If Ignorance is Bliss, Awareness is Pain

Geoff Olson

I visited with a distressed friend recently. “I feel I don’t know enough,” he said with a pained expression. “I want to understand fully what’s happening, but there’s so much out there to learn.”

My friend is a voracious reader and student of history. Being in communications, he’s always been about gathering jigsaw pieces from books, magazines and the Internet, to assemble a bigger picture. He knows enough to have a broad outline of how the world really works, from the local to national to global level, and that alone disturbs him. He’s both heartfelt and smart.

‘Smart’ is an interesting word. I’ve long found it interesting that it’s Germanic root references pain.

From Oxford Languages:


Old English smeortan (verb), of West Germanic origin; related to German schmerzen; the adjective is related to the verb, the original sense (late Old English) being ‘causing sharp pain’; from this arose ‘keen, brisk’, whence the current senses of ‘mentally sharp’ and ‘neat in a brisk, sharp style’.

Being smart can smart. Through the sideways association of pain, sharpness, and mental agility, the word seems like a capsule inversion of that fabled expression, ‘ignorance is bliss.’

“When I was a girl just setting out on my quest,” wrote the journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich in her memoir Living With a Wild God, “I asked myself whether I would want to know the “truth” even if I was given the “foreknowledge that it would only be a bitter disillusionment.”

This possibility had been impressed on me at a very young age by a radio drama, long ago, when there were such things in America, with actors and scripts. Four mostly paralyzed veterans occupy a hospital room, where only one can see out the window. He whiles away the hours by describing the outside world to his roommates the comings and goings, the laughing children, the pretty girls-until one of the other men demands that he get a turn in the bed by the window. The switch is made. The new guy gets the window and discovers that what actually lies outside is nothing but a brick wall-no comings and goings, no laughter or sunshine. Would I want to know a truth like that? Courageously, or so I thought at the time, I decided that I would.

At some point in our lives my friend and I tacitly chose to pursue the same path Ehrenreich did, as have millions of others. And although it’s sometimes is difficult to understand why anyone would take a path in the opposite direction, it’s actually the easiest thing in the world to decode.

None of us wants to see a brick wall when the curtains are drawn back. That’s entirely natural and human. But some of us are willing to risk that possibility out of curiosity, a desire to know the truth, and sometimes even a sense of justice. That’s also entirely natural and human. The one impulse – to avoid pain – is aversive. The other impulse – to hazard it – is exploratory.

Without the latter, there never would have been Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks revelations or Aaron Kheriaty and others’ successful FOIA of Pfizer documents.

A god trapped in the stomach of a beast

“Most of us do our best,” writes the psychoanalyst Todd Hayen in the essay Ignorance is Bliss for OffGuardian:

The point I am making is that it is instinctual to focus on our position with regard to contentment and happiness in the current moment, where we do have at least a modicum of control. Since, as I said earlier, many of us (and probably everyone reading this) are privy to the real happenings in the world that will have profound effect on our “in the moment” life at some future point. We are sitting in the tension of awareness that any contentment and peace we now feel is fleeting. Reality will soon hit us hard—the other shoe will soon drop…

“We each have different nuanced reasons for engaging in this fight,” Hayen continues. “For some of us it is religious and spiritual, for others it concerns the world we are leaving behind for our children, and for others it is due to our intense belief in freedom, character, and fundamental values as a human being.”

Back to my distressed friend. I asked him this: even if you were able on a superhuman level able to absorb enough accurate knowledge to give a complete, crystal clear accounting of the world and its workings, how would you get it to the ones who need to see it the most? And would they follow it openly but critically, all the way through? And assuming they’re convinced, would they act on the information?

(As most of the readers here know, it’s dispiriting trying to communicate with people whose reflexive position is ‘don’t show me that,’ or ‘don’t tell me that.’ Or who squawk ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation,’ parroting a mass media they were suspicious and skeptical of only a few short years ago. Most of us have given up on trying.)

I wasn’t trying to discourage my friend about digging for the truth, I was trying to encourage him about human limitations. It’s impossible for any of us to have an omniscient view of the world and its workings, and we all have our cognitive biases hacking away in the background like neural gremlins. “Someone today with true understanding would be like a god,” Nietzsche wrote back in the 19th century, “but a god trapped in the stomach of a beast.”

