The Gift of Not Knowing It All

Several years ago, the university where I teach selected Dave Eggers' novel The Circle as its common text, meaning that I had to incorporate it into my Rhetoric and Civic Life curriculum. I didn't like the book. Neither did the public at large, apparently, with its film adaptation garnering a weak 16/100 rating from Rotten Tomatoes.

To be fair, you're not supposed to "like" The Circle. Its plot isn't characterized by warmth, enjoyable characters, or redemption. One student said, without a trace of exaggeration, "This is the scariest book I've ever read."

The novel wasn't in the horror genre; it was dystopian. Yet, I understood my student's comment. The Circle was terrifying. In an effort to excel at her new job at a tech company called The Circle, the main character, a recent college grad named Mae, agrees to pilot their emerging technology: a 24/7 body camera that captures and broadcasts every aspect of her life. On the surface, this premise might sound more intrusive than downright terrifying, of course. But I still remember the evening when, stretched out on my couch reading a particularly harrowing chapter, I roughly tossed the book onto the floor because I needed to take a break. My stress level had ratcheted.

Despite The Circle's promise that the complete transparency of their social networks would create a more honest society (and even a flourishing democracy), Mae's life — and the lives of those around her — were destroyed. With every lived moment, millions of followers zinged Mae with messages, commenting on her every conversation, action, and decision. As an employee eager to please The Circle, Mae fully bought into the company's ideologies, yet she shattered privacy, blurred every possible work-life boundary, and ruined real relationships.

But amplify this further and imagine the premise scaled not only to one person (Mae), but to the entire world. The Circle wanted every single person's life to be continually shared, known, consumed, connected, and broadcast.

Even typing this, my cortisol spikes. I want to go sit by a lake, off the grid.

In certain ways, we already experience forms of this. There's infinite content to consume, millions of sound bites to swallow, and abundant ways to share. You have something to say? Our culture would encourage, by all means, blast it. Say it all, read it all, follow it all, absorb it all, respond to it all, know it all.

But this is impossible. No human perfectly can manage every one of their own thoughts and interactions, much less to perfectly manage the continual reactions of every other human to their thoughts and interactions, or to perfectly manage hearing and knowing everyone else's every single thought and interaction.

That much knowledge vastly exceeds our finite human capacity. We can't follow, absorb, respond to, or know it all. It's dizzying.

I haven't thought about The Circle for years, so why did I remember it now? It's because I recently heard a message about God's omniscience. He knows all — all things macro, all things micro, all things past, all things present, all things future. He knows every thought we have and every word on our tongue before we speak it. He knows when we sit and when we stand, our comings and our goings. He hems us in, behind and before. He knows this about us. He knows this about everyone.

He knows all. It's well within his capacity.

In response to this omniscience, David writes in the Psalms, "Such knowledge is too lofty for me, too wonderful for me to attain."

This is a beautiful acknowledgement. It reinforces how our thoughts are not like God's thoughts and our ways are not like His ways. We can't know all.

In fact, I often can't understand myself perfectly. I struggle managing relatively small-scale things, like accurately keeping on top of group text threads with my friends. I'm utterly non-omniscient. In moments when I feel like I have to know it all, respond to it all, share it all, consume it all, I'm crushed by the claustrophobic cognitive and emotional weight.

Sometimes limitations are gifts. Not knowing everything is a gift.

God didn't create us to know everything. Some might be angry that God adamantly withholds this ability from us, as if he's like Jack Nicholas in A Few Good Men declaring, "You can't handle the truth!" But I see the limitation as merciful, like a kind father not forcing a child to carry a suitcase that's impossible for the child to lift, saying, "That's too heavy for you. That's my bag to carry, not yours. Set that burden down. It's mine to lift."

Whether or not Eggers would appreciate this spiritual interpretation is debatable, of course. Still, one of the many reasons The Circle arouses such stress in readers is because it captures not only how impossible, but also how devastating, it is for humans to attempt omniscience.

Granted, like many people, I'm hardwired to figure things out, reason through arguments, mull over conversations, interpret nuances, and make sense of it all. I like knowing and understanding.

But as a follower of Jesus, this isn't always what's required of us. Thank God.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

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