The Answer is “I Don’t Know!”

Posted: August 6, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

by Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post is dedicated to my HUM310: Comparative Contemporary Literature course at the Peoria campus. Every class period they bring their smarts, their wits, and beverages too large for any reasonable person to consume alone.  Two liter bottles, 60oz fountain drinks, jugs of iced tea. Our class is packing more liquid than the Olympic Aquatics Center.)

 The answer is:

I don’t know.

The question is:

To get back to writing for The Flaneur’s Turtle, while also introducing my class to the blog, I had my students brainstorm my next topic. They presented plenty of topics that I would love to write about. And with almost all of them, I could reasonably pinpoint why it was raised. For example:

“How will the Aurora, Colorado tragedy affect movie-going?” (It’s current news and something we discussed in class after it happened.)

“What would you rather have, money or power?” (This question was raised because of the literature we read for class that day.)

“Should Olympic Gymnastics reform its rules?” (This coming in the days following America’s Jordyn Wieber being snubbed for the Individual All-Around due to a new rule.)

I wrote all of the suggestions on the board until we had nine. One student suggested we get to an even ten, so the class thought for a moment for another topic. Finally, a student in the front row said:

“How to handle a breakup.”

Everyone in class laughed a little. Where’d this question come from?And why the laughter? Because it seemingly came out of nowhere, and “surprise” is one of the keys to comedy? Was this a personal question to the student, something that her classmates knew more about than me? Do I just look like the type of dude who doesn’t know anything about relationships? Well, they’d be right.

The student then added, “Why can’t breakups be like that episode of Seinfeld…” referring to when Jerry and his girlfriend, played by Janine Garafalo, have an honest, easy, mutual breakup.


I told the class that for my homework, I would write about one of the topics they suggested. As I thought about which to do, I realized I already had established (or easy) answers for almost everything they asked. How will Aurora impact movie-going? It won’t in the long run. Money or power? Power. Should gymnastics rules be reformed? Yes.

Then I got to that last question. How to handle a breakup?

I have no friggin idea.

And, to take it a step further, does anyone really know? Is a question like that so individualized and multi-faceted that there is no easy response? Sure, someone like Dr. Phil might want to sit you down and say, “Now, what you need to do with your liiiiffee issssss….” But isn’t that all just BS?

There are probably a million articles online about how to handle a breakup, rattling off clichés like “Move on with life. It wasn’t meant to be. Find what makes you happy. Don’t stalk your ex. Get it off your mind with a one-night stand!”

The complexity of the question, coupled with having no real answer, made me want to write about it. But after thinking it over for a day or two, I realized my answer is I don’t know.

And isn’t “I don’t know” sometimes the best answer? We don’t always think so. I had lunch with a friend over the weekend and we discussed our frustration with doctors when the only answer they can give for symptoms is, “I don’t know.” We’ve both experienced stomach problems in our lives, and both of us were told the pain was stress or IBS or maybe an ulcer or who knows. No answer, no diagnosis, no real treatment.

Even if that’s the honest response, we don’t find it acceptable. We want an answer. We want some diagnosis even if it’s bad news. The mystery is just as scary, or even scarier, than putting a name to the ailment.

Teaching sometimes has that same stress. Sometimes students will expect us to know everything, even if it doesn’t relate to our fields. When faced with a question we don’t have an answer for, some people (and we all know a few like this) will opt to just make something up rather than admit they don’t know. But can they be blamed? Don’t we, as a society, sometimes see the lack of an immediate answer as a flaw? But what happens when your audience sniffs out the lie? You lose all credibility.

I’ve found that when I don’t know something, the best answer is “I don’t know.” Simply not knowing is understandable. It is human to not know everything. Not knowing and admitting to not knowing can increase credibility, particularly when that admission is coupled with a willingness and desire to think the question over and seek out an answer. I’d much rather ask a question to someone who is willing to say “I don’t know” and then go find an answer, rather than someone who ALWAYS has an answer for EVERYTHING.

So, how do you handle a breakup?

I don’t know. But if I ever figure out a definitive answer, I’ll let you know.

  1. This is the hardest thing to admit in the education biz, but, as you point out, often it is the most important thing to admit

    • Trish says:

      Dealing with uncertainty is definitely on my list of “I’d really rather not”. When uncertainty comes to light, we are forced to realize that things are never as simple or stable as we’d like to believe. I think about the ways we want to know for sure, and how often that limits possible outcomes. If the answer is not definitive, maybe every answer is permissible.

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