Before you know it

Author: Samuel Hazo '49

A close friend of mine, now in his mid-90s, wrote me a letter recently that contained this line: “Knowing is stifling; not knowing is creative.” He had been commenting on how people deal with their inevitable deaths. Some opted to live stoically, even penitentially. Others responded by creating a life in the time remaining. In some, knowledge of death’s certainty resulted in a kind of paralysis. For others, not knowing exactly when death would occur freed them to pursue alternatives that could be creative and fulfilling.

I found myself agreeing with my friend’s statement, but I did not initially understand why. How could knowledge be considered stifling when so many sources and institutions in our society exist to provide it? I knew from my own experience that we prefer knowing over not knowing. And we live in a world obsessed with the ultimate value of information and the pursuit of the factual over the ambiguous, the obscure or the mysterious.

Still, I could see how factual knowledge could have a stifling effect. For instance, it is scientifically correct that the average normal temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But where do we go after that? Where does that knowledge lead?

Since ours is a culture where the language of communication (everything from conversation to journalism, from text messaging to expository prose) far outweighs the language of communion (poetic statements, the arts and literature), it is worthwhile to consider their differences. The language of communication inundates us daily via television, newsprint and various electronic devices; it is the words we use in conversation. This language engages us cognitively, but we often hear and then forget most of it.

Communication can be stifling in the sense that it crowds out everything else. And it rarely affects us emotionally. It is here and gone — even when we read that 70 homicides are committed daily in the United States, 35 annually in Japan. Or that 200,000 people died in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Such facts reduce human life to numbers; they sometimes lead to a silent numbness.

Months ago I watched a television program in which wives and mothers spoke of soldiers killed in combat. One was the mother of a captain killed by a sniper. She recounted how she received a letter from him postmarked on the day he was killed. She said she read it often since it contained his last words. Each time she put the letter back in the envelope, she slowly licked it shut so she could taste her son in the last thing he touched. Those were her exact words. They made her story spiritually and emotionally accessible to anyone who heard it.

Her storytelling carried the imagination beyond the language of communication to the language of communion — where there is less certainty, more obscurity.

The imagination is actuated by what is not known. This opens the door to creativity, which is spontaneous, surprising and irrepressible. Poems are the most obvious examples of what results from this kind of feeling/thinking. They are created by inspiration at the moment of the poet’s not knowing what to write until the inspired words come to him gratis. He creates the poem word by word as it grows within him according to its own laws, so he is truly transformed into the instrument of its creation. It’s in the not knowing what the writer feels impelled to say that the energy of creation exists.

Such imaginative epiphanies are not reserved for poets. Every human being is capable of experiencing a poetic moment and applying an imaginative answer to something not previously known. Many years ago my then 8-year-old son was bouncing a ball in the driveway; he turned and said, “Look, Dad, I’m making the ball happy.” And once my 9-year-old niece said to her father while he was playfully holding her by the ankles, “Daddy, please let go of my wrist-legs.” Not knowing the correct noun, she created her own alternative.

I could cite other instances where not knowing had creative benefits beyond following a tradition. Those who led both the French and American revolutions did not know where their efforts were headed. But this rebellious imagination was responsible for the changes that spawned democracy in both nations. Without imaginative rebellion, we are inclined to prefer what is familiar rather than responding to the challenge of the unknown.

Life, however, is by nature not static. It is ultimately a mystery; it has more in common with what we cannot know than what we do know. Dogmatic and catechetical answers are not helpful here. A priest-theologian once told me that looking for certainty in matters of faith comes from a psychological need, not a truly spiritual one. That points to the sterility of all fundamentalisms. And this is why the creative imagination of those who accept the unknown provides the only reliable agent to create change.

Those who have the imagination to create new realities are the true visionaries — whether they be poets, children, statesmen, scientists or educators. They understand that knowing can be stifling and that not knowing fosters creativity. They understand what Anatole France meant when he said, “To know is nothing; to imagine is everything.”

Sam Hazo is a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.