U N K N O W I N G
It is one thing to imagine knowing something we don’t know. It is another to imagine not knowing something we do know.
Take numbers. There was a time when no one had thought of numbers. Instead we used flint to carve lines into bone and then tallied them. Eventually, of course, we clumped them into four lines with a diagonal slice, and into symbols like V, X, C and M. But numbers, each with a different shape, singly representing many lines or beads was nowhere. That disarmingly out-there idea did eventually arise in Hindu-India, long before it showed up in a single Western mind. The wait was M’s of years.
That is all just to say how heart-tinglingly fascinating it is to me to try to imagine not knowing something I know.
I tried it. Valiantly. First with numbers, then with letters, then with clay, then wheels and microscopes and salt shakers and staples. No luck.
I thought I might be able to do it in order to experience the relief of not knowing things I wish I didn’t know, like prejudice or wilful ignorance or heartbreak. I couldn’t even conjure up relief of not knowing polyester or FaceBook. It all was hopeless. I know those things. That’s just that.
So I have to resort to abstracted, not organic, awe in order to honour the Hindu-Indian soul who thought up numbers, and Leonardo Fibonacci who brought them home to bestow on the Western world.
It is a reverse kind of wow. A harder kind.
But wow nevertheless.
T H A T’ S I N T E R E S T I N G. I W O N D E R….
Outrage is okay. Rage isn’t. Outrage wears a splash of dignity, even righteousness. Rage is just messy and undisciplined. But it’s a fine line. And both bludgeon the brain and heart. Neither enriches or renews. So I have decided to abandon both.
To abandon one thing, though, at least a thing like a feeling, we have to replace it with another. We can’t just hang out in no-feeling land forever. We have to feel something different.
Yesterday outrage started to creep into my morning as I read yet another bit of inflammatory news and wondered whether the perpetrator of the incident or the perpetrator of the article was worse. Without planning to I projected seven hours ahead into the late afternoon and felt how shattered I would be if I nursed the outrage all day long. And just like that, for the first time, I decided to do a different thing.
I said something to myself out loud (which you have to do for a while with a new thing until your brain acknowledges it as an intelligent response, not just a heroic aberration). I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ And then I said, ‘I wonder what really happened there and how the life-long context of the story, if understood, would change the article. I wonder how people might deal imaginatively with this incident.’
I felt different.
One part of me had rescued another part of me. I shivered as you do after somebody drags you out of an undertow, but it was a sweet shiver.
I saw eventually that even the first two words, ‘That’s interesting’, skewered the ever-ready outrage, thus overriding the rage that would have, because it always has, consumed me.
It modifies the relationship between input and response. It restores choice. And choice restores power.
‘I wonder….’ does the rest. It engages the mind substantively. And substantively is what we need when we are staving off a ripper like rage. Maybe that is because to wonder restores true dignity and because it takes us somewhere, rather than burying us where we are.
My mornings are different now. And my late afternoons.
Sometimes I Cry
Sometimes I cry thinking of a mind like Shakespeare’s. Or an internal world like Mozart’s. Or imagination like Heisenberg’s. Or seeing like Michelangelo's. I just wanted to say that.
And maybe those incomprehensible beyond-us configurations of humanness that seem to pop into a century and pop out again do not have to be envied. We don’t have to theorise that everyone is a genius and that we need only the right environment and experience to free the Shakespeare in us all. Maybe we can just let genius, real genius, be genius. A couple of different things populated their DNA than did ours, and that is fine. That does not make us less, nor them more. Not in some ranking-for-worth kind of way. They don’t matter more than we do.
But they are wondrous. And I think they deserve daily contemplation of some kind. More than a nod. More than syllabus inclusion in a ‘top’ education. More than movies about them. And books. And hashtags. They deserve our quiet, our stillness, our agog-making struggle to imagine being able to do those things. They deserve our sitting silent in the wings, the way gratitude, real gratitude, does.
We cannot be them. We cannot even understand them. Not most of us at least. But we can think about them, strain to get inside what they knew and did.
And cry. That we can do.