Knowing and Not Knowing

We generally know what we know, and sometimes we even know what we don’t know — or at least we feel there is something we don’t know. This second feeling gives rise to conspiracy theories because we know that there’s more to many news stories, for example, than we are being told.

But we can’t know what we don’t know that we don’t know. Or maybe I mean we can’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know. An example of this is grief. I thought I knew what grief was, and I thought I knew that there was more to grief than I knew, but there was no way I could have ever known the truth about the epic grief after the loss of a life mate/soul mate. How could I? I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Only those who experience it can know the truth of it. Until you’ve been there, you don’t even know there is such a feeling even when people tell you there is.

This is also true of mundane things. For example, I am reading a book about the blue people of Kentucky.

What? Blue people? Yes, there were such people. I didn’t know about them, and it shocked me to realize that I hadn’t known that I didn’t know, but it shouldn’t have shocked me. How could I have known such a thing if I didn’t know it? It’s not as if blue (Blue Man Group aside) is a color we associate with humans on a regular basis. Oh, there is that whole blue blood thing, but that’s different than skin color. Supposedly the phrase originated with the Spanish — the purebred Spanish were white skinned, and so the blue of their veins was easily visible, but as they intermarried with the Moors, those hybrids had a darker skin and so their veins weren’t as visible.

On the other hand, the blue people of Kentucky actually were blue, though it wasn’t a skin condition. Rather, it was a rare hereditary blood disorder called methemoglobinemia inherited through a recessive gene from both parents. Their blood was blue due to a lack of oxygen in the hemoglobin. In the 1960s, doctors discovered that a commonly used dye called methylene blue could donate a free electron to the methemoglobin so it could bond with oxygen.

The blue people of Kentucky weren’t the only blue people — some isolated Inuit communities in Alaska were also blue. And there must have been others because the two people who were responsible for the blue folk of Kentucky were not blue themselves — the man was a French orphan, the woman a red-haired, pale white American, but both had the recessive gene.

Which makes me wonder if there really were blue blooded royals in ancient Spain, and that the story of their veins showing through their pale skin was simply that — a story.

All this brings me back to the whole thing about not being able to know what we don’t know that we don’t know. There are a lot of things I don’t know, but I know I don’t know them such as fractals or string theory. But since I can’t know what I don’t know that I don’t know, how could I ever learn about things I don’t even know exist? I suppose it comes down to the simple truth that I don’t need to know such things, and if I do need to know them, I will either be forced into the knowing, such as with grief, or stumble upon the knowing, such as with the blue-skinned people.

Either way, from your standpoint, it’s probably not worth your time trying to untangle these thoughts. It’s enough to know what we know and know what we don’t know without going further into the mental maze than that.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.