Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 10, 2013


Epistemology, theory of knowledge, is rubbing me today. What is knowing? Cara, seventy, comes to mind, as she tells me that after visiting her husband’s elderly mother, her husband sobbed. “How do you know he sobbed?” I asked, with the history that Cara often reads into her husband’s emotions, even while he denies he feels them. “He was blowing his nose a lot,” she said. “Did you ask him how he was feeling?” I asked, knowing the answer, as we have been around this bend before. “Yes, he said he was congested,” she said, still convinced that he was crying. “Why do you not take him at his word? I am not sure I am familiar with anyone who cries who is not aware of crying.” I say, trying to probe into her conviction that her husband’s report of congestion translates into her certainty that he is crying. “Well, I don’t know,” she says in frustration, with hostility and defensiveness.

I  jump to the concept of projection, that Cara wants her husband to be a feeling, sensitive person, who cries at the impending demise of his mother, but by his report, he has no such feelings. Wanting something becomes having something if one can deceive oneself long enough and hard enough, which ultimately leads to psychological pain and suffering, when one has to see that the lie is internal. We betray ourselves and then we pay.

So, what is knowing? Why doesn’t Cara believe her husband when she says he is congested? Why does she get defensive if I wonder aloud about her misperception, about her possible wish? Generally speaking, wishes and fears dominate our mental landscape, and we are forced to integrate those with external validators of experience. As we cross a bridge in the wilderness, we say “it is safe” but then we fall from the bridge and we have to revise this notion to say “I thought (and wished) it was safe.” If we encourage others to go on that bridge and they get hurt, then we are vulnerable to guilt, as our “knowing” betrayed us and harm ensued. Forgiveness must enter the scene as we understand that there are different levels of “knowing” and, as such, we are subject to error and negative consequence.

Returning to Cara, my challenge to her that her “knowing” may, in fact, be “wishing,” leading her to anger, thereby creates our struggle  to determine what her husband’s tears might mean to her. Knowledge, meaning, wishes and fears, all wrap together to create our inner being. The more we can open up to our mental fallibility, the more we can hold on to equilibrium and mental fiber. Epistemology keeps us humble.

6 Responses to “Epistemology”

  1. Jon said

    One of the many issues of self-deception, as opposed to just deception, is the brutal crashing of reality into one’s world view. Sadly, deception is often used to get one’s way with others. Even more sadly, self-deception is bend reality into what one hopes it would be. The cognitive dissonance that can result from self-deception can range from being disconcerting to crippling.

    That said, Cara’s wish may have elements of both deception and self-deception. Perhaps she is trying to change her husband’s feelings. In her point of view, perhaps she can convince him that, indeed, he was “congested” to hide what she wants to be his more true inner feelings. After all, in her mind, perhaps he is somewhat emotionally malleable. Then again, if he is not, reality may be an unpleasant place for Cara.

    • Reality as an unpleasant place brings me back to my post about tolerating frustration. How people, Cara, in this case, deal with “unpleasant” is often a sign of emotional maturity. Escaping into fantasy is one way to deal with “unpleasant” but this is a collision course, as one day reality will hit and she will feel a crisis. Thanks.

  2. Ashana M said

    Uncertainty generally creates anxiety. In raising the question, “How do you know?” You increased Cara’s sense of uncertainty and therefore her anxiety. She responded defensively (meaning angrily), because anger creates a sense of certainty. So, she’s maintaining her equilibrium and her sense of certainty.

    I think many of us find the extent to which we really don’t know frightening–the point you made initially that knowledge is extremely uncertain. We agree we know certain things, and that sense of agreement makes us feel certain enough to cope. And yet very often we are all equally mistaken, although not always in the same way. You are certain her perception is a projection of her wishes, although there is no evidence of that. Cara is certain that her husband had feelings he lied about, although there is no evidence of that either. In fact, what really happened with her husband is entirely uncertain. But you both need find it difficult to manage the uncertainty of not knowing, and so you don’t. You find ways to feel certain.

  3. Shelly said

    I have to agree with Jon, that sometimes people use uncertainty or deception to gain control over others. In this case, Cara may be projecting her feelings on her husband, and in this way, controlling (or wishing, as you put it) him so that she can manage the output. Perhaps Cara can deal with the sorrow of impending death of her MIL, but not with the uncertainty of not knowing how her husband is feeling about the impending death.

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