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I Don't Know - A Poet's Lesson for Politicians
My syndicated column, January 1, 2003

In a world filled with pretense, where leaders of all stripes parade before us so sure of their "solutions," it's a rare voice that reminds us that progress flows instead from uncertainty and doubt. That's why around this time each year I re-read the 1996 Nobel Prize lecture of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. It's the perfect antidote to the pieties destined to clutter a new political year.

Szymborska, who says her colleagues usually "confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it," notes that poets lead the kind of lives that make for deadly dull movies.

"Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic," she explains. "Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down several lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?"

And what instruction could such work possibly hold for our leaders? It comes from what Szymborska says drives poets onward: the joyous inspiration they find, not in what they know, but in what they don't. "Their work," she writes, "becomes one continous adventure...A swarm of new questions emerge from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous 'I don't know.'"

Dictators and demagogues may also love their work, she adds, and even perform their duties with imagination. But such men aren't driven by ignorance; just the opposite.

"They 'know;'" she says, "and what they know is enough for them once and for all. They don't want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish the force of their arguments."

Sound like any Washington personalities you've seen on TV?

Szymborska's response to the ideologues is that "knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out." In her wonderful phrase, "it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life." And, as history has shown, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, such dogmatism can pose a lethal threat to society.

"This is why, " Szymborska says, "I value that little phrase 'I don't know' so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended."

If Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, or countless others had not constantly said to themselves, "I don't know," she argues, most of what we consider progress would have eluded us. For example, what if, instead of being inspired to think about gravity, an unquestioning Isaaac Newton simply gobbled up his fallen apples?

Thus Szymborska insists, in words that have wider application, that "poets, if they're genuine, must...keep repeating 'I don't know.' Each poem marks an answer to this statement; but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together" as their legacy.

Substitute the words "policymaker" for "poet" and "policy" for "poem" and the political lesson is clear. In solving human problems—the purpose, after all, of politics—unmerited certainty is the road to ruin. It doesn't take a genius to see that our problems are complex. Yet when it comes to stimulating the economy or planning for the day after in Iraq, how often have you heard a politician admit, "I just don't know"? Our leaders pretend they have "answers" because they think we expect them to act that way. Often we do.

That's dishonest on all sides. Whether the question is North Korea or expanded health coverage, it may take a poet to remind both politicians and citizens that humility is the fount of wisdom. Skepticism of "answers" and ideology is essential if we're to make progress. The only thing certain is that certainty is suspect.

The truth is that most politicians, like most people, are plagued by doubts, but they're professionally conditioned not to express them. Maybe if our leaders became a little more like poets we'd all muddle forward better together.