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What we don't understand

Even after many years of compulsory and voluntary education, each of us will understand only a tiny portion of what there is to be understood in the universe. This fact may seem discouraging, but actually it is freeing. It frees us from feeling too concerned about knowing everything, since we never will, at least not in this life. It frees us from some of the pressure of competition, since knowing more than our neighbors seems to matter less when we realize that our neighbors, like us, only know a tiny fraction of what is knowable. The difference between one tiny fraction and another seems like it could not possibly be very significant. So instead of being depressed about our inability to know everything right now, we can find a few things to enjoy about it.

Another enjoyable thing about the general human lack of understanding is that we can learn a great deal about a person by finding out what he doesn’t understand. I was recently speaking with a woman about different parts of the country, including her adopted hometown of San Francisco. She told me in as many words that she didn’t understand why anyone would live anywhere other than San Francisco. San Francisco is surely a wondrous and impressive place, but I couldn’t help but chuckle a little when I heard her say this. She is a successful and intelligent woman, and she probably knows much more than I do about nearly everything, but by telling me this one thing she didn’t understand I felt like I learned so much about her.

What could we learn about someone from their confession that they couldn’t understand why anyone would live outside of San Francisco? Without meaning to pick on this particular woman or the fine city of San Francisco, we might imagine that such a person, at the very least, had a poor opinion of the rest of the world and the many wonderful and unique things that can be found in places outside of the Bay Area. Maybe she didn’t feel much of the pull that family ties and attachments to birthplaces have on so many people. Maybe she also had only a weak sense of what it would be like to be poor and unable to afford the high rent in the tony neighborhoods she was used to. People move to San Francisco today for many reasons, and ambition and fashion are perhaps chief among them. For this woman, ambition was natural, and being fashionable was one of her principal aims.

But of course, there are so many things that I don’t understand that could reveal a great deal about myself. I don’t understand why people enjoy going to bars and clubs to socialize – maybe my confusion reveals that I am socially deficient or a fuddy-duddy. I don’t understand modern art, negotiation, the Higgs boson, the global economy, how to navigate around Chinatown, or any number of other important things.

And there are some things that all, or nearly all of us, fail to understand. I recently watched the movie The Lives of Others, about Communist policemen in East Germany. I discussed the movie with some modern, American friends. We all agreed that we could not comprehend why the East German government would care so much whether people left their country. In America today, we so frequently argue about whether and how to control entry into the country, that it seems to never occur to us that any civilized person would want to control people leaving a country. This failure of understanding reveals that me and my modern American friends grew up, not surprisingly, as modern Americans: highly concerned with liberty and accustomed to being in an envied destination.

If we today can look at East Germans and feel shocked and uncomprehending about their way of living and governing, then who knows what they would think of us? Similarly, what will people in future societies fail to understand about our quirks and strange ideas today? The proper response to all of this is humility. We should be humble about the many things we don’t understand as individuals, and even more humble about the things our entire society and our culture itself fails to grasp. Humility will make us feel weaker, but really it will make us stronger by improving our ability to recognize and confront our problems and missteps. More important, it will help us laugh a little more. What’s easier to laugh at than one’s own weakness and humanity’s shared frailty?