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English Version | Allegro ma non troppo

15 Jul 2021
By Ana Murcho

Which is kind of like saying, happy but not that much. From the top of our intellectual sovereignty, we envy what “others”, the less capable than us, the ignorant, seem to have: unlimited happiness. Because they don’t think as much, because they’re not aware of the world and things, because their IQ is lower. But who was it that said that “others”, the less capable, the ignorant, are happier? And who can guarantee us that we, powerless observers of human nature, are not simply idiots for supposing such a thing?

Which is kind of like saying, happy but not that much. From the top of our intellectual sovereignty, we envy what “others”, the less capable than us, the ignorant, seem to have: unlimited happiness. Because they don’t think as much, because they’re not aware of the world and things, because their IQ is lower. But who was it that said that “others”, the less capable, the ignorant, are happier? And who can guarantee us that we, powerless observers of human nature, are not simply idiots for supposing such a thing?

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

The most interesting thing when you write a lot, and have been doing so for a long time, is that there is a whole world of gems and depressing treasures (especially depressing treasures, if you’re compulsively unsatisfied) that mirror what, at a certain point, we have been and/ or thought. Around 2008, when putting pen to paper was a continuous act for me, something I did on a daily, like breathing, I jotted down the following words: “I wanted to have one of those pairs of jeans almost up to the neck, those that create a V between the legs from being so high, in the shade sky-blue-after-a-thunderstorm-with-nuances. I wanted Reebok trainers, the sporty ones, like people wore in the 80s, and that look like white rubber booties. I wanted a scrunchie so I could do the perfect ponytail, or to wear it on my wrist, as if it had been an expensive present. I wanted a pink sweatshirt with letters saying Ralph Lauren, even if it wasn’t Ralph Lauren. I wanted socks with Disney cartoons on them, bought at some supermarket because those socks are sold everywhere, or a pair or those colorful stripy ones. I wanted a full collection of ruffled and floral underwear, that my grandmother had gifted me the Christmas before, together with the kitchen rags that I usually always receive. I wanted a fluorescent tracksuit and a husband with the same one, so we could walk by the Tejo on Sunday mornings and go eat ice-cream by the Tower of Belém while watching children ride their bikes and stay two hours without saying a word. I wanted a red patent leather bag, because it goes with everything, including when your boss takes you out for lunch every semester. I wanted blonde highlights, since dark hair is completely out, and if the actresses can, so can I, the only difference is that they’re always wearing tons of makeup, otherwise they would look just like me. I wanted super long gel nails, maybe with those little sparkling details that no one really uses anymore, maybe with small flowers, I haven’t thought it through yet. But what I really wanted was to have time to go buy a ticket to the concert of Tony Carreira, if it’s not sold out already, which would be tragic. It is tragic.” This would be, in that time, the possible diary entry of a thirty-something woman, single, ordinary; of someone that wanted nothing more from life than the “basic stuff” (it’s funny how we always assume we know exactly what “basic stuff” means for other people), that didn’t care about anything else but what was fundamentally necessary in daily life and for whom the paycheck at the end of the month and having good health were “alright”. According to what my petty simple mind understood, this woman was happy because she didn’t ask that much from the universe. She was ignorant. 

