You don’t know what you don’t know. Strange little phrase, that. It requires that you take a moment to reflect during a situation and check your response with all that you know about the event as it is happening- or, at the very least, temper your reactions until you can be in a space to reflect. Someone cuts you off in traffic: that’s all you know. You have no idea whether they are trying to get to a toilet, hospital, hostage crisis, or just plain didn’t see you. The only thing you know is what’s within your range of sight, hearing, feeling, smell and taste, and we all know there are limitations to all of those (not to mention the myriad ways they can be fooled into believing something false).

Think of how many times you or a friend have had your feelings hurt over something that wasn’t actually the case: “”I came all the way out to this formal dinner just to support you and you didn’t even talk to me,”” only to find out the friend never actually saw you; had no idea you were ever present. The examples could go on forever and even more so if you or they never speak about the incidents to each other. It’s my hypothesis that many a meaningful relationship has ended abruptly because of hurt feelings that were never mentioned close enough to the time of hurt. All because we assume we know things we don’t always know. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Being a black male of a certain age (certain age is about as specific as I’m gone get, so don’t ask), I have had countless encounters with less than desirable endings because of, what I could easily assume was, our different racial make up. Honestly, I usually made that assumption. More than a handful of times there were pretty obvious clues, but as I recollect I have to admit to there being many others that could have had multiple causes other than race as a driving force. Recently, though, I had an encounter while working that made me very glad for having had a refresher course on this topic with the PFO teens.

While servicing a house to rid it of pests (insects) in a neighborhood with a neighborhood watch security program, I noticed a security car slowing down as it approached and just passed the house I was servicing. I continued to work, but I couldn’t help feeling the familiar sinking feeling of being considered too black to walk around someone’s house unaccompanied. I quickly brushed the feeling aside; I was way too irritated with the work day to take on further annoyance about something I have no real knowledge of (I don’t know what I don’t know). The security officer may not have been there because of me.

Turns out both feelings were sort of right: the security was there because I was there, but it was because the homeowner (who was out of town) didn’t want the house treated until they got back so they could clean the dog poo from the backyard and so we could treat the garage. The security guard had them on the phone and approached me only they could talk to me. Had I reacted to his presence in any other way…well, there’s no telling how it would’ve ended. I can safely assume that it would’ve been a much longer interaction and that I would’ve been a lot angrier because of it (it was fast approaching sundown and I still had one more house to get to).

All of our complex issues/difficulties are made up of simple things that add up. Sometimes omitting one from the equation creates one with a more harmonious solution. Remembering, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ is a great place to start.