I’ve never been the best at standardized tests, so the SAT was a bit of a struggle. I studied for the test, memorizing words and practicing math problems. After taking it, I didn’t feel as though I knew anything more than what I had haphazardly internalized for the purpose of the exam.
We have learned to quantify knowledge because numbers imply certainty, and, in certainty, we find comfort. We like to count how many things we know. We know that doing certain extracurriculars, taking certain seminars and following certain career paths will lead us to certain futures. We are afraid of saying “I don’t know” in various contexts — in class discussions when we haven’t done the reading and when people ask what our plans are for the summer or after college. Therefore, we are unable to realize the value of uncertainty in our educations at Yale and beyond.
A couple weeks ago, while I was writing a piece for my fiction class, I realized that I was attempting to envelop the experiences of someone I did not know. Similarly, in another class, we were reading Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” a novel about the experience of an Indian boy who is stranded on an island with a tiger. In the novel, Martel paints a reality that he himself did not live. I began to wonder how far we can stretch our empathy; when, I asked, did empathy bleed into a false certainty?
It is difficult to know and understand the experiences of those whose lives are vastly different from our own, whose realities are complex and nuanced in ways we cannot digest. I cannot even know the lives of my parents, their childhoods, the joy and pain of their distinct realities.
We want to know events and people, to boil them down to their statistics and trends so that we can understand them. We want to understand our friends based on what we can see of them — the organizations they belong to, the majors they pursue — but of course each reality is imbued with color and nuance, and when we reduce people to these qualities we move further away from understanding them. When we try to quantify others’ pain, we are left with a dehumanizing list of statistics, of headlines. We cannot know the lives of those affected by the Parkland, Florida, shooting or the suicides at Yale last year through numbers and statistics. When we try to understand through quantifying, we are left with a sanitized vocabulary of discussing personal and national tragedy — a vocabulary as disposable as the one demanded by the SAT. Perhaps our fault lies in the very perception that our educations are to leave us with more certainties than uncertainties.
To empathize does not mean that we have to assume certainty. We can write about characters we do not know, hear about our friends’ lives and try to comprehend, mourn and protest with the victims of tragedy. But we should refrain from wanting to quantify others’ experiences so they become digestible to us. We should not neglect to consider individual human complexity in the larger scope of trends and statistics. We should not be afraid to admit that we do not know, whether in reference to a problem set question or a line of W.H. Auden’s poetry or the anticipated question of summer plans.
So often at Yale we want to equate intelligence with certainty, with “knowing,” but intelligence comes in embracing uncertainty. The texts we read, the organizations we belong to and the conversations we have with our peers and members of the New Haven community should complicate our notions of certainty, making us less ready to accept the simple systems and patterns of our world.
Last year, I tutored with Bridges English as Second Language every Saturday morning, and my student and I would often exchange stories of our past weeks. Often, she would tell me about the household in which she worked, how she wanted to obtain her work visa, how she was scared because of the election results. Many Saturday afternoons, I would return to my suite more uncertain than when I had left. There was so much I would never know about her life; our paths would always be divergent. I confronted my texts hoping to find a sense of comfort, but, in them, I found more uncertainty, more questions without answers. I did not like the taste of uncertainty on my tongue.
But perhaps my uncertainty was the answer. Uncertainty allows us to be truly empathetic individuals, for we can read the occasional rudeness of a classmate or friend not as black and white insensitivity but as a product of something else, something more personal. Uncertainty allows us to notice the hidden complexities of each other’s lives. Uncertainty unites us, for to not know is to be human. Each day at Yale and beyond, as we grow and experience new things, we will know less, but perhaps this is exactly what allows us to understand more.
Meghana Mysore is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.