A New Kind of Ignorance

Published on Monday February 9th, 2009

One of the most overlooked opportunities for insight is overhearing strangers’ conversations. I remember once sitting in a restaurant with friends engaged in intense conversation about something philosophical, political or maybe cultural - I don’t quite remember what it was exactly, but as we left, I noticed that the debate became viral and lit up other corners of the restaurant, and I was struck with a pleasant sense of shared interest with other humans - that these questions grip us and enliven us as a species; they aren’t merely “inner realities” of solitary individuals persuing our private path”, but shared realities with consequences that spread through the social space.

Today I sat at a playground while my daughter climbed and swung, and I sat and listened, overhearing a conversation between a girl, maybe 7 years old, her father and her mother.

Daughter: I want to go on the playground!

Father: This playground is for little kids, you are too big.

Daughter, upset: Why?

Father: That’s just the way it goes. That’s life, you grew up. Look at us, we don’t get to play there either.

Mother: But you get to do all kinds of other things, like going to fancy parties and dressing up in pretty dresses!

In dealing with the ups and downs of life, the Father teaches us a single principle, “Face the truth!” The Mother, another principle, “Heal your hurts with positive thoughts!” Who is right? Framed as an either/or choice, we can follow each principle to a pathological point, so looking at it that way, both are wrong! What’s left for us to put into practice is an uneasy detente between opposing points of view, a clumsy feeling of fragmentation and self-doubt. “Am I blinding myself to the truth to comfort myself? Or am I negating my emotions to force myself to face the truth?” Isn’t this the pattern of many of our problems? We are awash in strategies, techniques, ideas, values and principles to apply, but we can’t synthesize them effectively.

As our knowledge increases, we’ve effectively created a new kind of ignorance. We know how to evaluate the pros and cons of either/or choice, but we are astoundingly stupid about the logic of both/and; our language is imprecise, our methods are ad hoc, unsystematic and unteachable. The best we (or our parents) can do is offer the many possibilities and hope that the result is something useful and coherent.


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