I learned something new this week. Well, I should say that I relearned something old, and it resonated as if it were new. It’s worth sharing.
There is a phenomenon that almost everyone seems to experience, at some point, after surviving something bad that I’ll call the I Should Have Known phenomenon. This phenomenon isn’t isolated to certain types of events. It can be generalized. When you listen to people verbally process a negative event that has left them in the wake of negative consequences and pain, you may hear them utter, “I should have known…”
You might hear someone say this in a shocked state after a car accident: “I should have known. I noticed the driver swerving a few miles back,” and, from what I have observed and personally experienced, many people often agree! Someone might query “Well, why didn’t you stay behind that suspicious driver on the road?” And, what do you say? “I don’t know. I just should have known.”
The I Should Have Known phenomenon is so common that it’s almost mundane in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence. If you’re not the one saying it, then someone else usually is via some form of, “How did you not know?”
What do all these statements have in common? The omniscience of hindsight. I have a saying that I often use with myself: “We are all gods when we look back through hindsight vision.” This is why people often say, “If I could go back in time to one moment, I’d choose X moment and tell myself not to make that choice. My life would be so different now.” Why do we say that? We say this because we know the outcomes of past scenarios–the outcomes that our past selves never could. We know now that our past selves never could have known what was going to happen to them, and there is pain in that. Why?
Why does not knowing the negative outcomes of past events hurt so badly in the present?
I have a theory, and I’m sure it’s not new. Based in my own personal experiences with this phenomenon, I suspect that it has to do with blame and control. Let me illustrate this.
I’ve established that I was abducted when I was much younger. It’s one of those crazy stories that people struggle to believe. It’s a Law & Order: SVU kind of story with many twists and turns. I rarely discuss it. There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if it was worthwhile to survive it, and I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this. Surviving was the easy part. Healing from it and learning to live with what happened have been the hard part. One of my bigger enemies in my journey to heal from this event has been my sense of personal complicity. For years, I couldn’t discuss what happened to me in any detail because I believed that I was at fault. I honestly believed that I should have known that the perpetrator who took me was ill-intentioned and evil. Had I known, I could have avoided him. Had I known, I could have protected myself better. Had I known, I could have…I could have…I could have…
But, I didn’t know.
Why didn’t I know?
Overlay this thought process onto my domestic abuse situation.
Had I known that my ex-husband wasn’t ever going to keep his promises and change, then I would not have stayed. Had I known that it was only going to escalate, then I could have protected myself and my children. Had I known that I didn’t have all the information for twenty years, then I could have made different choices. Had I known…
But, I didn’t know.
Currently, I am doing the deep dive into that past abduction experience in therapy, and, wouldn’t you know, one of the first things to arise was, “I should have known.” Feelings of complicity are extremely common. I know that, and yet I enter into it. I feel it. I admit it. Why?
My theory? If I were at fault or to blame in that event, then I can now presently figure out what I did wrong, correct it in the present, and guarantee that nothing so heinous ever happens to me again. I can experience a measure of control. If I’m the “bad” one in the tragic scenario, then the world is a predictable place. I’m the one who needs fixing. This is one of the primary reasons children believe that they are bad and blame themselves when they are abused. If you had to choose between an unpredictable world full of chaos and uncertainty with no true guarantee that anyone would look after you or love you or a reality in which you deserved your abuse, then which reality would be more acceptable? The scenario in which you deserve the abuse.
If you are inherently bad, worthy of mistreatment or hatred, or just plain stupid, then you’ve got a shot at fixing that, thusly, giving you a sense of control and hope. If you are not bad, deserving of hatred, or unintelligent in any way, then what can you control in terms of outside events? That is the magic question, isn’t it? Because that question is so hard to answer and uncertainty is so hard to deal with, it’s easier to blame oneself and other people for suffering and misfortune. Surely, that person did something to deserve or cause their predicament. I mean, if they did nothing and still got annihilated by life, then what does that say about you or me? Could something equally terrible happen to you, me, or someone we love?
Yes, it could. There are no guarantees, and that is an impossible thought for many people; hence, they blame, wag their fingers, and proclaim judgmentally, “You should have known.” That one sentence is the quickest way to distance themselves from unpredictable suffering and pain. This very belief is what fuels stigma and hatred. It is one of the many reasons people are alienated, marginalized, and mistreated. The victim of suffering becomes the symbol for that which is feared the most, and the quickest way to resolve and quench that fear is to blame the victim for their own suffering.
Well, I can honestly say that there is no way you could have known then what you know now. I have gone over and over seemingly millions of times every detail that led up to my abduction, and the only conclusion that remains is this:
There was no way I could have possibly known that I was living next door to a villain.
Whatever you wonder about in your life be it a past experience, a failed relationship, past abuse, a situation gone terribly wrong, or anything else, I suggest now that there is no way that you could have or should have known what was going to happen. Were that the case, then you wouldn’t be wondering now how you didn’t. The time has come to accept that we did not know and do not know how events will unfold, but we can know ourselves. We can know our own hearts and minds. We can stop engaging blame once and for all, and we can begin to learn how to live with uncertainty in a way that doesn’t make us anxious or fearful. We can get on with the business of building out a life that makes us happy as well as making the world a better place even when we don’t know how anything will work out.
I’ll let Rabbi Sacks close:
“For each of us there are milestones on our spiritual journey that change the direction of our life and set us on a new path. For me one such moment came when I was a rabbinical student at Jews’ College and thus had the privilege of studying with one of the great rabbinic scholars of our time, Rabbi Dr Nachum Rabinovitch.
He was, and is, a giant: one the most profound Maimonidean scholars of the modern age, equally at home with virtually every secular discipline as with the entire rabbinic literature, and one of the boldest and independent of poskim, as his several published volumes of Responsa show. He also showed what it was to have spiritual and intellectual courage, and that in our time has proved, sadly, all too rare.
The occasion was not special. He was merely giving us one of his regular divrei Torah. The week was parshat Noach. But the Midrash he quoted to us was extraordinary. In fact it is quite hard to find. It appears in the book known as Buber’s Tanhuma, published in 1885 by Martin Buber’s grandfather Shlomo from ancient manuscripts. It is a very early text – some say as early as the fifth century – and it has some overlap with an ancient Midrash of which we no longer have the full text known as Midrash Yelamdenu.
The text is in two parts, and it is a commentary on God’s words to Noah: “ Then God said to Noah, ‘Come out of the ark’” (Gen. 8:16). On this the Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One blessed be He said, to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”
The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.”
The moral Rabbi Rabinovitch drew – indeed the only one possible – was that when it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission. God gives us permission. He expects us to go on ahead.”
You have to be prepared to be lonely, at best misunderstood, at worst vilified and defamed. As Einstein said, “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.” To be a pioneer – as Jews know from our history – you have to be prepared to spend a long time in the wilderness…Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty. (The Courage to Live with Uncertainty)