Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

The Truth about What We Don’t Know

In Good Will Hunting, Sean says to Will:

“You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talkin’ about. It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston. So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations…the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling…”

I think there are all kinds of things we’ll never fully understand unless we experience them for ourselves. I don’t think many men can fully grasp what it’s like to go for a run and think about the threat of being attacked with almost every passing car.

I have been hit with a number of eye-opening revelations – experiences that have taught me just how much I didn’t know I didn’t know.


When you’re engaged, people who’ve been married a long time smile at you with a smug sort of kindness.  They say things like,

“You won’t believe it now, but someday you’ll love him even more than you do right now.”

And you don’t really believe it, because how could that even be possible??

A wise pastor once told me that it’s hard to do quality pre-marital counseling with young engaged couples because they are so giddy, so incredibly starry-eyed and optimistic about their love and their future that they can’t even realistically work through would be problems.

He said:

“If I say, ‘It’s going to get hard.’

They say, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh.’

If I say, ‘You’re not going to even want to look at each other sometimes.’

They say, ‘That’s okay – we love each other so much we’ll get through it.'”

After the wedding, when some of the heart-flying fairy dust wears off, we realize that marriage is both better and worse than we knew it could be. We weather more than one I-can-barely-stand-to-look-at-you kind of fights and grow to love our partner far more than we did on the day we said our vows.

But you can’t know this until you’ve lived it. You just can’t.


Mickey and I were married for five years before I started residency. He put in five years of surgery residency with a spouse who only thought she understood his life.

I didn’t understand how not to be frustrated with him being late until it was me stuck at the hospital doing patient care when I was desperate to get home and see him.

During my ob-gyn intern year, I sheepishly apologized for how hard I had been on him about things like empty energy drink cans piled to the level of the dash in his car. I didn’t understand why it had been that way until I was the one spending over a 100 hours a week at the hospital and diet coke cans were piled to the level of the dash in my car.


I thought I knew what my husband’s job was like. I had been in the hospital for a while. I had seen people die. I had seen tragedy on Labor & Delivery, in the Emergency Department, and in the ICU.

And then I did my first trauma rotation and every time the team pagers went off it was a tragedy. Every page meant more pale-faced, shaken families…

  • It meant seeing the parents of a paralyzed 17-year-old after a dive into shallow water
  • the wife of a 47-year old father to three young children with a horrible brain injury after falling from a ladder while cleaning the gutters
  • the crying adult children of a 60-year-old grandmother fractured beyond recognition after a car accident…

It was a never ending stream of misery. I couldn’t have possibly known the weight of it until I felt it. I was almost ashamed when I confessed after just a few days,

“I could never do what you do.”

I saw myself and my husband in a new way – a way I didn’t see… until I saw it.


Before you have children, you hear people talk about how parenthood changes you – how it changes how you see things – and you think they’re exaggerating or embellishing.

You know you will love your children and you hear people talk about how it’s different than any love you’ve felt before and you believe them – sort of…

And then you have a child and this new kind of love is not just a theoretical idea – it has a name and a face.

I could have never imagined how I would lie awake at night thinking of ways to save my children if someone breaks in, or our car goes over the edge of a bridge, or one of them falls in a swamp, or if the house is on fire.

You can’t understand this sort of thing until you’ve looked into your child’s eyes and felt the weight of their trust. You just can’t.


I have recently lived through another gap between my imagination of how something might be and how it actually is.  Before I started this website, I read a lot of Brené Brown. I was inspired by Brené’s use of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote:


I couldn’t wait to be in the arena, but I didn’t really know how it would feel to have strangers make comments like,

‘I feel sorry for your patients’


‘fly to Paris and get some fashion sense!’

It feels more REAL than I had imagined. I understand more than ever, why Brené said this:


In Good Will Hunting, after Sean lectures Will about how little he knows, Sean shows so much wisdom by acknowledging the limits of his own knowledge. He says to Will,

“You’re an orphan right? [Will nods] You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”

Everyone we meet carries a richness of things we don’t know. Experiences we will not live. Perspectives we cannot see.

I love this quote from To Kill a Mockingbird:


But, of course, we can’t actually do that. We can’t actually climb into anyone’s skin. We’ll never know what it’s like to walk around in a skin color that’s different than the one we were born with – not really.

The point of this article is:

  1. To inspire fascination with the people we meet. To see people as teachers of things we may never fully know.
  2. To encourage a spirit of humility because sometimes, we just don’t know what we don’t know.

I have been hit with a stunning new awareness of my inexperience and misconception enough to know there are many things I don’t fully understand because I haven’t experienced them.

I know that my experience with parenthood hasn’t shown me what it’s like to raise multiples or a child with special needs. I know that unless I lose a child, I will never know the immeasurable height and depth and breadth of the void created by that loss.

But sometimes knowing how little we know, is actually knowing quite a lot.


Cover photo credit: Colin Tsoi, Flikr, creative commons license.

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.

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1 Comment

  1. Kassi

    Becoming conscious of ‘how little you know’ shows just how perceptive and insightful you are capable of being. So many people do live by the “I saw Annie, so I know things were not really that bad” reasoning, throughout their entire lives. Lack of compassion is probably a non-intentional result of those unable to ‘walk in another’s shoes’ for a day. You have discovered a Devine gift that will forever make the lives you encounter a much more beautiful place.
    Thank you, once again, for an enlightening, lovely post. May we all be a little better because of this.

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