The Beauty of What We Will Never Know
Syndicated from, Nov 07, 2016

6 minute read


One hot October morning, I got off the all-night train in Mandalay, the old royal capital of Burma, now Myanmar. And out on the street, I ran into a group of rough men standing beside their bicycle rickshaws.And one of them came up and offered to show me around. The price he quoted was outrageous. It was less than I would pay for a bar of chocolate at home.

So I clambered into his trishaw, and he began pedaling us slowly between palaces and pagodas. And as he did, he told me how he had come to the city from his village. He'd earned a degree in mathematics.His dream was to be a teacher. But of course, life is hard under a military dictatorship, and so for now, this was the only way he could make a living. Many nights, he told me, he actually slept in his trishaw so he could catch the first visitors off the all-night train.

And very soon, we found that in certain ways, we had so much in common -- we were both in our 20s,we were both fascinated by foreign cultures -- that he invited me home.

So we turned off the wide, crowded streets, and we began bumping down rough, wild alleyways. There were broken shacks all around. I really lost the sense of where I was, and I realized that anything could happen to me now. I could get mugged or drugged or something worse. Nobody would know.

Finally, he stopped and led me into a hut, which consisted of just one tiny room. And then he leaned down, and reached under his bed. And something in me froze. I waited to see what he would pull out.And finally he extracted a box. Inside it was every single letter he had ever received from visitors from abroad, and on some of them he had pasted little black-and-white worn snapshots of his new foreign friends.

So when we said goodbye that night, I realized he had also shown me the secret point of travel, which is to take a plunge, to go inwardly as well as outwardly to places you would never go otherwise, to venture into uncertainty, ambiguity, even fear.

At home, it's dangerously easy to assume we're on top of things. Out in the world, you are reminded every moment that you're not, and you can't get to the bottom of things, either.

Everywhere, "People wish to be settled," Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us, "but only insofar as we are unsettled is there any hope for us."

At this conference, we've been lucky enough to hear some exhilarating new ideas and discoveries and, really, about all the ways in which knowledge is being pushed excitingly forwards. But at some point, knowledge gives out. And that is the moment when your life is truly decided: you fall in love; you lose a friend; the lights go out. And it's then, when you're lost or uneasy or carried out of yourself, that you find out who you are.

I don't believe that ignorance is bliss. Science has unquestionably made our lives brighter and longer and healthier. And I am forever grateful to the teachers who showed me the laws of physics and pointed out that three times three makes nine. I can count that out on my fingers any time of night or day. But when a mathematician tells me that minus three times minus three makes nine, that's a kind of logic that almost feels like trust.

The opposite of knowledge, in other words, isn't always ignorance. It can be wonder. Or mystery.Possibility. And in my life, I've found it's the things I don't know that have lifted me up and pushed me forwards much more than the things I do know. It's also the things I don't know that have often brought me closer to everybody around me.

For eight straight Novembers, recently, I traveled every year across Japan with the Dalai Lama. And the one thing he said every day that most seemed to give people reassurance and confidence was, "I don't know."

"What's going to happen to Tibet?" "When are we ever going to get world peace?" "What's the best way to raise children?"

"Frankly," says this very wise man, "I don't know."

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman has spent more than 60 years now researching human behavior, and his conclusion is that we are always much more confident of what we think we know than we should be. We have, as he memorably puts it, an "unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance." We know -- quote, unquote -- our team is going to win this weekend, and we only remember that knowledge on the rare occasions when we're right. Most of the time, we're in the dark. And that's where real intimacy lies.

Do you know what your lover is going to do tomorrow? Do you want to know?

The parents of us all, as some people call them, Adam and Eve, could never die, so long as they were eating from the tree of life. But the minute they began nibbling from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they fell from their innocence. They grew embarrassed and fretful, self-conscious. And they learned, a little too late, perhaps, that there are certainly some things that we need to know, but there are many, many more that are better left unexplored.

Now, when I was a kid, I knew it all, of course. I had been spending 20 years in classrooms collecting facts, and I was actually in the information business, writing articles for Time Magazine. And I took my first real trip to Japan for two-and-a-half weeks, and I came back with a 40-page essay explaining every last detail about Japan's temples, its fashions, its baseball games, its soul.

But underneath all that, something that I couldn't understand so moved me for reasons I couldn't explain to you yet, that I decided to go and live in Japan. And now that I've been there for 28 years, I really couldn't tell you very much at all about my adopted home. Which is wonderful, because it means every day I'm making some new discovery, and in the process, looking around the corner and seeing the hundred thousand things I'll never know.

Knowledge is a priceless gift. But the illusion of knowledge can be more dangerous than ignorance.

Thinking that you know your lover or your enemy can be more treacherous than acknowledging you'll never know them. Every morning in Japan, as the sun is flooding into our little apartment, I take great pains not to consult the weather forecast, because if I do, my mind will be overclouded, distracted, even when the day is bright.

I've been a full-time writer now for 34 years. And the one thing that I have learned is that transformation comes when I'm not in charge, when I don't know what's coming next, when I can't assume I am bigger than everything around me. And the same is true in love or in moments of crisis. Suddenly, we're back in that trishaw again and we're bumping off the broad, well-lit streets; and we're reminded, really, of the first law of travel and, therefore, of life: you're only as strong as your readiness to surrender.

In the end, perhaps, being human is much more important than being fully in the know.

Thank you.


This talk originally appeared on TED. TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.

1 Past Reflections