"What I Don’t Know" - David Johns*
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that we should remain silent when we do not know something—whereon one does not know, thereon one must not speak, or something like that. Of course, Wittgenstein didn’t follow his own advice and neither do most of us. Occasionally we try, but the pressure to say something is strong, the desire to appear knowledgeable too tempting for us to hold our tongue for very long. Maybe he was right—whereon one does not know—and, who knows, maybe there would be fewer conflicts, inner and outer, if we chose silence over bullshit—thereon one must not speak—but we’ll never know for sure.
I’m a professor. This means I’m expected to know a few things, which I do. But whether society expects it or whether my own insecurities demand it, I don’t often chose silence when I don’t know something. I try to find something useful to say, or something clever, or at least I try to sound smart as I think out loud.
When I traveled to Guatemala to teach a workshop on Quaker testimonies I had been speaking Spanish for only one year. I had a lot to say about the topic, but I hadn’t packed enough words to say it.
“Everyone has something that trips them up. Anger. Fear. Something. What’s it for you?”
I stepped over a stack of books when I walked into the office and set my briefcase close to me on the sofa cluttered with magazines and papers. I had never been asked this in a job interview. I might have brushed it aside as inappropriate, but it was coming from the college’s president. “What trips you up?”
There were just the two of us and the sound of our gazing. “I don’t like to look incompetent in front of people,” I said.
I didn’t hesitate and it wasn’t a scripted response; I think I told him the truth. Thereon I knew, so thereon I spoke.
I never wanted to travel to Guatemala or Honduras. I wanted to see India or the Egyptian pyramids, or to kiss a complete stranger atop the Eiffel Tower. But after a reluctant trip to Central America with co-workers, I had become taken with Mesoamerica and just about everything latino, including Guatemala and the language of 350 million people.
I thought I would spend my first sabbatical in Europe breathing the musty air of a great university library writing an important book, or maybe backpacking through India studying ancient rituals and swimming in the murky sacred waters of the Ganges. But in February 2007 I was in Chiquimula, Guatemala, one year old in a new language and a sophomore in confidence.
La Iglesia Amigos Embajadores had invited me to speak to them about the “Quaker Testimonies,” core principles of Quaker faith and practice. I was eager to practice the Spanish I was learning, so I said yes without really considering whether it made sense to do this. I showed up with a stack of notes, my Langenscheidt Spanish dictionary, and an ego big enough for three people.
The church started to fill with workshop attendees from Chiquimula, then a van arrived with a dozen more who had driven all day from El Salvador. Not long after, a couple from Honduras walked in and took a seat. In the colleges where I’ve taught, some students found the dorms a time zone away from the classrooms. I was surprised these people were here to listen to my talk. As I made last minute preparations the attendees visited and made small talk. I overheard some of it but realized I wasn’t eavesdropping because I couldn’t understand most of what was being said.
The meeting room was a cavernous two-story space, wooden benches, tile floors, and not a stitch of cloth to absorb the echoes. Through the morning and into the afternoon the entire room was bright from sunlight that gushed through ten-foot tall open windows. But the sun was slipping behind the mountains as I was introduced and I took my place at the podium beneath the dull glow of florescence.
I’d given this talk a dozen times before—in English, no problema—but this time had to find another way to say familiar things. This alone was enough to cause me to think differently about my words. But on top of that my mouth vibrated through the entire talk, a sensual buzzing along the roof of my mouth and length of my tongue.
I have a friend whose Spanish is very good and we practice together from time to time. His Spanish is better than mine, but he sounds like a North Carolinian. There’s nothing wrong with sounding like a North Carolinian, especially if one was born there, like my friend. But Spanish has a kind of buzzing, vibrating, purring feeling if you let your mouth play with it. I likely sound more a mid-western boy trying to speak Spanish than I think I do—I’m not fooling anyone—but I try to let my tongue taste the language I am learning.
