Wise Words – The Great Mystery Into Which We Were Born

“I was like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” 

Isaac Newton

“Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”

 Albert Einstein 


I hate to admit it, but I have a strong need to be right. I know a little bit about a lot of stuff, I see ways to connect the dots into a coherent picture, and I can tell a pretty good story.   

Then I fall in love with my story, and I argue for it.

A motivating part of my self-image is that I am intellectually astute and have the vision to see the big picture. I like to make good points, I like to win arguments. I think of myself as wise (which is a kinda unwise thing to think, when you think about it).

I don’t know where this need to know, this “expert mentality,” comes from. Somewhere in my childhood, I learned that being smart and knowing things gained praise and approval. It became an armor that protected something tender inside. Knowing “how the world works” gave me the illusion of control, a sense that life could be stable and predictable.

My reaction to contrary views can be interesting. When someone disagrees with me, a tightly wound string deep in my brain stem gets plucked, signaling a threat. It is not just my viewpoint that is being questioned. At a visceral level, my self-image feels personally attacked, and I rise to defend it.

I am more aware than I used to be. I usually see what is happening and stop the silly internal dance. But it’s a shame that it happens at all. There is a cost to holding this armor. It’s heavy. It takes energy to keep it in place. I built it to shield me from harm, but it shields me from so much more.

As Newton points out, the amount there is to know exceeds our ability to comprehend it by orders of magnitude. My need to be right, to be the expert, closes me off from the joys of learning. The posture of knowing leads me to filter too much, to reject information that does not conform to my pre-existing beliefs.

That means I am less open to the wonders and beauty of the world, to the “great mystery into which we were born,” as Einstein calls it. 

In recent years, I’ve adopted a phrase that helps remind me to be less confident in my opinions. I try to hold my views as a “loosely held working draft of reality.” This helps me loosen the armor of the expert and adopt a more open, curious stance about the world and the ideas of others. 

It helps me say the words I used to dread – “I don’t know.”  Or even worse, “Hmm … I guess you’re right.”

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

4 Replies to “Wise Words – The Great Mystery Into Which We Were Born”

  1. Insightful!

    If you don’t mind, I, too, will adopt your phrase “loosely held working draft of reality” as a reminder of what Zen Master Shunyru Suzuki says: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

    Where do our biases and presumptions spring from? Evolutionary psychologists have proposed several interesting theories. For a quick overview of some of these theories, I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the *New Yorker*, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”

    I can also quote the longshoreman Eric Hoffer’s pithy observation that the “desire to teach is far more primitive and powerful than the desire to learn.”

  2. Borrow away!

    I read Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” a long time ago, and had forgotten his quote. I agree that this article could just as easily have used that one. It does seem to be human nature to want to know. I think it gives us a sense that we have some control in a world that is unpredictable and sometimes scary.

    The attitude of having a “loosely held working draft of reality” is useful, but hard to maintain. It is a work in progress for me.

  3. You have described my mind Steve! I have come to believe that whereas opinions about likes and dislikes eg food preferences, colours etc add hearing others’ perspectives on these things can add to the tapestry of conversation, opinions about right and wrong are suspect at best and worthless at worst.

    Yes we have all developed our own moral code on what is right and wrong. But when it comes to judging others who are not living by MY code then I am in trouble. What I believe about others is usually a story I have made up about them. It might have little bearing on the ‘truth’. So I have found it helpful to remind myself of Byron Katie’s teachings – ‘it’s just a story’ and remember my ignorance on just about everything. And if I get drawn into expressing my opinion I try and remember to add at the end “But what do I know.”

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