Monday, September 19, 2011

luxury items

Because I wasn't entirely sure and because I woke this morning wanting to know, I looked up where, precisely, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Ural mountains were and where they stood in relation to each other.

Geography has never been a strong point (probably part of the male gene marked "real men never look at maps"), but my mind's insistence on finding out would not be denied in this one small instance. As a footnote, but with less insistence, I looked up the Mountains of the Moon, whose location was a bit more firmly fixed but whose upside-down map was too deliciously artful not to include here.

 And all of this led me to marvel idly at the luxury anyone might enjoy: The lifestyle of the human being is to learn information and apply it; some know what they know and know no more; and some are so wealthy that what they know is attended (to a greater or lesser extent) by some sense of what they don't know.

In order to eat and get along, what is known is kept on the front burner -- sometimes rising beyond the mere subsistence level to a level of arrogance ... I know what I know and what I know is right and the rest of you can piss up a rope. Know-it-all's are a dime a dozen.

But more often, among the wealthy, I imagine, what is known is carefully balanced against the understanding that what is not known is positively vast and possibly not just "unknown" but also "unknowable." It's a wealthy man's possession but its implications can cut the the jagged edge of a rusty knife: If knowing is the way anyone was brought up, then not-knowing can appear to be an abject failure.

I don't want to get off into the "don't know mind" of some Korean Buddhists here, but rather would prefer to remain among those who may never have heard of Buddhism and its arabesques. Just the ordinary, walking-around experience anyone might have.

I once asked the scientist and prolific writer Isaac Asimov what he thought the single greatest scientific unknown was. With the speed of a sequined lady shot out of a circus cannon, he replied, "the mind." And if any answer deserved an "amen," perhaps his was most on target.

In quite ordinary terms, it's kind of interesting: Whether someone is an insufferable know-it-all or has the luxury of recognizing that so much is unknown and perhaps wallows in its uncertainties, still, what is unknown claims the high seat. No one can know what will happen in the next moment or the next week or the next year. We may have our hopes and dreams and plans and fears and expectations and longing to be in control, but life has its own ideas and wonderments and unexpected turns to the left or right. Anyone who has lived beyond the age of two or three can attest to this.

No amount of knowing can outflank the unknown and yet our training and sometimes desperate longing is to do precisely that. Crystal balls, a place in heaven, hexes and rabbits' feet all have a place in the world of what is known. There's a pretty good living to be made in the realms of those who claim they have outflanked the unknown. But their claims are just their claims ... caveat emptor.

No matter what virtue or what gyration is applied, still the unknown seems to titter like some Japanese girl behind a cupped hand. If you can't know the unknown and yet knowing is your longing and habit, how can anyone find some peace? Strenuous efforts don't work and a lassez-faire laziness is a masquerade ... so where's the balance, where's the peace, where's the certainty, where's the relief, where's the exhalation that goes "ahhhh?" Where is the answer that seems to be right on the tip of my tongue and yet, strangely, is always out of reach?

I haven't got any snake-oil answer. But there seems to be an imperative for each to do his or her own addition and subtraction, to reflect with an investigative care ... and keep on investigating. Is there any other choice? Sure, there are tons of choices, but the question is, do they work?

No one wants to be a wuss in their own lives and no one likes a know-it-all.


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