Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Pain of Knowledge

"There are things you can't get away from after you know them. It is very complicated to know anything.... Can you ever not know again?" (p. 151)

"[What is innocence?] ...just not knowing about something?... Is it innocent, as in a state of goodness or whatever, if you simply don't know about all those people in the Holocaust? Or is it just naive, stupid? What use is that kind of innocence anyway?...
Can you ever be made innocent again?" (p. 152)

Those two quotes are from The Accidental, a book by Ali Smith. They've been nagging at me ever since I read them.

They remind me of a quote I read many years ago about environmental knowledge. (I thought it was by Aldo Leopold, but I've reread Sand County Almanac lately and I was unable to find it there.) That remembered quote, roughly paraphrased, spoke about how a person who understood how the world worked ecologically would be living "in a world of wounds" invisible to others as they watched how most people treated the natural world.

I've often thought of that quote. Just this week, I've felt flayed as I came upon a cruelly shorn thicket of sunflowers that had enlivened our nearby creekside, reduced to 3" tall stubble, then shuddered as the neighbor later boasted to me about mowing it down because now "it looks so much better." That thicket was providing shelter and food for birds and other animals, as well as holding soil in place along the creekbank. Now it's a barren eyesore. Also this week, I've cringed as I've watched the local farmers plowing their bone dry, black-earthed fields in 30 mph winds. I've driven through the resulting dark clouds of topsoil, barely able to see through to the road ahead. The rich topsoil that feeds us, that took eons to form, is being carried skyward and eventually will be washed out to the Gulf of Mexico where it will join the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi. In this day and age of agricultural knowledge, surely these farmers know better than to treat their land this way. Surely they realize their farm's fertility is blowing away with that soil.

Are these people "innocent" because they refuse to learn about the environment or to accept the longterm consequences of what they are doing?

I don't think so. But while I don't think they can be absolved of their guilt, I can also understand their desire to try to remain ignorant.

So many times, knowledge hurts. Because of that knowledge, you become aware of a wound that you weren't aware of before. You feel like you should act, but what should you do? You are just one person and these are big problems. Now, suddenly, because of this new knowledge, you are different than the people around you, which causes more pain.

No wonder so many people choose willful ignorance over knowledge. They are trying to avoid pain, and that's a very human thing to do.

However, as I've learned the hard way so many times, trying to avoid a problem through running away from it only makes the problem worse. And eventually the pain will be that much worse too, because avoiding the problem only means that you lose the opportunity to solve it or that the problem becomes much worse before you're forced to acknowledge and solve it anyway.

Knowledge and pain. I always believed that "knowledge will set you free," that knowledge was a good thing, that it was desireable, that it was something that would make your life better.

I still believe that knowledge is good and that it will set you free. Now, though, I also realize that sometimes you have to work through a lot of pain to earn the freedom that knowledge promised.

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