Ignorance Is Not Bliss Once You Have Enough Awareness

Why 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

To consider whether or not ignorance is bliss, let’s look at my son, Zac.

My blissfully ignorant newborn son.
Blissfully pure ignorance.

In April 2021, Zac emerged into the world like all newborns: ignorant.

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

Was Zac’s ignorance bliss for him?

Given all his squawking and crying, I don’t think so. Maybe that had less to do with his ignorance than with Kim and my ignorance as new parents, though, If we knew how to keep Zac in perfect comfort, he would have been pretty close to blissful. A well-fed, healthy, napping newborn? That’s bliss.

But as Zac continues seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and pooping, the wild squiggles of the world will 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 familiar 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.

To Houdini himself from these constricting mental expectations, Zac might try therapy or meditation. 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 I’ve read about him, 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. Here’s how I plan to follow in Feynman Senior’s footsteps.

Go foraging.

That way, what would otherwise be “just another walk in the park” becomes a grown-up Easter egg hunt. And 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.

When Zac’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.

Such experiences will challenge and expand Zac’s expectations of the world. And the memories, stories, and knowledge he accumulates will add color to his day-to-day, just as my morning Colombian coffee does thanks to having toured a finca and picked beans before.

See the world from a photographer’s lens.

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

Some argue taking photos takes you out of the moment. 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.

Harness his senses.

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 and 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. 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. 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.

The better an author develops the background characters, the more immersive and engaging the story becomes. Same goes for our life stories.

So 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.

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.

Parts of Zac’s 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 Awareness…

Feynmanizing Zac comes down to constantly training his curiosity muscle.

The more Zac remains humbled by what he doesn’t know and rewarded by what he has learned, the more he’ll want to continue to discover. This will enhance his awareness and add blissful 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 that would otherwise fly over my head without me caring.
  • 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.

…More Awareness, More Miracles

According to Littlewood’s law of miracles, we experiences the world around us at a rate of one per second, so if we’re awake and aware for eight hours a day, we can expect to encounter a one-in-a-million “miracle” roughly every month.160 x 60 x 8 = 28,800 experiences per day. 1,000,000 / 28,8000 = 35 days per million experiences.

But this law presumes:

  1. You are directing your attention toward something where miracles might occur. The screen you’re looking at does not meet that criteria.
  2. You are able know a miracle when you see it.

So if you, Zac, and I want richer, deeper, more miraculous lives, we better most past the idea that ignorance is bliss and work our awareness.

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👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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