“Wonder. Go on & wonder.”—W. Faulkner

The obsessive need to read the papers & gather sound bites—to wake up and consult the latest news, search and find the best commentary on the latest act of aggression, bombing, bad governance—that is one place where I recognize my own struggle for answers in times of chaos.

In a moment of cognitive dissonance, I recognise that for most of the hardest quandaries, there is not a clear right answer, no matter what the self-satisfied politicians want to believe.  Appalled at any bombing or impetuous towards war, I know that standing by and watching Syrian children die from chemical weapons wielded by their own government is inconceivable.

Unfortunately, we seem to have less and less patience for the complexity of things. Simple answers are so appealing. And so deadly. In a recent essay using the writings of the poet Wislawa Szymborska, Maria Popova draws thoughtful connections between the capacity of wonder and the danger of certainty:

The entire essay can be found at the Brainpickings archive: http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=d1933e19f4&e=8657d3f69d

 

“In a sentiment of chilling prescience today, as we witness tyrants drunk on certainty drain the world of its essential inspiration, Szymborska considers the destructive counterpoint to this generative not-knowing:

All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

 This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

“Such surrender to not-knowing, Szymborska argues as she steps out into the cosmic perspective, is the seedbed of our capacity for astonishment, which in turn gives meaning to our existence:

The world — whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world — it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

“Twenty years before she received the Nobel Prize, Szymborska explored how our contracting compulsion for knowing can lead us astray in her sublime 1976 poem “Utopia,” found in her Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library):

 

UTOPIA

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here

with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,

sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:

the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned

and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.

Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.

Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,

and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches

turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

X