I remember working with Hector, a charming, sweet boy, who had no interest in school. It turned out that his attention was focused elsewhere: at age 12, he was the man of the house, trying his best to protect his single mother and numerous siblings and to live up to his family nickname, "Macho." I talked with his mother, Angela, about her parenting practices, including the implications of Hector's nickname, and coached her on more effective child-rearing strategies.
Meanwhile, my own wife was about to give birth, and one day I informed Angela that I'd be out of the office for a month, explaining why. "Oh," she said, nodding knowledgeably. "How many children is this?"
"My first," I said proudly.
"Your first?!" she repeated, flabbergasted. Then she laughed. "Why, you don't know anything!"
Indeed. I was embarrassed. But when I shared this story in our next supervision meeting, my colleagues chuckled sympathetically and then asked what I'd learned in that experience of "not-knowing." They were genuinely interested. It didn't occur to me that I was immersed in a rare and precious moment in time, and that the value placed on not-knowing would soon go the way of the typewriter and the rotary phone. In CMH settings today, therapists are pressured to display expertise, accomplish a great deal in a short time, and apply the same "correct" intervention on clients of widely divergent histories, cultural backgrounds, and temperaments.
Still, that early permission to "not know" and to simply remain curious has stayed with me. At odd times and in odd places—waiting at the tail end of a grocery line, or greeting a challenging client as he slouches into my office, or conversing with my daughter over lunch—I find myself reveling in the complexity that swirls around me. What might be actually happening here? So little, really, is certain. And the less certainty, the more possibilities one can entertain.