The Courage to Say “I Don’t Know”

I sat with my wife in a tiny exam room with white walls, a short table and two chairs. It had been three days since I’d lost the ability to swallow or feel my left side. My vision felt hazy and my mind was foggy. Hours and tests and doctors and nurses yielded little conclusive evidence as to why. Two days earlier, a middle aged emergency room doctor assured me with extreme  alacrity that I was fine; there was no evidence that anything was wrong. Except, of course, obviously something was wrong. 

The day after that, the orthopedic surgeon who had recently fused two of my cervical vertebrae reviewed his images and further assured me that my neck was “textbook beautiful” and “nothing is wrong.” Except, in all of my nearly forty years of experience so far, the overwhelming sensation of being constantly on the brink of drowning was perhaps the most wrong thing I had ever encountered. 

On this third day—which may as well have been the third millennium—since my symptoms started, all of the assurances and certainty only served to amplify my typically minimal anxiety to an overwhelming pitch. According to the data, nothing seemed to be wrong. Yet according to my body, quite possibly everything was. The neurologist wheeled through the exam room door so quickly that my heart sank in anticipation of what I felt certain would be another brazen assurance. But instead, he dimmed the lights and looked in each of my eyes. In a moment, he turned the lights back on and took a deep breath. 

“I’m sorry to tell you,” he began, “but you had a stroke.” I must have demonstrated utter confusion in my facial expression because he continued, “everyone, all of the people who have reviewed your tests until now, misread them.” He went on to say something about deep expertise and specialized pattern recognition that comes with it, that the practitioners I’d seen so far simply didn’t have that knowledge base and couldn’t be blamed for their oversight, and, I’m sure, other things designed to reduce the likelihood that I might walk out and immediately initiate a malpractice suit. But whatever he was saying, I didn’t much care. I interrupted him to ask the one thing I did care about: what does this mean?

He drew another deep breath. “I don’t know.” Wait, what? Didn’t you just describe yourself as a foremost expert in this very situation? As it turns out, yes he did. And that was precisely how he knew that he did not know how to answer my question. My situation was common enough to have names for each constellation of issues (Wallenberg Syndrome and Horner’s Syndrome, if you’re curious), but not common enough to have a typical trajectory of recovery or specific treatment protocol. Somehow this conversation, with precious little clarity about what had happened in my brain and what it all may mean for my future, was the most reassuring one I’d had so far. I found that even though there were nearly no answers at all, I trusted this doctor more than any other. 

Perhaps it was because he attended to the obvious state of the person in front of him, or perhaps it was the extent to which his long history of looking at brain images that looked exactly like mine made his diagnoses straightforward and obvious to him. I can’t be certain, but it solved the most fundamental problem I was facing, and I was grateful. More than that though, despite my desperate desire for answers to the question of what should or could come next, he had the courage to say that he did not know. 

Not knowing was no relief to me (or to my terrified wife). If anything, it opened an entirely new frontier of panic and uncertainty that we would weather in the coming weeks and months. Nevertheless, it established one clear beacon of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation: a person who was honest and humble enough to tell the truth about the boundaries of his own certitude. 

In their hardest moments, when people are grasping for any story that will allay their fears and create a sense of clarity and certainty that puts them at ease, people often think they want their leaders to have the answers. But sometimes the most courageous act of leadership is to observe only what is truly known, and acknowledge that the rest is a journey you’ll all have to undertake together.