Occasionally I’ll have someone tell me that they don’t want to learn more about a topic because that would kill the joy that topic brings them.
They don’t want to know anything about biology, for instance, because doing so might reduce the wonder they experience when perusing fields of flowers. They just want to look at the colors and shapes, and smell the wonderful fragrances.
They don’t want to understand sociology because it may make them cynical about their interactions with others, and they don’t want that to burden their good times with friends.
This is an understandable sentiment because the more you learn about something, the more you bypass the outward-facing façade and see a starker, more detailed truth.
No longer are the vast variations found in flowers ‘magical,’ now they’re logical variations brought about by genetic mutation and environmental influences. No longer are social movements inexplicable, instead they’re understandable, or at least comprehendible, and governed by a set of principles.
The desire to not understand is a desire born of conservative thinking, which means safe and secure thinking. I take pleasure in this feeling and pulling back the veil may ruin that pleasure for me. Why would I risk it?
It’s true that ignorance about a topic can fuzz the edges in a comforting way, like applying a blurring, softening light to a family photo. A lot of the pimples and stray hairs disappear when you look at the world through a lens that doesn’t include the details.
This is a fear without legs, however. If you allow yourself to look for beauty at scale, whether the larger context or at a higher magnification showing all the tiny details, you’ll find that there’s plenty to enjoy.
An excellent example of this is attraction in human beings. The ‘blurry photo’ way of looking at this is that it’s somehow magical and meant to be, while the more informed version takes into account biological and social conditions. It looks at the human microbiome and how one person’s physical ecosystem interacts with another’s.
Is it different? Yes.
The former approach is finding beauty in an idealized storyline, which fails to take into account data but aligns with popular folklore. It’s not something you have to work to appreciate; it’s pre-packaged attraction.
The latter approach requires some mind-bending. It involves conceiving of oneself as a collection of human cells, fungi, viruses, bacteria, chemical impulses and mental plasticity, combined with the social structures in which we live: invisible sets of rules that we understand and accept which guide our actions and activities.
That this collection of minuscule and complex variables conspired to make us interested in someone romantically, with all those little pieces falling into place and interacting with their biological and social equivalents, is a dance that’s as beautiful as it is complex. It’s an elaborate orchestral performance compared to the easy-to-understand tapping of a finger on a table.
So long as we allow ourselves to appreciate it, the world is an infinitely complicated, infinitely gigantic, infinitely beautiful place. So long as we don’t romanticize ignorance over understanding, we can explore and enjoy, and never run out of things in which to take pleasure. We can look at the fuzzy picture and enjoy flowers because they’re flowers, and we can put things into finer focus when we want to fixate on the minutiae and geek out about the fact that flowers have an electrical field that attract bees.
Composers don’t limit themselves when learning about music. They love music, and a deeper understanding allows them to enjoy and make use of the craft at a denser, more fundamental level. Their appreciation of music doesn’t disappear because of that knowledge, it increases. Because now they see the underlying structure and can enjoy the architecture of that which they’re passion about, rather than just admiring the paint job.
Allow yourself to appreciate the world at scale. The more you know and understand, the more you’re capable of enjoying.
Update: April 21, 2017
I’m told some variation of the argument I mentioned above with unfortunate frequency by people who, in all other senses, are very intelligent, educated human beings. But this desire to not de-blur the world is rampant, and that fiction that we’ll lose the romance of whatever it is we enjoy by learning more about it is pervasive. Very often this is tethered to some kind of magical or mystical thinking, as well, which is a way of seeing the world that’s resurgent and, although in many ways not harmful, sometimes limiting in how it encourages its adherents to dismiss any data that doesn’t support their preexisting views on how the universe operates.