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Best of 2013: How Would I Know?

Originally published on August 21

Published Monday, December 30, 2013 12:04 am

A psychiatrist asked his patient, "Do you hallucinate?" The patient replied, "How would I know?" A fish doesn't know it's stuck in water, because for the fish, it is quite comfortable forced to live in an environment that would be detrimental to other life. Such an analogy demonstrates how we live in a world not designed for any one of us, but rather for us all. This observation is not rocket science; it is common sense ... if not to everyone.

 

How would I know? is a question that wrestles through a burden of proof in the 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men. Reginald Rose's CBS television series play was rewritten in 1955 for theater, and then again for the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda; but the story always remained the same. 

 

It is a tale about human nature, about humility, confidence, illusion and ego. In Twelve Angry Men, the jurors were eager to carve the accused's future into stone for an alleged crime, without any deliberation. But one of them: juror eight (played by Fonda), took exception to being part of what appeared to be only a facade of justice.

 

Fonda entered the deliberation room wearing no more than a plain suit and a moral compass. All of the other jurors were so sure the accused did the crime, their swagger joked about a guilty verdict and making it home before dinner. After briefly mocking their task and its courtly formalities, they all agreed to begin their duty with a preliminary vote, the outcome: eleven - guilty, and one - not; just one vote shy of the unanimous vote needed for a ruling. 

 

Flamed with outrage over juror eight's not-guilty vote, the others chose to hurl insults, ignorance and bigotry at Fonda, with hopes of convincing him of what they claimed they heard during the trial. Their impatience and anxiety to quickly conclude their assignment only reenforced Fonda's commitment to impartiality. 

 

After hours of throwing slander and insults around the jury room, in the likeness of a food fight, Fonda's doubt started to whittle its way into the certainty of the others. "How do you know the accused is guilty?" Fonda would ask, as he peeled away at their prejudice until his will to find the truth became contagious. 

 

One by one, each would renounce their recall of what they thought they heard at trial, and one by one they closed the door to where their preconceived notions had taken them. The film's finale was a 12-0, not guilty vote.

 

It would be an illusion for any of us to solely rely on our own beliefs and think we could get it right, when passing judgment on one another; I believe and I know are not synonymous.    

    

It's tough getting past our own convictions when judging others; but to resist and ignore the significance of other perspectives when doing so is smug at best. That is the principle behind assembling 12 people for a jury.

 

"How would I know," is akin to the 440 B.C. Socrates quote: "I know I know nothing." Socrates viewed knowledge as organic, not born to any ideology, religion or methodology. He saw himself as a student of life. 

 

It's possible that modern times aren't suffering from a lack of knowledge, but rather from an insufficient amount of doubt and uncertainty necessary to obtain impartial conclusions.

 

How much must we know to know that we just don't know? Maybe knowledge is no more than a temporary understanding; and being open to enduring infinite interpretation is what Socrates professed.  

 

John Muir said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." It certainly stands to reason that if we seek to find how things are connected, we will; yet, such a quest may require more inquiry and pluck than most of us are willing to entertain.

 

When considering the flip side to that equation: a rush to judgment, I believe the jury is in. By all measures, the most important part of any car is its brakes. While not being able to go, could be problematic, not having the option to stop, could be consequential to life itself.

 

This isn't to suggest we all labor over each decision or become a slave to inquest, but that if we exercise precautionary practices when seeking resolve we might unveil what is sure to be regret.   

 

This may be why many of us admit to learning more from our mistakes then we do from successes. When we find ourselves in the weeds we can often locate the blunder that drove us there, but when we succeed, why must we rush to congratulate ourselves?

 

The famed gunslinger Doc Holliday was notorious for his playing of cards. It wasn't that he kept something up his sleeve, but that that he made sure no one else did. He knew the deck like Tarzan knew the jungle, and he handled the cards like Zorro did a sword, but he still had to deal with what he was dealt. 

 

There are no guarantees for tomorrows, and if we could see into the future, what would we find, except that we got there not knowing enough. How can we see color without contrast or feel without being touched? I don't know.

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