In Joanne Greenberg’s piece “In Praise of Not Knowing” she writes that while on the one hand, she would like to know what the future holds, on the other, it would rob her of essential qualities of life.
“Not to know implies the need to learn more of what can be known, and that implies a struggle to grow and change. Not knowing is the call to courage. I admire us because of courage – the courage to wake up, wash up, dress, eat breakfast, and go out, unknowing, into what Alan Dugan, the poet, calls ‘the daily accident’. Knowing everything, we wouldn’t need seat belts, but the biggest victim of knowing would be the loss of our most prized possession: Hope.”
My introduction to Joanne Greenberg was through her book, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. It filled me with hope. A teacher who sat in the reading room at my high school must have noticed how depressed I was (and I was), and one day she recommended the book. I followed this young woman who was struggling so deeply but refused to give up, who risked losing her personal world to try to reconnect with the world we all share, who allowed her therapist into her life, who engaged in curious seeking. She inspired me. I felt her powerful insistence on living, and that led me to consider the possibility of continuing to live myself. I couldn’t make myself believe that I had her drive or courage, but her story made me feel like maybe I could find some of that vitality myself. I didn’t have anyone like her doctor in my life, but the story of their collaboration led me to believe that maybe there was some other doctor out there who could help me. Without knowing what the future held for me, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden gave me the gift of hope.
Some forty-five years later, in preparation for a conversation with Joanne Greenberg, I reread this book that had meant so much to me. I looked in the front cover. The book was very worn; I had read it many, many times. I discovered—much to my embarrassment—that I had taken my high school’s copy from the reading room and never brought it back. I guess the teacher from the reading room recognized the depth of my need.
Introduction to “In Praise of Not Knowing”
I am honored to introduce this brief essay written by my friend Joanne Greenberg. She wrote this piece after one of our recent Windhorse Journal recording sessions with her at her home. She mailed this to me, dated January 12, 2020, with the following note:
“Dear Jeff – It was great to see you. I hope what I said was clear and cogent. You asked me to write a little essay on not knowing, and here it is: (I hope you like it). I don’t know what your plans for this were, if any, but there are my thoughts on the project. Let me know.”
The topic of “not knowing” is a running theme in our dialogues with Joanne. In “Windhorse Journal Entry #051: Swimming Lessons”, Joanne reflects on her recovery from psychosis, “I don’t know when it changed or how it changed. People ask me, ‘How did you get well?’, and I respond, ‘I haven’t a clue.’” Later in the discussion, she said that those of us who engage as therapists show much courage because we “don’t know how it works.” Joanne shared that her therapist had said to her, “What I am asking of you in our work is like diving off a diving board while not knowing if there is water in the pool. Trust me.”
There were long moments in dialogue with Joanne where I felt anxious and even defensive as I heard her doubting my certainty about what I think I know about people and therapy after 50 years of trying. She kept gently attempting to bring me along, to help me relax my compulsive self-identification with conceptual positions, which seemed heightened in talking with her. I had glimpses of my own childhood fears of being forever swept away in a vast dark sea of confusion—my personal nightmare of not knowing. What Joanne was sharing was not foreign to me, yet the fact that she seemed so at home with not knowing—and so free in that way—touched me in a way that I could really hear. I hear that tensing up against and resisting the truth of not knowing brings the backlash of the nightmare of the unknown. I also hear the warning of my healer-mentor Edward Podvoll,
The pride that can developing insidiously in healers of any kind is well-known. Along with some expertise in alleviating suffering comes respect and considerable personal power, as well as the tendency for the healer to become deluded by pride. In the case of the psychotherapist, this translates into a pride that one understands the mind of others, that one knows what is best for them, and that one has the privilege of imposing one’s will or prescription on them. (Recovering Sanity, Shambhala Publications, 2003, p. 335)
As I write this Preface, I recall the words of one of my other teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He also taught about the vulnerability and the workability of not knowing. He writes in “Attitude Toward Death in the Healer-Patient Relationship”,
We all speak the same language; we experience a similar type of birth and a similar exposure to death. So there is bound to always be some link, some continuity, between you and the other. It is something more than mechanically saying “Yes, I know; it hurts very badly.” Rather than just sympathizing with the patient, it is important to actually feel her pain and share her anxiety. You can then say “Yes, I feel that pain” in a different way. To relate with total openness means that you are completely captured by someone’s problem. There may be a sense of not knowing quite how to handle it and just having to do your best, but even such clumsiness is an enormously generous statement. So, complete openness and bewilderment meet at a very fine point. (The Sanity We Are Born With, Shambhala Publications, 2005, p. 157)
In this brief essay, Joanne shares her encouraging loving touch, which is palpable in the reading. I invite you to read this beautiful “little essay on not knowing” a few times. Let it sink in. As far off as they may seem, courage and hope are just around the corner.