The last human being said to have an expansive understanding of the world, with a good grasp of multiple, unrelated disciplines – the last real “Renaissance person” – is said to be the writer Aldous Huxley. He wrote essays on everything from medieval painting to psychopharmacology, and though he died over a half century ago, in his fiction and nonfiction he prophecized the biotechnocratic fascism now at our doorstep.

Huxley was an amazing thinker. But the important point here is that he wasn’t a lettered expert in science, medicine, history, political science, or art. He was a generalist. And although knowledge has increased exponentially since his death, and we won’t likely see anyone able to range quite as widely as Huxley again, we still need the generalists like my smarting friend every bit as much as we need the specialists (once defined by some wag as “someone who knows more and more about less and less”).

Recent generalists that come to mind are James Corbett, Whitney Webb, and even media fixtures like Russell Brand and Joe Rogan, whose talent as generalists is to showcase specialists in a compelling and entertaining manner.

Listening Sufi Style

The American writer Robert Anton Wilson – another brilliant generalist – once had an audience engage in a Sufi listening exercise. He gave out pens and notepads, and asked everyone to sit in silence and listen intently, writing down all the different sounds they could hear (distant traffic outside the auditorium, creaking chairs, fabric rustling as people shifted in their seats, etc.).

When Wilson asked for a show of hands, he found the most sounds heard by any single person came to almost two dozen. Then he asked the audience if anyone had heard anything this fellow had not. Hands shot up, and Wilson added the noted sounds to the list, for a total of over forty. This upshot? This proved, he said, that even the most observant person in the room was aware of only about half of what was really going on.

Wilson demonstrated how awareness is a collective effort. We have to keep paying attention with full consciousness to the moment, not just for ourselves, the red-pilled, but for the blue-pilled, the ones with their hands to their ears. Because hands are dropping. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. observed, our numbers are growing, but theirs are not.

Most of us struggle to understand, to know, even though the big picture is discouragingly immense in scope, and cognitive biases colour our interpretations. Yet as Einstein once observed, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” The transhumanists and their backers are hammering together a vast, open-air Skinner box for us all, and it will take great imagination to think – and act – outside of it.

Hubris and overreach

Yes, it looks very dark, but it looked very dark in the last century, too. In the 1940s, millions of Europeans genuinely feared their democratic civilization was coming to an end. And it very likely would have, had not Hitler made the insane decision to invade the Soviet Union. And this is very often the way that authoritarian regimes collapse – through hubris and overreach.

One of Einstein’s contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin, released one of his most memorable films in that dark hour. In the final speech from the 1940 film The Great Dictator, the reluctant leader confesses:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…

There’s an echo in Chaplin’s words in the more recent quote below from Alex Krainer. I believe this the best piece of advice to convey to my smarting friend and the curious reader.

Do not allow yourself to be discouraged by fear and despair that the media shovels our way 24/7. We are witnessing the manifestations of old systems collapsing. And while some of those manifestations appear fearsome, do keep in mind Confucius‘ counsel:

“A seed grows with no sound. But a tree falls with huge noise. Destruction has noise but creation is quiet. This is the power of silence…grow silently.”

Destruction is all around us, creating great noise, but you carry a seed that grows silently within. Be mindful of it and shield it from anxiety as you would shield your child. Things that emerge from seeds are worthy of our reverence. If we cultivate them with attention and love, they can grow beautiful and majestic.

As Dostoevsky said, beauty will save the world. That beauty is us – you and I – our children, our parents, our friends, all of us. We can’t see what all these seeds will become, but it should be easy to believe – nature’s creations are always so beautiful. And be sure to turn your love inward as well as outward.

Geoff Olson is an award-winning journalist and cartoonist whose writings and cartoons have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Adbusters, Common Ground, This Magazine, Maclean’s and newspapers across Canada. For three decades Olson was a weekly columnist for The Vancouver Courier, and has supplied commentary to both CBC Radio, CBC NewsWorld and Roundhouse Radio. His work has been reproduced in journals and textbooks across the globe, and has given lectures on journalism at Langara College, Simon Fraser University. In the eighties he taught astronomy at the Gordon Southam Observatory and in the Vancouver School System. You can read more his work through his SubStack.


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