Wednesday, August 22 , 2018, 1:06 am | Fair 63º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 134) — When Wise Words Come From Your Bête Noir

Oblique Strategy #29 — It’s hard to be a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

Inspired by the relentless activity of two children and the work I was doing on this column, my daughter-in-law, Barbie, made the off-hand statement, “It’s hard to be a caterpillar turning into a butterfly,” as a way to explore the similarities between divorce and childhood.

Presumably, caterpillars in transition are clueless about what’s happening to them and don’t know what, if anything, they are turning into.

We know divorce is a life-defining event and that change is inevitable and unavoidable. Like the caterpillar, divorcing people don’t know how or what they will be at the end of the process. Unlike the caterpillar, they are aware of their ignorance, but what they can’t know is the depth and breadth of that ignorance.

Understanding that I don’t and can’t know the extent of my own ignorance is a realization that came rather late in my life.

When we hear a new idea from someone we esteem, we are inclined to believe it or at least give it full consideration. If we hear the same proposition from someone we hold in low regard, a bête noir, we are inclined to disbelieve it.

But the truth of falsity of an objective proposition is independent of the identity of the person who expresses it. To disbelieve what a person says because we don’t like them can be efficient, but it can lead to the rejection of information or ideas that we need or that we can use to accomplish whatever our objective might be.

Last weekend I was referred by an esteemed colleague to a website. Its current post was a list of five lessons for clear thinking attributed to the wisdom of former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara.

I think the “lessons” were principles of thought that McNamara, because of his rarely equaled and unsurpassed arrogance, failed to employ as he drove this country into a disastrous war.

My emotional reaction to the image of McNamara — stimulated by this article that was probably by a writer who wasn’t alive when McNamara was in power — was so strong that I couldn’t read the article carefully enough to even paraphrase what it says. It’s an example of weak, lazy, self-indulgent thinking — bad thinking.

McNamara survived as my personal bête noir after his death and until he was replaced by another arrogant defense secretary who confidently invaded a different country for bad reasons with the same disastrous outcome.

On February 12, 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld was asked at a news briefing about the absence of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. His famous reply:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

I don’t want to believe everything Rumsfeld has ever said. Since there were no WMD and since the government of Iraq was not supplying terrorists with the WMD it didn’t have, this unnecessarily long statement with its alliterations and rhythm could be relegated to the category of double-talk by high-ranking officials.

Here’s the damn punch line. In his annoying, arrogant way, and in defense of his determination to take the country into another disastrous war, Rumsfeld’s words identified and placed in perspective a problem I’d been thinking about during the eight years since I installed a drip irrigation system.

To purchase the materials for my project, I went to a guy I knew who worked for a company that sold to professionals. Dave asked me to tell him exactly what I was planning to do and how I intended to do it. I said I would use one line originating at a hose bib and controlled by a single valve. Dave walked me through the project one step at a time and selected the necessary parts as he did so.

I followed Dave’s instructions and within a couple of hours I had my system running, but I saw that it should be simple to expand the project by adding three more valves. Dave’s company was closed, but I could get similar materials at any home improvement store, so that’s what I did.

Before the sun went down on Sunday, I had irrigation lines running all over the property. They were controlled by a set of four electronic valves that would allow for delivery of a precise amount of water wherever it was needed.

Ready to test the system, I slowly turned the water supply on and up to full volume — water was spraying everywhere. The various devices I installed seemed to be working, but it was hard to tell because they were dwarfed by unplanned high-volume fountains erupting at various, unplanned locations.

The problem was bad connections. Springing into action, I thought of myself as a dermatologist performing biopsies, and I cut through the pipe on each side of every leaking connection and took them all back to the store on Monday.

At first I thought there must be something wrong with the supplies. But by the time I walked into the store I had considered my problematic history with DIY projects and said, “What did I do wrong?”

It didn’t take long for the guy who was helping me to figure out, “It looks like every time you should have used pipe thread, you used hose thread and when you should have used hose thread, you used pipe thread.”

Hose thread? Pipe thread?

For the next eight years I wondered from time-to-time: What question could I have asked to learn that there was a difference between hose thread and pipe thread?

Whenever I could wedge the subject into a conversation I’d ask: “Do you know the difference between hose thread and pipe thread?” Not many people do, and I didn’t find anyone who really wanted to talk about it.

I came to consider this to be an example of the uncharted depths of ignorance. I discovered there is a Platonic dialogue (Meno) about the Learner’s Paradox. Socrates doesn’t solve the problem of how one learns what he doesn’t know he doesn’t know but insists — at all costs — in the persistence of inquiry.

And then Rumsfeld explains the problem in a way that’s hard to forget. To paraphrase: There are things we know and things we don’t know. Of what we don’t know there are two categories: a) What we know we don’t know, and b) What we don’t know we don’t know. It’s the latter that will cause trouble.

When it comes to involuntary self-transformation, we might take a class or get a guide, but ultimately we have to call our own shots. The way we have to deal with second-category ignorance is to muddle through.

We should receive new ideas and information with the attitude of humility and with an open mind because we won’t always appreciate the validity or importance of information and ideas when first encountered.

If necessary, as with many lawyers, the mind should be opened forcefully. We should know, and accept in advance, that mistakes will be made, and most of them can be corrected.

Oblique Strategy #30 — Why is it so hard to change your mind?

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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