Thirteen years after, a plot twist: the ignorant, somehow, is me. For various reasons: a) for assuming that I knew anything at all about ignorant people – because they exist, we’ll get there; b) for reducing what an individual (in this case, ignorant) is, to a bunch of clichés that should have stayed in the pages of glossy magazines from the century before. Shame on me. After the disclaimer, let’s move on to the atonement. What notion is this, rooted in so many of us, intellectually active beings, stimulating and stimulated, of thinking that ignorant people are happier than us just because (apparently) they are more… ignorant? Firstly, what differentiates an ignorant person from a non-ignorant? The word “ignorant” has its origins in Latin, in the word ignorantia, a derivative of the word ignorare, which in itself means “not knowing”. The dictionary defines the word ignorant as: “a lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.” It is undeniable that, even for a lay, that ignorance is connected to a certain degree of awareness – or unawareness of something. But to what extent? Is that what determines if someone fits, or not, into the category of ignorant? And does that make that person, by association, happier? That’s what we asked psychologist Cristina Sousa Ferreira, from the Oficina de Psicologia. “’Ignorance is a bliss’ is a quote by Thomas Gray [English poet and novelist] which belongs to his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, 1768. What sense does it make to say something like that in today’s day and age? ‘Ignorance is a bliss’ is an expression that implies it’s much better to not know of something, that you’re happier when you don’t have information on a certain subject. There are circumstances under which ignorance is a bliss because it increases our well-being. There are times when we chose it, and avoid the information and knowledge, and others when ignorance prevents us from gaining that knowledge and leaves us wanting to know more. We can prefer to have happier thoughts and an optimistic vision (excessively) on the health threat we now face. We can also prefer not to know how the economic variations, birth rate and Social Security funds might be affecting our retirement funds. If we knew about all the things happening in in our life before they happened, that could paralyze us with fear or lead us to take different decisions. However, ignorance drives Man, and science, toward evolution and search for knowledge. It is ignorance that sets us off looking for information and knowledge and makes people, and science, want to evolve and know more. To choose to stay ignorant is against human nature. It is wonderful to see the eyes and faces of children when they discover something, when they taste or experience something new in life.” But in that case, why do certain people “choose” to live in ignorance? “We’re living in a time with unprecedented access to information. However, in a world with such easy access to so many things, we’re all ignorant! Ignorance refers to the lack of awareness, the absence of knowledge, and despite how much we might know about many things, there is a lot more that we still don’t know. To have access to information doesn’t always translate into knowledge, especially if we think about all the conflicting and confusing information available today on the Internet. Sources are important and scientific evidence is fundamental. Where to go when in search of information and knowledge? There are plenty of fake news, people ‘misinforming’ others and speaking of things they know nothing about. But do we really want all that information, all the time?” 

We don’t. Neither we, who have dissected human to the utmost detail (we, the intellectually active, stimulated and stimulating), nor the others – the idiots, the dumb, the ignorant. The specialist continues: “We’re thirsty for knowledge, but sometimes ignorance really is a blessing. So, how do we choose between these two mindsets at each moment? How does the brain decide between knowledge and ignorance? In a scientific article from March 2020, performed by Carnegie Mellon University, refers to people that people sometimes prefer to have less information, even when this means they can’t make decisions that are fully informed. This study revealed that the desire to avoid information is generalized and that most people had some domains – like health, finances, and other’s perceptions -, where they preferred to remain unaware. We don’t care about the details of what goes on other people’s heads about us, in what way our job is at risk or in what estate our smoker’s lungs are. The study also demonstrated a desire for information that was consistent throughout time; those that expressed similar preferences when questioned about it again weeks after. […] There were no differences found when it came to avoiding information out of political ideology, economic level, gender or even education. We all seem to prefer the benefit of uncertainty that comes with taking well-informed decisions to the potential hardship that is receiving bad news. We can also say that often ignorance is a choice. Being afraid of knowledge seems stupid, but we all have questions we don’t really want the answers to. As it’s usually said, ‘what we don’t know can’t hurt us’.” The psychologist describes a series of examples that, although might seem obvious, are excellent to practice the mantra “ignorance is a blessing” – and that goes for both bright and not-so-bright people. “In romantic relationships: ‘my husband is cheating on me, but I would rather not confirm it.’ In interpersonal relationships: ‘I would rather no know everything that others think or say of me.’ In family relationships: ‘I don’t care about the social lives of my teenager children, who knows what I’ll find out.’ In health: ‘I have a nodule on my armpit, but I would rather not go to the doctor.’ In politics: ‘I trust the government’s information about global warming, but I don’t care about the impact it has in my life.’ In society: ‘the usage of drugs is my idol and for sure it’s all fake news.’” And so on, and so forth. We all step into it, all of us (some more than others, sure, but this kind of “automatic escape” spares no soul and not even the brightest minds can run away from it), in a spiral of denial that protects us from reality – and that allows us to move on. 

