Celebrating Ignorance


I recall the familiar anecdote about a father who boarded a subway train with his two young sons, ages eight and 10 in my mind’s eye.  Especially unruly, the boys were racing around, screaming, throwing themselves on the floor and on each other.  This annoyed other passengers no end.  One of them finally sniffed to the dad, you should learn to control your children; there’s no call for them to bother everyone else.  Yes, the dad said, I wish I could.  The thing is, we are on our way home from the hospital where their mother just died, and neither they nor I know what to do with all the pain we feel.

The lesson of history I celebrate most is that everything we know is wrong.  Not wrong the opposite of right; but wrong incomplete, short-sighted.  In St. Mike’s grammar school we kids were told that to be safe should a Russian nuclear missile hit our playground we needed to hide under our desks.  Life, I find, includes one reminder after another that whatever we “know for sure” will, in all likelihood, sooner or later—in this incarnation or another—be reclassified somewhere along the continuum from “not quite the whole story” to “nutty as hell.”

Why is this worth celebrating?  Because of its ability to deepen our appreciation of that rarest and most valuable of human activities: not taking ourselves seriously.

As I write this, our president is an African-American man—a fact which, I have on good authority, has prompted more than a few of us to bet the cookie jar that hell has frozen over.

Our ignorance isn’t an absence of mental horsepower, goodness knows.  If we put our mind to it we could clone a chicken and a pig and cut the work of making ham & eggs by half.  We could also meaningfully reverse global warming; improve our rapport with other cultures to the point of lessening violent conflict; and see to it that no one is financially devastated because of his or her health…to name three of countless opportunities we have the smarts to meet—but not, so far, the collective maturity.  And maturity, to me, is measured by the extent to which our actions are rooted in the awareness that our well-being and the well-being of others are one.  (A tall order, my own track record suggests.)

Remember that sign: “Teenagers: Leave home now while you still know everything”?  I feel that’s who we are as a species: relatively immature and so full of ourselves we’re blind to it.  Which is really good news when you think about it.  It means we’re growing up.  Imagine who we’ll be five thousand years from now.  In fact, I see our descendants in 7008 being awestruck that we 21st century stewards of spaceship earth managed to survive while holding so many wild beliefs.  Such as: there are things more important than kindness; it’s possible to be superior or inferior to another; forces outside myself are responsible for my happiness—and of course no woman in her right mind should be seen in public without her nails done.

Celebrating ignorance is not so much about letting go of our convictions as it is about holding them more lightly: giving ourselves a break that, just maybe, believe it or not, astonishing as it may be, there’s more to life than we perceive.

The story goes that the Dalai Lama was once asked what he would do if science proved that his Buddhist beliefs were erroneous.  He didn’t say impossible.  He didn’t say, why these teachings are eternal verities unassailable by logic.  No.  Instead, not missing a beat, His Holiness laughed and said, “I’d change my mind.”

How easily could we answer the same?

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth