As usual, my work is ahead of me today because I intend to pick at yet another romantic pastime. To so many of us, no activity is more profound or rewarding than to gaze into the night’s sky and reflect on our own meagerness and bewilderment. Our popular magazines are rife with articles on “the great mystery of consciousness,” lay conceptions of quantum physics (spooky to those without any understanding of it), and huge questions (“Are We Alone in the Universe?”) superimposed over daunting images of the cosmos. Our affection for mystery no doubt offers some positive influence to the degree that it ignites our curiosity and motivates us to pursue greater discoveries. I’m afraid that it has a dark side. I’m afraid too many of us are sloppy drunk on it.
The trouble is that our apparent drug of choice is a cheap substitute for something far more valuable: the moment when the lock of ignorance “clicks” to give way to understanding. Those who have struggled to understand a concept in math or tinkered for endless hours on their cars know this sensation well. The awe of sudden understanding is a superior sensation to be sure, but it can come at a high premium. When a concept does not come easy, and some of the most gratifying do not, our only hope is to toil until our ignorance gives way. This helps explain why most of us are content to passively wonder how a thing works – say, a hummingbird in flight – without the least inclination to seek a comprehensive explanation.
Yet it is one thing to appreciate what one does not understand and quite another to get busy correcting the matter: one earns us a fleeting thrill of pleasure and the other permanently enhances our perspective. What’s more, you don’t lose your sense of awe during the transition from naive wonderment to true understanding – the hummingbird seems all the more magical once you discover she doesn’t need magic to keep her in flight. Likewise, the universe itself is more, not less, magnificent when you try to make sense of it than when you gaze dreamily at the “grand mystery” of it all.
When I was religious, I settled too often for the awe of ignorance. On too many occasions I contented myself to shake my head at creation in wonder and exclaim, “What an awesome God! Can you imagine how majestic he is, having created such a world?” A titillating reflection to be sure, but not a productive one. Little did I know, I was in store for something more exhilerating than ad nauseam discussion on how “there is so much we can never hope to know” and “what a strange and unlikely universe we live in!” Such sentiments are admittedly true but also trivial, especially given that the bit that we already do know cures our infections, powers our homes and cars, takes us to other planets, and endows us with greater and greater insight into our origins and purpose.
So, while I won’t cease to draw inspiration from the glowing moon, the vast oceans, the complex human eye, and the many other wonders of our world, I will do so only to an extent which allows me to pursue those things I can hope to understand. Our ancestors’ only option was to stare at our sky in ignorant wonder with only made-up stories to resolve the sensation. They can’t be blamed, for ignorance was the only indulgence available to them. We who are privileged to rise above slack-jawed wonder on occasion have no such excuse.