The Virtue of Not Knowing Too Much
“Sometimes you’re better off not knowing,” I said to a good friend as we sat outside at an inner city cafe sipping coffee. He nodded in tacit agreement, without completely understanding what I was trying to say, giving me permission to keep going, not that I particularly need such a wave of the hand to indicate that I can press on.
“Sometimes,” I continued, “if we have too much information it can overwhelm us, it just gives us cause to descend into a slough of despond.” This particular friend has reason to have visited too many times such a destination but that’s a story for another time, he’s one of the people who inspires me more than he will ever know.
I told him that had I known, immediately following my surgery some 18 months ago to remove my brain tumour, that I’d still have double vision, cognitive meltdowns, balance issues (can’t dress myself without a performing a graceful pirouette, can’t descend stairs without first doing some reconnaissance), constant neuropathy, no sense of smell (you can hold freshly roasted coffee beans under my nose and it would be a waste of time), can’t ride my bike (on the road anyway), can’t play guitar (it’s back to the piano and scales), I may very well have been a proper miserable bugger. I’ve learned little tricks to compensate and realised that whilst I still hope for a change, a hope that fills me with a joy even though a return to full function may never be realised, the hope of it alone, the fact that I am able to hope at all, makes my heart sing. My Father was fond of saying, mostly in response to a promise made by someone or other – “we live in hope”. Well Dad, we really do.
Yes, sometimes we can know too much, it can strip us of the very thing that keeps us going. As I drove home from coffee with my mate, a proverb that I’ve known for a long time, about hope and longing, came into my cerebral view finder. It goes like this: Hope deferred makes the heart sick and a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. It’s from the Bible, a book I’ve neglected for probably too long if I’m honest. It’s not the only place from which I take inspiration, solace or wisdom, there are some Buddhist teachings as well, that I, from time to time, imbibe. Tara Brach is one who I’d recommend if you’re looking for a podcast to take in.
I could spend all week attempting to analyse this little jewel of poetry, written, no doubt, as its author was practicing what these days we’d probably call mindfulness, however, I wouldn’t necessarily come to a conclusion any more meaningful than this, hope is sometimes more powerful than knowledge and certainly more potent than expectation and maybe even, dare I risk being turned into a pillar of salt, faith. Because we can have knowledge and a reasonable expectation and all the faith in the world but it more likely than not replaces hope in a sort of displacement action that gives us, at times, too much to think about and proselytise over. Too much faith can cause wars whereas too much hope? Perhaps some foolishness but almost certainly no bloodshed.
Hope is not something you can put off, you can’t defer it, play with it, or manipulate it. It’s much more than an emotion, it activates our core, it doesn’t turn a blind eye to human nature and excites us more than any other feeling, it gathers intellect and faith and provides us shelter within it. You can by all means rein it in but it’s a thing so majestic that even in the waiting for what we hope for to materialise we can witness something of such beauty that it takes our breath away. The excitement we had as a child hoping for that new toy, or bike, or dress, or shoes, or colouring in book, doesn’t disappear as we get older, it just changes shade, it remains just as innocent and just as pure. Part of the power and beauty in believing something we are hoping for might come to pass is in the very waiting, such that when and if the goal of our hope materialises it’s more a relief than anything else, an almost anti-climax, that the hope has been fulfilled, or unfulfilled, and that our mind needs to turn towards hoping for something else. It’s a juxtaposition to be sure but I know it to be true.
Even as we traverse our own emotional landscape, gathering up all our longings, this hope we have needs to be celebrated for what it is, in this moment. Even though I may never get to smell the coffee again I celebrate in this moment. I can see hope in others and this is where I see this beauty. I see a longing fulfilled here, a longing not for those things that I would otherwise be expecting but a longing fulfilled in the things that are right in front of me.
All of us are constantly bombarded by talk of the future, our society is conditioned to focusing on it, the need to plan for our life beyond today. I’m not about to spurn the notion of having one eye down the track. It’s an inalienable right for us to set ourselves up for the future as we’d like to see things for ourselves, we’re not human if we don’t. Some of us manage this better than others. I’ve met some people who are assiduous in their planning of their future and rightfully enjoy the fruits of that planning and yet others who will tell me they have no hopes at all for it, where hope has not just been deferred but interred.
These people don’t need knowledge, although it’s immensely helpful, as much as they need hope. Our minds and our spirits can fly with hope, take as much of it as we can until someone brings us down to earth and we chide ourselves for our silliness. But it is possible for this hope to be celebrated right now because it doesn’t require an immediate resolution, it can gurgle away for as long as we need it.
It’s those moments, living in that moment, that enables me to keep going, not some thread of probably very useful information or some other piece of cultural legislation that tells me I’m entitled to this or can have a reasonable expectation of that. Hope for something bypasses all of it. This is a place where hope can thrive without it descending into some sort of emotional pastiche for those of us who still hold onto to the hope of things that might work out the way we envisage them.
As I finish up the coffee with my mate we celebrate all that we see in front of us, and both of us look away momentarily, quietly acknowledging, without saying a word, that there is hope for both of us, for all of us, despite what any section of society, friends, family members, or doctor, may tell us. Hope cannot, and need not, be deferred, or bridled or diminished because we might find it difficult, or even impossible, to find it within ourselves at any particular point in time to summon it. Hope is a virtue that never diminishes us.
I hope that explains it.