In Praise of Not Knowing
By Joanne Greenberg
My mother-in-law declared that people never wanted to know if a disease was fatal. I told her I did want to know for, very practical reasons. There are ends to tie up and people whose friendship I wanted to acknowledge — a call like that had come for me from a hospital room that I’ll treasure the rest of my life.
I want to know what’s going on in my government, family and neighborhood. I want to know the opinions of people I love, even if they may be difficult to reconcile with mine.
But the circumstances of life on Earth are such that I can’t know what will happen five minutes from now, much less my end, or the ends of everyone I know and love. Would it be good to know? The thought is enchanting, and the wish is one we experience all the time. “If only I had known, I would have…” “Had I foreseen the future, I never would have…” While it would be a comfort to know that the operation would be a success, or that the handicapped child would make her way in the world, or that the tyrant would die in the ruins he created, who would make a start on what he knew would fail? Failure is a better teacher than success, but who signs up for such lessons?
To know everything is to be perfect. Perfect means ‘finished”. Finished means changeless, and changeless means never learning anything more of different. Not to know implies the need to learn more what what can be known, and that implies a struggle to grow and change. Not knowing is the call to courage. I admire us because of courage —the courage it takes to wake up, wash up, dress, eat breakfast, and go out, unknowing, into what Alan Dugan, the poet, calls “the daily accident”. Knowing everything, we wouldn’t need seat belts, but the biggest victim of knowing would be the loss of our most prized possession: Hope.
Every animal tried because every one hopes. I suspect that amoebas don’t race around mindlessly, even if they are unknowing. We can live without knowing — can we live without courage or hope? Would we want to?
Joanne Greenberg (born September 24, 1932 in Brooklyn, New York) is an American author best known for the bestselling novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, written under the pen name of Hannah Green. It was adapted into a 1977 movie and a 2004 play of the same name.
She received the Harry and Ethel Daroff Memorial Fiction Award as well as the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction in 1963 for her novel The King’s Persons, which was about the massacre of the Jewish population of York at York Castle in 1190. She was a professor of anthropology at the Colorado School of Mines, and also the author of an additional 20 novels, one of which, In This Sign, was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called Love Is Never Silent. Joanne was also a volunteer firefighter and paramedic for approximately 15 years, and is a highly regarded, authentic voice of authority as a mental health advocate.
and author of 20 novels.
Her book, In This Sign, was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called Love Is Never Silent.
Jeffrey Fortuna received his MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy at Naropa University in 1980, and served on the Naropa faculty until 1989. In 1981, he co-founded the first Windhorse center, Maitri Psychological Services in Boulder, CO. From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Fortuna founded and directed a Windhorse group in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1992, he co-founded Windhorse Associates, Inc., and served as Executive/Clinical Director. In 2002, Jeff returned to Boulder as a co-director of Windhorse Community Services, Inc. He retired from his co-director role in 2013, yet continues to serve as a senior clinician and educator. He has taught widely, and written a book chapter and journal papers in the area of Windhorse treatment.
Deborah Ruth Bronstein is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado. She is a pastoral rabbi with a strong commitment to social justice and those who live on the margins of society. The stigmatization of mental illness led Rabbi Bronstein to be a spokesperson in this area, advocating in religious and civic systems and serving on the boards of various shelters. Rabbi Bronstein has served as a board member of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness (INMI), as well as the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council, the Midwest Association of Reform Rabbis, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In addition to working in the mental health arena, and she has worked to help South Sudanese refugees (“Lost Girls”) move to Boulder. She has also lectured locally and nationally on the role of parables and storytelling in social justice, in transcending crises, and in the creation of new spiritual worldviews.