Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Most Beautiful Phrase I’ve Ever Learned: I Don’t Know

I teach Spanish classes to kids and adults. On the first day of the adult classes I always say more or less the same thing: 

“You are going to mess up. There is no way to learn a language without it. The more you mess up, the more you practice and say things out loud, the faster you learn. This is a safe place to say the wrong things. And just to make sure you know that I’m in the same boat as you, I will share with you one of my most mortifying mistakes. I once told my Spanish roommate that I had a penis sandwich for dinner.” 

 

It sets the tone nicely for the class, because it’s true. It’s also a direct result of what was, for me, the very painful process of learning a language, because when I lived in Spain 20 years ago, I didn’t know how to say the three most beautiful words I know when you string them together: I don’t know.

 

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear that I am a perfectionist. This does not mean my house is always clean or my dishes are always done, but it does mean that I will clean my house and wash my dishes before anyone comes over because I want to present the idea that I have my shit together. One of my friends is mystified that I clean my house before I leave on vacation or before I even go anywhere overnight. Certainly, part of this is because it’s nice to come home to a clean house. But, if I’m being honest, the real reason is in case anyone has to come into my house while I’m gone. I want it to look like I am the kind of person who always has a clean house. (Spoiler alert: I’m not. And I hate cleaning. I do it, but I’d rather be doing almost anything instead of cleaning—it’s become one of the reason why I prefer living in smaller houses: less to clean. And I like to read books, so you can imagine where my time goes if I know there’s no chance of guests showing up.)

 

I still struggle with the clean house piece, so as you can see I’m still at least a recovering perfectionist. But over the past 10 years I have learned this one phrase that has taken A LOT of pressure off of my perfectionist thinking and presenting. 

 

I. Don’t. Know.

 

“Morgan, why do Spanish speakers say “Buenos días—plural—instead of buen día, singular?”

I don’t know. 

“Morgan, how do you say railing in Spanish?”
I don’t know. 

“Morgan, what’s the population of the town where you live?”

I don’t know.

 

Now, I am a pretty solid researcher—thank you, journalism degree—and I can look all these things up, and I will, and have (actually, they say both buen día and buenos días, depending on where you are). But it used to be that I didn’t know how to admit in the moment that I didn’t know something. It used to be I’d be more likely to (wince) make up an answer than admit I didn’t know. 

 

This doesn’t go well when you’re teaching your second language to a bunch of people. I certainly know a lot about Spanish grammar and I have a large Spanish vocabulary—thank you, Latin American language and cultures degree, plus lots of time living in Spanish-speaking countries—but I am not and will never be a native speaker. I don’t always get the prepositions right. I don’t know all the words. I forget where I’ve learned certain slang or vocabulary and whether it’s applicable to other countries as well. Anyone who’s ever really dived (dove? I don’t know) into learning a second language understands this; most beginners do not. Some of them show up to my classes and ask me questions like I hold all the answers when I don’t. I don’t even hold all the answers in English! (Nearly everything I know about English grammar I learned through Spanish grammar.) It’s not my students’ fault they think this. But that doesn’t mean I should let them continue thinking it.

 

My God, Invisible Audience. What a cluster. I didn’t even realize how painful it was to try to present myself as knowing everything until I stopped doing it. It still took a lot of time—it still doesn’t always come easy—but the beauty of admitting I don’t know has opened up all sorts of space.

 

There’s a lot that went into the discovery. First of all, I had to realize how much codependence had to do with it—feeling responsible for others’ feelings and needs. I had to realize that I was putting myself on a pedestal and presenting myself as perfect, then being just as surprised as everyone else—indeed, even more so, I’d expect—when I fell off. And above all, it’s a way I’ve used to hold myself separate from others. Because if they know I’m not perfect, they wouldn’t want me in their life…right?

 

Then of course there’s the flip side: if I can say I don’t know, I can recognize how much it takes for other people to say it. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself in the last 10 years is starting to recognize and appreciate real vulnerability in others, and to want it for myself and in my relationships. It takes vulnerability to say you don’t know. This is so different from the girl who used to be funny—the one who was self-deprecating and tried to win people through being a know-it-all—the girl who couldn’t figure out why her actions didn’t lead to more profound relationships.

 

I don’t have it all figured out, Invisible Audience. That’s what I’m trying to tell you: I don’t know. The older I get, the less I think I will ever have it all figured out. But the more I let that sink in, the more relief there is in it. I feel more able to be myself and let go of that perfection that’s kept me isolated for so long. 

 

Love and I-Don’t-Know-How-Many-Kisses,

Morgan


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