’t, turned an insult into a compliment.  Instead of being a person lacking knowledge, I was suddenly endowed with a vast catalogue of information that I had yet to draw upon to make wise decisions. The fact that someone thought me capable of making a wise decision was, of course, a big deal. Afterall, what did I know about all the things I didn’t know I knew?

When I think of things I don’t know, three things come to mind: chainsaws, hair, and guilt. The modern chainsaw is particularly perplexing. In the olden days – the 1970’s – when I was living in a log cabin in Ohio with my dog, my chainsaw, and my motorcycle, I felt highly proficient with anything motorized. The chainsaw was simple. Flip the switch to on, pull the starter cord, pull it again, pull it a third time, and vroom you’re ready to cut down a tree. I was one with my chainsaw. I knew it well.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and the dozens of large tree limbs that landed on my property after two feet of snow hit the region. Normally, if it were only a few branches, I would take out the handsaw and get to work. However, this was a massive removal project that required extraordinary, if not motorized measures. What could I do but buy myself a new chainsaw?

And then I got the gas. And I got the oil. And I put it together. And even though I thought I knew what I knew, I nonetheless read the directions. It didn’t help. Although fundamentally it was the same machine I used 45 years ago, the 21st century chainsaw has an overabundance of safety features to protect those less knowledgeable than I. Its greatest safety feature is that no matter how hard or how many times one pulls the start cord, it refuses to start. Who knew? Obviously, not me since my yard still looks as though a hurricane just passed through.

A working chainsaw can cut almost anything, although I wouldn’t recommend it for cutting hair. My hair, or what’s left of it, requires very little cutting. That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when my hair was abundant, and I knew when I needed a haircut. Then my hair began to recede. And then it began to slowly fall out. And then I became middle-aged, and my hair went from rich auburn to salt and pepper. And, finally, (because I didn’t know what I knew) it thinned, receded, and fell out rapidly and in unison, leaving me with a head of loosely connected grey threads which, like two objects floating in space, gravitated toward each other, but not always.

Cut it? Brush it? Or let is blow wildly in the wind, with no forethought as to how it might affect my appearance? If only I knew. Unfortunately, this was a textbook example of I don’t know what I know. The answer existed in my brain. Finding it, however, was a problem. So, sometimes, when my formerly long and lush hair defies physics, when it goes off in every imaginable direction, I imagine that all that empty space between the hairs is filled, despite the disarray on my head. It’s an illusion of knowledge drawn upon me not knowing what I actually know.

My wife, whom I adore, often asks me to brush my hair when, in her view, it’s a mess. Her problem is she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. If she knew what I knew, she would leave me alone and allow me to live in a world where what I know informs my fantasies of a head covered in thick beautiful hair. She would prefer that I feel guilty for not grooming myself. The problem – for her, not me – is that my familiarity with guilt is limited at best. I might feel it when I do something bad, like forgetting to take a roast out of the oven and burning it to a crisp. Yet, when it comes to little things like grooming, my guilt meter simply doesn’t register.

Blame my parents, if you must, but the Jewish guilt gene, which has motivated Jews for five millennium, seems to have ended with my mother and father. It almost makes me sad. Despite knowing that most guilty feelings are foreign to me, I wish the same wasn’t true for my adult children. Their lack of a guilty heart, which I blame on genetics, not parenting, is troubling. My children never think that I am too old to shovel snow. An occasional insult directed toward their mother and/or father bears no weight on their conscience. And they have never uttered the words, “Stop. We have enough. You give us too much.

I’d like to believe I’ll keep learning things I don’t know. And wouldn’t it be great if all those things I don’t know that I know suddenly appeared like a double rainbow after a storm, joyfully enlightening my consciousness. Then what?  I wish I could say I knew, but I can’t. How could I?  I’d have to know what I know. And if I know anything about myself, it’s that I know very little.

Richard Reiss’ writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newark Star-Ledger, The Literary Review, as well as the anthologies, Upstart Crows II: True Stories, and Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion. He is the author of Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir, published by Serving House Books. He can be reached at