On what seem to be fairly regular occasions I find myself in a position where I wonder if Hamlet was wrong about his very famous question that surfaced while he reviewed his awful situation and contemplated terrible options for dealing with it. I occasionally have reason to wonder whether the real question is not “to be, or not to be,” but rather “to know, or not to know.” The existence and personal acknowledgement of this question is somewhat disturbing to me given that I have spent the vast majority of my life actively seeking for both knowledge and wisdom. At my core, I have built a life based on obtaining and applying knowledge. Willful ignorance is weakness and ugliness. If you know me at all, you know that I love to learn… learn anything… learn everything (if that were possible). How is it then that I could even contemplate willful or “blissful” ignorance.
I have always understood that knowledge comes at a price. Anything worth having requires giving up something in exchange, and knowledge is no exception. Aside from the work it requires to learn, knowledge comes with other responsibilities – in particular, the responsibility to use it appropriately. Once obtained, knowledge requires we wield it as a weapon in defense of truth and right, a lever to lift the afflicted, a light to chase out darkness, and a safety line to prevent personal catastrophe and aid in rescuing the lost. It is a powerful tool, and like any other tool, requires energy and discretion on our part in order to use it effectively.
Throughout my life, my quest for knowledge has been a central focus. You might say I’ve attempted to become something akin to the mental equivalent of a high-performance athlete, constantly working to build strength and capacity. As with an athlete’s physical capacity, building mental capacity requires exercise of existing capacity to the point where that capacity fails, prompting a system response to rebuild stronger. That process universally entails discomfort, if not outright pain. However, it is a pain that the experienced practitioner recognizes, understands, and actually enjoys because it is a sign of progress. The benefit is visceral and real in the tangible and foreseeable future.
As an example from my earlier life, I began running regularly while in graduate school to relieve stress and keep my wits about me. When I began, running anything over a mile was painful. I didn’t enjoy it. In reality, I hated it. However, I recognized a need to master my body and clear my mind, so I continued through the pain. It wasn’t long before I began to see the benefit that came with challenging my body as my capacity adapted to the new challenges. Within a year, the guy who routinely struggled to pass a one-and-a-half mile fitness run for the military was running half-marathons and ultimately a full-up marathon for fun in spite of the fact that both the build-up and the actual race resulted in considerable pain. I saw the benefit, so the cost in time and discomfort was worthwhile.
This experience with physical pain directly correlates with my experiences gaining knowledge. From a very early age, I have found the process of learning exciting. I have always been able to apply bits and pieces of knowledge in ways that I find rewarding, to the point where the experience many would describe as “the pain of learning” is an exciting journey. Just like when, at the peak of my training for the marathon, I found the physical discomfort of training comforting and pleasurable, I very early in life began to love the effort it requires to learn. While not my foundation, this concept is at the core of who I am. One might claim it is the load-bearing walls that support the rest of the structure. Questioning it is like driving a bulldozer through the center of a building and expecting it to remain standing.
Unfortunately, as I’ve “gained experience” with life the unhappy realities of our mortal condition have presented me with somewhat regular opportunities to obtain knowledge and face realities that inflict pain without any clear payoff to offset the price. Usually that kind of knowledge has to do with understanding the unfortunate realities that impinge upon me such as the evil nature of some men, motivations and intentions of public figures, and the willful ignorance of others. For this kind of unhappy understanding, at least, I have found a path to accept it philosophically. However, lately I’ve found a niche where I’m not sure knowledge, or rather information, isn’t outright hurtful.
A few years ago Liz got rather sick. For a long time, the doctors were unsure what the nature of the illness was. They struggled to develop a course of treatment that would pull her back from the brink. It was a very dark time for me. As they worked their way through the various possibilities I would occupy myself with pouring over the medical and other literature to understand the nature of the disease(s), treatment options, prognosis, etc… At first it felt like a therapy, providing me with something on which to expend the nervous energy that threatened to build up to a point where it would consume me. Learning was my default method for tackling a problem, and I applied it with vigor here.
However, as the easily identifiable and treatable conditions were eliminated one-by-one, what began as therapy took on more of an aspect of slow torture. As the list of possibilities shortened, the consequences and potential outcomes became disturbingly frightening. To make matters worse, Liz needed reassurance and I needed strength. I was forced to suppress the pain and anguish boiling under the surface. The effort to keep control of my fears left me with nothing in reserve. Not only did I suffer, but those around me suffered as conditions that wouldn’t normally have bothered me triggered harsh or inappropriate responses. What had begun as therapy began to fuel the disease. I eventually came to doubt the wisdom of arming myself with information.
This anecdote is one of a handful of similar circumstances that have led me at times to question the utility of knowledge in all cases. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if it wouldn’t have been better to be the trusting and blissfully ignorant idiot, unaware of the awfulness of the road ahead. There are times when knowing you are facing a tough road can prepare you for the journey, making the experience less painful or even enjoyable. But I’ve also found times where knowing the path doesn’t equate to being able to alter it, slow the progress, or even prepare for the impact that is barreling at you. Sometimes I wonder if I would be happier in certain circumstances were I unintelligible to the crisis until it suddenly and unexpectedly swept over me.
At present, I am staring at another situation where dredging up information has instigated anticipation of a potentially terrible path while leaving me completely unable to change course or prepare for the journey in a way that would be any more effective than simply waiting in ignorance. In this case, should the information prove relevant, all I have done is rob myself of a period of relative peace I could have enjoyed. Luck may favor the prepared, and knowledge may be the glory of God; but isn’t there a small shred of truth in the sentiment “ignorance is bliss?”