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  • Reverend James Squire

Know What You Don't Know

I lead my life with the premise that “once you understand something you can tolerate it” and move forward. The use of the word, tolerate, is not a negative. It doesn’t mean “to put up with” in this concept. I first discovered this guideline for life by reading a work of psychologist, Bruno Bettlelheim. Tolerance here means removing a block that would enable you to keep moving forward with any issue that was challenging you as you seek understanding.

This past week I was talking to an expert in a particular field about an issue that was important to me. I told him that I had been doing a lot of research to understand it better. He asked, “What did you learn?” My response was, “I learned that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” That’s why I have you to fill in the blanks so that I can move forward.” Know what you don’t know.

When I was reading today’s Inquirer, I learned that Cecily Littleton, scientist and Darwin relative, had died at the age of 95. What I didn’t know was that she was “a pioneering scientist who studied X-ray crystallography and astronomy, an energetic horticulturist, and the great granddaughter of famed 19th century English naturalist Charles Darwin. She designed landscapes at the Episcopal Academy campus in Merion before we moved the campus West to Newtown Square.”

A good bit of her landscape work was done around Christ Chapel, the signature building on campus designed by Vincent Kling, then a member of our Board of Trustees.

Unlike Vicki Squire, Adam Squire, Courtney Squire, Meredith Rainey, and Thaddeus Squire, I barely know anything about plants, bushes, and trees. Vicki has transformed our property into Longwood Gardens East, Adam and Courtney have an organic Farm, and Thaddeus and Meredith are creating beauty on their property designing it into a well-planned place for flowers, plants, and trees. Meanwhile I know nothing about any of that. Thaddeus knows the Latin names of everything that he plants, and all of these family members can have informed conversations about what beauty they are creating. On my good days I can tell ivy from a fern. That’s it!

This hasn’t changed since my days working with Cecily Littleton. She would come into the office when she knew that I was not seeing someone there and ask me my opinion on what she was going to do next. She would always ask what I thought, and my standard response was, “It seems good to me.” She would then go about her work digging in dirt as she transformed the area into something that said, “Here’s to life and beauty.” I think that she knew that I knew nothing about what she wanted to do, but she was such a humble self-effacing person that she never pointed it out to me, and I never thought to say, “Cecily, I don’t know a thing about what you are doing.”

Can you imagine how silly I felt after reading about her vast research and knowledge as well as being a direct descendant of Charles Darwin. I knew none of that until today. What are the lessons learned?

Seek understanding. That is important but, know what you don’t know. I have spent a good bit of time with people who pretended that they knew more than they did. Once I would scratch the surface of their knowledge or experience, there wasn’t much there.

Be humble. Let other people discover what you know and can do.

But last and perhaps most important to know is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is an essential ingredient when encountering “the other” who is someone who is different from you in many different ways including race, the other isms, and what you may find interesting.

Cecily was a daily presence. She had an understated demeanor. There were no messages from her like look at my experience and how important I am. She would always ask my permission to make the changes that she thought would be good to make. She never assumed. She spoke with a wonderful English accent, and she knew what I didn’t know and never belittled me or my opinion, or lack thereof, in any way. She never communicated that because of my lack of knowledge that she knew what’s best for me and the area surrounding the chapel. Instead she invited me into being part of all of her decisions.

We all need a Cecily Littleton in our lives to be a reminder of the best attributes of humankind which is important as well for the workings of a civil, ethical, society.

Here’s to you, Cecily!!!! I know that she is producing beauty on another shore in the afterlife. I can still hear her daily greeting, “Hi! It’s me!”

Cecily, my answer is still the same, “It seems good to me!” Yes, I wish I were mature enough back then to indicate, “Cecily, I don’t know what I don’t know.”

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