Sunday, June 26, 2011

the unknown: 'adventure beckons!'

One of the last novels I taught this year was Life of Pi. Early on in the narrative, Pi explains his notion that freedom is mistakenly correlated with happiness.
"I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion. Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are 'happy' because they are 'free.' These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or an aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for calisthenic runs to stay slim after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its 'happiness' is dashed. It yearns mightily for 'freedom' and does all it can to escape. Being denied its 'freedom' for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.
This is not the way it is.
Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations. In theory -- that is, as a simple physical possibility -- an animal could pick up and go, flaunting all the social conventions and boundaries proper to its species. But such an event is less likely to happen than for a member of our own species, say a shopkeeper with all the usual ties -- to family, to friends, to society, to drop everything and walk away from his life with only the spare change in his pockets and the clothes on his frame. If a man, boldest and most intelligent of creatures, won't wander from place to place, a stranger to all, beholden to none, why would an animal, which is by temperament far more conservative?

... But I don't insist. I don't mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both." (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 15-19)
In a class discussion, my students and I pondered the connection. Are the happiest people the most free? Or do boundaries play a role in happiness? One of my students brought up the concept of the unknown. We fear the unknown, she suggested, unless it is the illusion of the unknown... an unknown that seems exciting and distant, but actually exists within our particular existing boundaries. Our discussion was philosophic and lively. And it sparked my thinking and continues to do so. Most of us came to the conclusion that happiness involves some sort of boundaries. There is some connection between happiness and safety and knowing what to expect. There is also the need to be able to reach beyond boundaries... to challenge oneself to attain new levels of achievement or understanding... but still, this is related to boundaries. Does this suggest, in opposition, that there is some correlation between the unknown and fear?

My mother recently came across the final independent project I did as a senior in high school. Last night, I spent some time re-familiarizing myself with what I had written. It is always interesting to me to try to re-enter a self from the past. There is some sort of insurmountable distance between the you of now and the you of any particular past moment. There are certain moments in my life where I hardly relate to the me that I was. I bring all this up because this, too, is a sort of unknown. The unknown self that one once was. The strange feeling of disconnection from that which you have grown out of. Personally, this is uncomfortable. Perhaps even a bit scary.

But back to the project. This was a self from the past that I could connect to... because the project I had chosen was such an expression of something fundamentally "me." I had written four biographies of different family members. Family has always been deeply important to me. What I love about what I had done was that I didn't try to cover each person's entire life, but picked an event or thread that wove through their life and focused on that. Nonetheless, in my introduction to the project, I wrote the following:
"When my cousin Sarah was learning to talk, she called my grandmother 'gamma' because she had trouble pronouncing the separate syllables. No one was surprised as most children struggle with sounds and syllables at first, but we all had to laugh when she called my grandfather 'gamma' also.
We laughed at her mistake, but we were not worried about it. She was only a couple years old and, like most children, did not really understand who her grandparents were, or that they were different from one another.
My family used to visit my father's parents at their house in ---- a couple times a year. My memories of ---- are all fairly mundane: waking up to the smell of bacon and eggs frying; hiking up Mt. ---- with my parents and brothers; playing 'wiggles' with my cousins; sitting on my cousin ----'s lap, quietly eating peanuts while we waited for the grown-ups to finish talking so we could eat dinner. While I remember ---- fondly, it's interesting to find that the scenes I initially recall have nothing to do with my grandparents as people. I think that children have trouble grasping the concept of grandparents. I always feared my grandparents slightly, because they seemed to know everything about me, and I really didn't know anything about them."
What is it, then, about the unknown that frightens? In this case, it seems it was some sort of imbalance. Their knowledge of me and the impossibility of my equal knowledge of them. Knowledge here is power... though I do not intend to suggest they wanted to assert any power over me. Rather, it was my feeling of impotency that was scary. In some weird way, this is similar to sensing that a company "knows" a lot about you -- by tracking your purchasing habits or monitoring your online activities. It is the fear of being seen and not being able to see. Foucault's panopticon.

Perhaps it is critical to distinguish unknowns. Throughout my life, I have absolutely hated the feeling of fear. I just despise being afraid of something. It makes me feel weak. Thus, what I have tried to do is attack exactly those things that scare me the most. I took flying lessons. I traveled all over the world by myself. I went to foreign countries where I barely knew the language. I worked in a remote, practically unexplored part of Alaska. I took jobs that seemed above my head and beyond my capacities. Each time, what I have discovered is that it is merely the unknown that frightens. Once I jump into the thing itself, I am fine. And coming out of these experiences on the other side, I have become more of myself... I have learned about the world, gained new perspectives, achieved new levels of responsibility, accomplished things I wasn't sure I could accomplish... but then those things led me to even higher levels of seeking and discovering... and fulfillment.

But, in a sense, these are 'bounded unknowns.' What I mean is that the exact details of them are unknown, but the general notion is known... and they remain within some sort of world of which I am already aware. What about the unknowns that cannot be known?

I remember having discussions with my brother in high school about space beyond the existence of bounded space.... or what the universe was before it began... or how to deal with the problem of relative knowledge and morality... These are questions or impasses we could never truly penetrate... or resolve. It excited me to no end to discuss these sorts of things. But, I also recall each of us coming to a point after long durations of conversation, when we couldn't deal with the question anymore. The overwhelming nature of its unknowability had conquered us... and we didn't want to face it anymore. Discussed to the point of exhaustion, what was left was only what we did not -- could not -- know... and peering into that black abyss, we felt the fear returning.

If you look up 'unknown' in the thesaurus, you come up with the following (amongst others): mysterious, new, foreign, exotic, undiscovered, unnamed, unexplored, unsung, untold.... concealed, dark, desolate, fallen, vanquished, void. For me, there is a fundamental difference between the words before and after the ellipsis. The former group identifies the unknown as an exciting new leap of self... something that is foreign to oneself, but not threatening... something that may open new worlds, new stories, new discoveries. This kind of unknown is exciting, thrilling, albeit a little scary.

The latter group deems the unknown as something impenetrable... and perhaps something that one would not want to know even if one could. Sometimes I feel a sadness that is almost overwhelming and cosmic. It seems I feel the weight of all the pain that everyone in the world has ever felt. In all honesty, I do not want to know where this feeling emanates from. I do not want to know this unknown any more than I know it physically and emotionally already. If I did, it just might undo me. It just might be too destructive.

There is the unknown that is full of possibility... and there is the unknown that is full of impossibility. There is the unknown which opens freedom. And there is the unknown that could imprison. There is the unknown that is an adventure. And there is the unknown that is far too risky to attempt. Not all knowing is the same. Not all unknowing is either.

No comments:

Post a Comment