We all have a moral compass that guides us. It keeps us from punching the people who upset us and lets us know we need to apologize for telling our sister she’s fat. But we also experience a sort of silly guilt for things that aren’t really moral issues but make us feel bad for one reason or another.
My older sister Catie will make herself eat the end piece of a loaf of bread simply because she doesn’t want it to be neglected (or wasted, either). I also have a friend who, when she and her husband are driving, makes him pull over if she sees any small creatures crossing the road. Then, like a guardian angel, she gets out and gently picks up whatever the creature is and moves it across the road to safety.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel bad for not helping bugs cross the street. However, I do feel slight twinges of silly guilt when I look at my reading list and see all the books I haven’t read yet. I feel bad when I look on my shelf or by my bed and see stacks of abandoned volumes waiting for me to come back to them.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel bad for not helping bugs cross the street. However, I do feel slight twinges of silly guilt when I look at my reading list and see all the books I haven’t read yet.
I’m a reader. I love books. I sometimes fall asleep at night with my light on and a book next to my face. But, to be honest, I’m not always as committed as I should be. Sometimes I acquire books faster than I consume them. The other day I walked into Barnes and Noble with the intention of buying a children’s poetry book for my nephew, and I walked out with one for him—and one for me. Now it’s been almost a month and I’ve cracked the cover of Runny Babbit Returns a grand total of two times. It sits on top of my living room bookshelf, shooting me shaggers of dame every time I walk past.
I recently I read an article, though, that made me realize I should probably save my guilt for things like embezzlement and murder, because, it claimed, having too many books to read can actually be a good thing, and that the people who have ginormous reading lists are actually super geniuses or something. I’m not sure if I really belong in that demographic, but it’s been a nice way to rationalize the silly guilt I feel for all the books I’ve borrowed, bought, or been given and never read or finished.
Just for full disclosure, though, I’m not writing about having too many books because I want to write about having too many books. I’m writing about it because the article brought up a paradox that, I’ve found, has deep significance for my own life, and it might for yours, too. So, if you don’t remember the last time you cracked open a book and can’t relate to anything I’ve just written, read on, friend, because being a Barnes & Noble junkie is not what this piece is really about. (But if you do struggle with overspending in the literary section of your budget and need a way to justify your frivolous habits, this post may be mildly helpful.)
Here’s what I mean.
The Anti-Library Paradox
Having a reading list you can never keep up with can actually be a good thing, the article stated, because it indicates that you’re curious and hungry to learn.1 You focus on digging into all the things you don’t know rather than staying in the safe area of what you already do know. Shelves of unread books can be a constant visual reminder of your limited knowledge, the volumes standing as emblems of perspectives you’ll one day empathize with, paradigms that will someday shift, and things you’ll eventually find out you were wrong about. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubs a person’s collection of unread books an anti-library and even says that unread books are more valuable than read ones.
In case you don’t see it yet, here’s the paradox: Most of us find it impressive to hear how many books someone has already read, not what they haven’t read. We could look at someone with a large personal library, and if they’ve read everything they own, we’d naturally assume he or she must be very intelligent. But in a sense, the person with a large, growing library that has yet to be conquered—their anti-library—may be more intelligent, or at least intellectually ahead.
Why? Because the growing number of volumes indicates they realize how little they actually do know, which is the first step in learning anything or doing anything great. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, which helps you develop intellectual humility and learn faster. Then, in the context of acquiring knowledge, the number of books you buy increases.
So, if you’re like my little sister Sarah who lamented to me one New Years that she’d only read 65 books out of her 70-book goal for the previous year, just sit back and let yourself feel a little bit of pride. Having more books than you can manage really means that you’re smart, or something like that. As Taleb put it, “Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.”2
It’s good to feel stupid
The anti-library paradox is really something that runs all through life though. Look around you. The people who focus more on what they don’t know or the ones who are more aware of their weaknesses and limited knowledge are often the ones who have the most potential in life and go the furthest, because they’re humble, willing to question, and able to adapt. On the other hand, the people who are the most confident and certain of everything are often the most inept, because they’re so sure they’re right, they’re unteachable.
So, ironically, too much certainty, in one sense, imprisons us, while delving into the unknown keeps us free.
This isn’t what we naturally think though. Knowing something for certain makes us feel safe and smart. Knowing we’re doing all the right things makes us feel secure. Seeing how much we don’t know makes us feel, well, stupid and weak and vulnerable. We’d all like to think we’re open to learning new things, but the tendency of human nature is to be suspicious of the unfamiliar. No one likes to feel stupid and weak and vulnerable, so we stay away from what we don’t know.
No one likes to feel stupid and weak and vulnerable, so we stay away from what we don’t know.
The desire for certainty can lead us to focus so much on what we do know and what we are doing right that we actually become completely blinded to all that’s left to discover. This then can lead to a false sense of confidence. Psychologists call it the Dunning-Kruger effect, a phenomenon where “people who are ignorant or unskilled in a given domain tend to believe they are much more competent than they are.”3
You’ve met them. I’ve met them. Often we’ve been them. The person who watched a YouTube video on this or that subject and now all of the sudden they feel they’re an expert in a given area. They’re so certain of what they know that they’re completely unaware of how much more there is to know.
But the anti-library paradox tells me that, in life, the place of realization, the place where I see how wrong I was, all the things I thought I knew but didn’t, that’s really the best place to be. Is it comfortable? Eh, not at first, but it’s really the only launching pad to going anywhere worthwhile.
