How I’m Learning To Harness The Power Of Not Knowing

In a couple months I’m beginning an eighteen-month spirituality and mindfulness fellowship through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. With the exception of four retreats, regular chevruta work, and individual practice, I don’t really know what to expect. But I have heard the retreats are partially silent and wholly life changing.

This week I received an email with some initial information: a packing list, books to buy, and articles to read before our first retreat in January. When I noticed there was no list of participants, I assumed it was a clerical mistake. I logged into the password-protected group site, assuming the list would be posted there. It was nowhere to be found. I was mystified, especially because I’d sent in a bio and picture to the group organizer weeks ago. I thought about emailing the director, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, to ask for the list, or to remind him that he had forgotten, but something came up at work and my attention shifted to something else.

But later in the day, I thought about the list again. I couldn’t shake my desire to know who would be in my cohort. I started an email to the director, but decided not to send it.

This deprivation of information cuts across one of my most active and comfortable personality qualities: knowing. I love knowing. I especially love knowing first. Whether it is the breaking news alert on my phone, which sends me into a tailspin of reading, and posting, or knowing what is going on in the lives of my congregants, friends, and family, it isn’t only that I like to know… I need to know. It gives me a deep sense of meaning and purpose to be a sacred know-er; knowing lets me be responsive to someone’s pain, a witness to their joy, a loving and caring presence in their lives.

Last year I took, along with the entire Senior Staff at my synagogue, the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. This short self-assessment identifies and lists which of the 24 character strengths best represent you. What makes the VIA survey unique is that its purpose is to identify your strongest traits, so you can double down on their presence in your life. While it would be easier to focus on #24 (Self-regulation), my #1 and #2 strengths are Curiosity and Love of Learning. Or, in other words, knowing things isn’t only something I like, it is also something that I naturally gravitate toward.

A few hours after that first email, Rabbi Slater sent a follow-up message. “I’ve received a few requests for a list of participants. That will be forthcoming at the retreat. Right now, we invite you all to focus on your own preparation for the retreat, and meet your curiosity (and potential discomfort) about who is in the cohort — and if you will know anyone, etc. — with… well… curiosity! What is that all about? What am I feeling? What is the origin of my interest in this list? What would having the list do for me now that would not be accomplished in waiting to meet everyone anew — and as equals in discomfort, curiosity and open-heartedness.”

Rabbi Slater’s note made me realized that this isn’t going to be any usual Jewish conference or fellowship experience. I’m not sure if this will be a place where my extensive Jewish geography skills will come in handy. I’m not sure if anyone will care about my professional accomplishments. Or if doing all the reading will be enough to be good, or successful, or liked.

For now I am asking myself Rabbi Slater’s questions–I’m feeling a nervous excitement. I’m wondering if I will have a friend. I’m wishing I didn’t want to know so much. Maybe this is the first lesson of this experience: Knowing may be my comfort zone, but its not always necessary.

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