Where is the difference then? What distinguishes “some” from “others”? We resort to George Steiner (1920-2020), literary critic, essayist, professor – and one of the greatest intellectuals of our era – and to his book Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought, published in 2005. “All of us conduct our lives within an incessant tide and magma of thought acts, but only a very restricted portion of the species provides evidence of knowing how to think. Heidegger bleakly professed that mankind as a whole had not yet emerged from the pre- history of thought. The cerebrally literate-we lack an adequate term- are, in proportion to the mass of humanity, few. The capacity to harbor thoughts or their rudiments is universal and may well be attached to neuro-physiological and evolutionary constants. But the capacity to think thoughts worth thinking, let alone expressing and worth preserving is comparatively rare. Not very many of us know how to think to any demanding, let alone original purpose. Even fewer of us are able to marshal the full energies and potential of thought and of directing these energies towards what is called "concentration" or intentional insight. An identical label obscures the light-years of difference between the background noise and banalities of rumination common to all human existence (as it is perhaps also to that of primates) and the miraculous complexity and strengths of first-class thinking.” What Steiner points out, to sum up, is the distinction between those who take the first step, between those who want to know more and those who would rather stay ignorant. Because everyone of us, no matter how bi or low the IQ is, can opt to remain in semi-vegetative state of denial relatively to a bunch of subjects – even about oneself. And when the light of consciousness and reason overcome all else, then we move across the border. In that moment, we are not only no longer ignorant (read this with a bunch of grains of salt) but also, in a way, we become a tiny bit less happy. But only (and let that only be underlined) because from that moment on, we must deal with the world as it is. In September 2010, in an opinion article about how ignorance may (or may not) be a blessing, Lane Wallace, columnist for the magazine The Atlantic, wrote the following: “At a certain point, I remember learning that there are four stages of knowledge. The first is when you don’t know what you don’t know. (Ignorance). The next step is when you’re shaken off of that blessed ignorance and know what you don’t know. The third stage, as you gain more knowledge, while you’re still painfully aware of what you don’t know, is when you don’t know what you know. And the fourth, which is what I call the Master Zen stage, is when you know what you know. Why do some people cling so obstinately to ignorance? Because ignorance is a bliss. It takes courage to be wise.”

And it does. Even if we are (or not) aware of it. Back to the words of Cristina Sousa Ferreira: “We all want different things in life, but everyone has hopes and dreams. To get what we need we must act, and to know how to act, we need information. Without knowledge we can’t move forward. However, to obtain information and acquire knowledge is not an easy task, it requires time and effort. Smaller goals will require less information and therefore, less time and effort. However, our biggest goals in life require more experience and therefore, a lot of time and knowledge. […] Those who can grow and evolve in uncertainty and ambiguity are insatiably curious. They get excited about the less obvious and resolved things. Scientists are attracted by small inconsistencies that might not correspond to other data. Carpenters are excited about discovering how to build something that has never been tried before. Cooks want to know how a new ingredient can change a familiar flavor. And that is how new knowledge comes about. Exploring the inconsistencies and flaws allows, quite suddenly, for much more comprehension, awareness, and insight. And all of this because someone was curious and asked something out of ignorance. Very valuable ignorance! It’s appropriate to say: ‘Blessed ignorance!?” In the end, no one is completely ignorant or completely non-ignorant. The two spectrums intertwine constantly. And to assume that we are high and secure, on one side of the barricade that is superior to the other is nothing but a self-inflicted mistake. Just like the psychologist underlines, “the way we can increase our comprehension and wake up even more our curiosity is to continue to search for more knowledge. Those are two eternally connected aspects. This is the human condition’s reality. However, what matters, more than knowledge itself, is in what knowledge we wish to focus on. We might not have total control over the experiences that come up in our life, but we can choose which path to take. That makes all the difference in the world. To choose between what we want to learn and what we choose to ignore.” On the episode number 257 of the series The Simpsons, the middle daughter of the most famous yellow family, Lisa, turns to her father and with a desperate look on her face, tells him: “Dad, as intelligence goes up, happiness often goes down.” It’s possible that part of her thought-process was right. In fact, it’s possible that “thinking too much or overthinking” and doing it constantly and consciously, is a heavy burden and, in many cases, fatal. To actively search for “new things”, “new solutions”, “other paths”, is tiring, exhausting. Wanting to understand why everything is the way it is or wanting to have the answers to all and every single dilemma known to mankind, is draining. The other part, the one that is simply implicit, the wrong one, is considering that “others”, like the thirty-something single ordinary woman, the one I invented back in 2008, are happier just because their life is a bed of roses. In most cases, it is not. 

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's "The Nonsense Issue".Full credits on the print edition.

Ana Murcho By Ana Murcho

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