When I was 15 years old, my writing mentor and television producer and director and friend Marshall Jamison said during one of our regular, weekly, writing meetings, “The longer I live, the less I know.”

I was rattled because he was 50 years older than I was. I argued with him that I “already knew everything!”

Marshall sat behind his desk at Nebraska ETV and smiled at me.

He nodded as I instructed him the world was “either right or wrong; black or white. What else is there to know?” I think I may have even stood up and put my fists on my hips and leaned into the neutral space dividing us between
his desk.

He leaned back in his chair — even sitting down he was huge and tall — and reached into a file cabinet and pulled out an empty tin of peanuts.

Marshall peeled back the yellow plastic lid on the peanuts can and plucked out a cigarette.

He was trying to stop smoking and forcing the fretful process of opening a tin to get to a cigarette was his way of breaking the habit.

He lighted the cigarette and blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

In his warm and luscious, booming, voice he said, “The world is only grey, David.

There are not colors any longer. It’s all right. It’s all wrong. It’s only what you do about it that matters now and the longer you’re alive, the less you know what you think you knew.”

I remember sort of foaming at the mouth about how he had to know more than I did and that he was being disingenuous telling me he knew less than me.

As I blathered on, the smoke from his cigarette was methodically filling the room.

I left that meeting with Marshall wondering what he meant and why I wasn’t understanding him. Why wasn’t I able to catch the lesson he was teaching?

It took me years to learn the truth of his words. I learned the nothingness of successes and the eternity of disappointments. I learned temperamental joys and rightful fears.

I learned sometimes to win is to lose. I learned winning doesn’t mean you gained anything. I learned you can be lonely in the company of others and wholly entertained by your lonesome self. As I grow older, I fight to remember those lessons.

These universal unknowables are not right or wrong or black or white — but they are indeed grey and sharp and the color of cigarette smoke wafting from the wisdom of your elders — if you’re smart enough, while being dumb enough, to allow the lessons to wash over you.

17 Comments

  1. “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. – Socrates
    David,
    I read this quote by Socrates when I was young, didn’t have an opportunity to question the profound thinker but I found it very fascinating. I started questioning myself – “what are the things that I don’t know about life”? I was clueless, because I didn’t have the depth to fathom the answer. I still don’t. It only makes me realize I need to understand/ comprehend a lot more…

  2. Hi Katha —
    Yes, these questions are hard. Young people only earn wisdom through success and failure and many of them have no idea what it means to really fail or to really find a shining success because they have been so protected by their helicopter parents.
    Some of the greatest young minds with this wisdom are created in terrible poverty. You quickly learn what you don’t have and how you may never get to the other side to divine the goblets of the living. You try to strive onward despite the despair.
    For the rest of us who struggle with meaning and importance and place in the world, we are confounded by how little we know about anything. Knowledge is momentary and to realize what is a fact today may become a fleeting faith tomorrow is a hard wisdom to swallow.