It’s bad to feel holy
The Bible is riddled with characters who suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect. I think God put lots of them in His book so that we can learn about ourselves. Jesus was constantly surrounded by people who were certain of everything. They knew how to interpret Scripture, what they should wear, what to eat, what to say, and when to say it. And they knew what everyone else needed to do too. Jesus spent most of His time in ministry trying to get these people to discover the anti-library paradox. And they spent their time trying to tell Jesus what Jesus should do.
So one day, Jesus told a story about two guys who went up to the temple to worship. One of them, a Pharisee, started to pray, thanking God that he wasn’t like all the thieves, prostitutes, non-tithe-payers, and other wicked rule breakers. He was certain of his perception of God, himself, and others. And he felt safe.
…the thing he seemed to know for certain was that he was a sinner and that God might be merciful to him.
The other guy was a tax collector. He didn’t talk about all the things he knew or all the things he was doing right. He didn’t recite whole chapters of Scripture. In fact, the thing he seemed to know for certain was that he was a sinner and that God might be merciful to him.
Jesus ended His story by saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14, NIV).
I grew up thinking that making mistakes made me bad. Doing something wrong felt shameful. Now I’m starting to think that when I realize I’ve been wrong about something or I see how much I don’t know or when I finally admit that I’ve been selfish, that’s when Jesus is ready to throw a party. When I’m willing to step into uncertainty and let go of my own desire to be right, that’s when Jesus leans in and whispers, From here, we can go anywhere.
What if, just as building an anti-library could put you intellectually ahead, there is an anti-holiness that could put you spiritually ahead? What if, in a way, focusing on all the big and beautiful goodness of God that is yet to be discovered is where real godliness was found? What if we were to celebrate our spiritual shortcomings and see them as moments of awakening instead of as moments of failure? What if we were to revel when we discover that God isn’t actually who we think He is instead of shrinking back? What if we were to celebrate when we find out we were wrong? What if, instead of freaking out when we don’t have the answer, we sit back and say, “Wow, there’s so much I don’t know,” and be okay with that? What if the fact that we don’t fully understand God is evidence that He is who He is?
…the truth is, if you feel holy, you most likely aren’t.
It’s part of our sinful human nature to think, whether consciously or subconsciously, that what we know about God and the Bible and what we do for Him makes us safe and good. We equate certainty with holiness. But the truth is, if you feel holy, you most likely aren’t. Admitting we’ve been wrong, or that we don’t know as much as we thought we did, or that all of the things we thought made us a good really just belong in a pile of rubbish feels terrible. But according to Jesus’ story, that’s the best place we can possibly be.
In Ellen White’s epic little book Steps to Christ, she basically says that experiencing the anti-library paradox in your spiritual life might feel like taking a cold shower, but it’s really like winning the lottery:
“The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature. This is evidence that Satan’s delusions have lost their power; that the vivifying influence of the Spirit of God is arousing you. No deep-seated love for Jesus can dwell in the heart that does not realize its own sinfulness. The soul that is transformed by the grace of Christ will admire His divine character; but if we do not see our own moral deformity, it is unmistakable evidence that we have not had a view of the beauty and excellence of Christ” (Steps to Christ, pg. 64-65).
The Grand Canyon
A couple of years ago I ended a relationship. Though difficult, it was a good decision. During that process and the aftermath, I realized many things were wrong with me, so I cried a lot and watched Cheaper by the Dozen. I didn’t really feel confident or certain about anything in life. But you know what? As frustrating as it was to feel so unsure and uncertain, it opened me up to many big and beautiful truths God wanted to teach me.
On New Year’s Eve this year, I was at the Grand Canyon, watching the sunset with some friends. It was my first time there, so when we pulled up, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Whoa. It’s big.”
I didn’t really feel confident or certain about anything in life.
We’re all in our twenties, so of course we went to bed at 2 am and then woke up at 6:30 to go back to the canyon and catch the sunrise. (If you ever get a chance to welcome the new year this way, I highly recommend it.) Sometimes I can be kind of lame and not as impressed with nature as I should be, but it was sobering. I felt like this massive penetration in the ground was penetrating my very soul. I sat at the edge and I knew I was looking at a huge poem of truth God had written for me.
Slowly, imperceptibly, the light grew, and what was once dark and shadowy became many canyons within a canyon and a green river running through the bottom and layer after layer of rose gold and amber and orange rock all shining in the light of the new year.
The new year is still young, but maybe you’re already floundering or feeling disgusted with yourself or you’re ready to give up. Maybe you’re remembering how much you’ve failed Jesus last year or realizing you’ve been wrong about a whole lot of things when it comes to God, life, and yourself. Maybe you have enough questions and uncertainty to fill up the Grand Canyon.
I sat at the edge and I knew I was looking at a huge poem of truth God had written for me.
Can I tell you a secret? That’s a good place to be. In fact, it’s the place best place to be. It’s the place from which you can go anywhere.
So sit back and watch the canyon begin to glow. Cultivate a curiosity for the divine, a thirst for an anti-holiness, and a fear of feeling like you’ve arrived.
Just lean in, friend.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as you.
- Jessica Stillman, “Why You Should Surround Yourself with More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read,” Business Books, December 5, 2017, https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/why-you-should-stop-feeling-bad-about-all-those-books-you-buy-dont-read.html.
- William Poundstone, “‘The Dunning-Kruger President,” January 21, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/head-in-the-cloud/201701/the-dunning-kruger-president.