So, even though the ideas were familiar—this point leads to that one, and another comes in later—and although a lot of words were similar—testimonio, cuáqueros, expresión—it all felt different, each word reminded me that I was somewhere between everything I didn’t know.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” That’s good advice—whereon one does not know. I was talking with my mouth full and I could feel my cheeks swelling, stretching. I knew sooner or later my talk would be unintelligible and I would choke on my words.
La integridad, la igualdad, and la paz. Each of these testimonies was familiar to me, I had scribbled lecture notes to prove it, and three nations sat before me nodding in recognition, or politeness. Integrity. Yes. Equality. Of course. Peace. That’s who we are.
There is a fourth testimony, simplicity.
I had the Spanish translation of a 1927 statement from Philadelphia Quakers that I had wanted to read aloud: La verdadera sencillez consiste, no en el uso de formas particulares, sino en la privación del exceso de indulgencia, en mantener la humildad del espíritu… true simplicity, I wanted to tell them, was not a matter of certain kinds of forms but in limiting indulgent excess and maintaining a humble spirit.
I tried to say the word, but I couldn’t. I had used it before in another context—simplicidad—that was one word, another was, sencillez, both mean simplicity and neither is hard to say—sem-plee-cee-dad (accent on the last syllable); sain-see-YAAZ (double ll’s pronounced like a Y…or a J if you’re from Columbia or Argentina). I wasn’t sure which was best, so I planned to use both, like a walking thesaurus. But when I tried I couldn’t pronounce either. I just wanted to say a simple word simply. No purring R’s, nothing fancy. Simple. Simplicity itself. But my mouth was too full and the buzzing felt like a flaying live wire whipping back and forth. There was no room for anything but the one thing I didn’t want.
My face was hot and the front of my shirt was already dotted with blots of Rorschach sweat. Read the smudges: “What trips you up?”
I stammered trying to spit the words from my mouth. I wanted to teach my workshop, to leave and have everyone amazed at how much Spanish I had learned in a year. I wanted to people to say: Mira, es casi latino! he’s almost Latino! I wanted more than anything to teach my first workshop in Spanish and not make an ass of myself. But I fell headlong into a stammering mess.
I saw my house back in the states—comfortable in Indiana—extravagant in Chiquimula. The weight of all the letters following my name felt like a string of pearls at a picnic. I felt the irony of a sabbatical, the economic privilege of time and money to travel and be with people who had neither the money nor the time to do the same.
I couldn’t hide, standing in front of three-dozen people, each one willing to help me find the words I needed. I needed to end the talk and get out of there. The longer I spoke the more obvious it was that I was working with a limited palate of words, repeating them in a fashion to make my point but unable to take us as deep as I wanted us to go. It was best to come clean and to confess that I was falling apart—I wasn’t fooling anyone.
“I don’t know what to say,” and I told them that I was feeling embarrassed, guilty, that I had nothing more to say, and couldn’t finish the talk. I’d never done this before, even when, years ago, irate with class, I had too much to say that I walked out of the room leaving them confused until the next week.
Qué pasó? I heard someone ask.
“What’s wrong?” I looked at the floor and mumbled about how I had come from a wealthy and materialistic country, that’s ‘what’s wrong!’ I knew nothing about their lives, that’s ‘qué pasó!” I had no business talking to them about anything, much less about sencillez. I don’t know whether they had ever witnessed someone crumble before their eyes under the collective weight of their gringo life, but that’s what they got when they invited me to speak.
“Just tell the truth, hermano,” I heard a woman say.
“I don’t know what that is,” I said.
“I have no idea what the truth is.”
The enormity of the room collapsed, the air was gone, and we were all squeezed into shoebox. But in the box echoed, “I don’t know…I have no idea.” Still looking at the floor I added that I felt like un mentiroso y un mendigo, a liar and a beggar.
Thereon I knew.
*David Johns is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. He is traveling to Latin America a lot these days and regularly takes ESR students with him.
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