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.