Ignorance Is Not Bliss. Awareness Is Better

In this post: How I’m teaching my son, and reminding myself, that ignorance is not bliss and that increasing awareness is the better way to go.


The Ignorant Bliss of Being a Baby

Like all newborns, my son Zac emerged ignorant.

The world must have felt like chaos to him. Every shape, color, sound, smell, and taste was new. He knew nothing, so he expected nothing. Life was a non-stop surprise.

My blissfully ignorant newborn son.
Blissfully pure ignorance.

Given all the squawking and crying he did, life wan’t bliss for him. But that probably had little to do with his ignorance and a lot to do with Kim and mine. If we knew how to keep Zac in perfect comfort, he’d have been pretty close to blissful.

A well-fed, healthy, napping newborn? That’s bliss, baby.

Same for a smiling baby. There’s no worry, stress, fakery, or friction behind that grin. Just bliss.

The thing is, Zac was so ignorant that his first smile probably surprised him as much as it did Kim and me. He didn’t even know he was doing it. It just came out reflexively.

But as he kept smiling, seeing our faces, and shitting, those things became familiar. The wild squiggles of the world began to arrange themselves into some shapes—easier to process, but less surprising.

And less blissful?

Bored person on a couch.
I don’t want Zac’s future to look like this.

The Anti-Bliss of Grown-Up Expectations

The more Zac experiences, the fewer surprises he’ll encounter.

By the time he’s a teenager, the world’s chaotic squiggles will have taken some shape. He’ll roughly know what’s what, and those things will do what he expects of them. His world will seem boring. Maybe he’ll find drugs or video games or sports to feel that blissful sense of the unexpected again.

Then Zac will become a grown-up.

Not only will he know what to expect, but things will be expected of him. And he’ll expect things of himself. So in addition to being bored with the present, he’ll be worried about the future. That will leave little room for bliss.

Zac might try therapy or meditation to Houdini himself from these constricting mental expectations. Or maybe he’ll watch TV with a glass of wine for a temporary escape.

My goal, though, is to instill in him an additional approach—a more blissful one:

To color in the drab black and white of expectations with the technicolor awesomeness of awareness.

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman, a most blissfully aware man.

The Unexpected Bliss of Awareness

My goal is to Feynmanize Zac:

To make him so aware of and curious about the world around him that it will remain nearly as full of wonderful surprises when he’s fifty as when he’s fifteen months.

The term is in honor of one of my heroes, Richard Feynman. From the books about him that I’ve read, I get the impression that he never lost the childlike desire to better understand the world around him. Feynman credits his dad for instilling this curiosity in him, so I suppose his father is my hero, too.

Go foraging.

I’m going to take Zac foraging every fall to teach him to identify mushrooms.

That way, what would otherwise be “just another walk in the park” becomes a grown-up Easter egg hunt. Whereas most adults will return home from the woods to worry, Zac may stumble on some cauliflower mushrooms, so he’ll have a special ingredient for his pasta to look forward to.

Learn languages.

I’ll push Zac to learn other languages.

That way, when he’s immersed in the urban forest, the background noise of the person yapping on the phone beside him on the bus may unscramble. Maybe he’ll understand it as Spanish and get a peek into that person’s life’s story. And maybe he’ll place the accent as Mexican, which will add even more color and bring back memories of his trips down there.

Live globally.

On the previous note, I’ll encourage Zac to explore and live abroad.

Those experiences will challenge and expand his expectations of the world. And the memories, stories, and knowledge he accumulates will add color to his day-to-day. My morning Colombian coffee has more depth from having toured a finca and picked beans before.

See the world from a photographer’s lens.

Wherever Zac goes, I hope he’ll see it through a more sophisticated lens by teaching him the little I know about photography.

This will help him spot more picture-perfect moments throughout the day—and appreciate their beauty or strangeness. And when he happens to have a camera on him to capture them, those memories will be better preserved.

My experience is that taking photos is like remembering names: the more conscious thought you put into it at the moment, the better it sticks with you. So all the photos in Zac’s life—the ones on his walls, social media posts, and phone—will have a bit more vibrance every time he sees them.

Develop sophisticated senses.

The same goes for helping Zac enhance his awareness of his other senses, too—like taste.

If I pass on to Zac what I’ve learned about refining my palate, he can learn to replace the black and white of “Yum/yuck” with a kaleidoscope of flavor. That way, he’ll extract more out of every chew and sip.

Maybe Zac will even find joy in creating tantalizing blends of flavors in the kitchen like his mom.

To enhance his perception, I will also encourage Zac to work on his sense of smell. Think of a dog sniffing around excitedly, patching together clues about the world around them, like a detective on Adderall. Well, in some ways, humans’ sense of smell is better than dogs, so nothing other than ignorance prevents us from tapping into this extra layer of experience. So if Zac learns how to use his nose, he won’t even have to stop to smell the flowers, though he may feel more compelled to do so.

This brings to mind the native Khoisan in the Namibian desert.

Parachute in an ignorant outsider like you or me, and we’d see nothing but sand and scrubs. But the Khoisan see a complex world full of tracks and stories because of their enhanced awareness. Their life certainly isn’t bliss, but in many ways I imagine it’s deeper and more flow-like than ours.

Connect with the community.

Speaking of returning to the ways of earlier days, I hope to teach Zac to make himself more familiar the people in his community.

Host a party to meet the other tenants in his apartment building. Introduce himself to other parents at the playground and people doing calisthenics at the park. Things like that.

Because, as in any novel or TV series, the better an author develops the background characters, the more immersive and engaging the story becomes.

If Zac turns out to be as introverted as me, the idea of constantly bumping into people he knows may sound exhausting. But my experience is that this social “effort” is more rewarding in the long run, like any form of exercise.

Develop self-awareness.

I hope to teach Zac to develop the self-awareness to understand this.

Yes, parts of his personality are pre-wired and he’s better off working with them rather than resisting them. But the more he appreciates his own complexity and inconsistency, the less prone he’ll be to stuff himself into the black-and-white boxes of limiting identities that hold him back.

Me showing Zac around a pumpkin patch.

More Curiosity, More Bliss

I guess Feynmanization all comes down to steadily training your curiosity muscle.

The more Zac remains humbled by what he doesn’t know, the more curious he’ll be to learn more, and this will enhance his awareness and add vibrance to his everyday life.

I suppose I better lead by example.

Writing this has been a good reminder. There’s so much in my life that I could add color, depth, and surprise to with greater awareness.

  • Music. Would learning to play an instrument give me a greater appreciation for the talent and nuances of all the music I hear?
  • Botany. Gardens would be more beautiful to me if I had a better understanding of what I was admiring.
  • Ornithology. It’s like knowing the people in your neighborhood and their voices, but for birds. Plus, a rare bird would be like a celebrity sighting. If you don’t know you’re seeing something rare, you get nothing from it.
  • Fashion, cars, and watches. No thanks. But this frame does help me better understand people obsessed with such material things.
  • Art, geology, astrology, too…

What else?

It’s endless.

The more you know…

While our brains aren’t powerful enough to process the millions of things they’re exposed to daily, nothing stops us from becoming more aware of thousands of them.

That awareness would make life more interesting, wouldn’t it?

Maybe that would reduce our need for as much TV, video games, or TikTok for entertainment and escape.

Awareness makes life more surprising, too—luckier, even. You don’t have to be a Richard Feynman-level genius to calculate this:

If you become aware of thousands more things every day, one-in-a-million occurrences will become common in your life. And even everyday experiences are richer.

That seems like a way more blissful existence than ignorance to me.

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