Bliss or Bondage? Thoughts on Ignorance

When you’re new, you don’t KNOW.  You don’t know what’s important and what’s incidental; what you have the power to fix yourself, and what you need someone else to fix for you.  You don’t just have questions – you have questions about your questions: Who do I ask? Where do I go to find the answer? Is this question even worth asking?  It’s good to be new – to remember how children feel, to experience wonder and be confronted with challenge, to explore and discover, to see in a fresh way and, in seeing, offer fresh eyes to those who have seen too much too long.

I have been in South Africa now exactly two months. As my cab driver said this weekend “Ah, that’s just yesterday you arrived!” There is much that I still don’t know, but this I have seen so far: ignorance is not bliss. It is a kind of captivity – like believing yourself to be blind when really you’re wandering around the basement of your house with all the lights off and all you need to do is flip the switch. Speaking of lights off …

My new classroom is fancy. Fancy as in: acoustically-treated paneling on the walls, motion-sensor lights, a built-in, drop-down projector screen with a wireless projection system and high powered speakers, a stereo recording microphone, glass-walled practice rooms for monitoring student activities, a tech resource center next to the practice rooms, specially-designed music chairs that support good singing/playing posture, direct access to the stage, and a view that looks into a Zen-like courtyard.  The picture at the top of this post is the view from my students’ seats.  You can sort of see my desk in the right corner.  The school administration has been building this beautiful, purpose-built facility for the last two years, and my classroom is one of the first spaces to be opened. (The theatre space will open in January.) Fancy, however, does not mean perfect. In fact, fancy – when new – usually means growing pains and “hiccups”. There were plenty of those in the first month of school. For example, it took three weeks and multiple contractors to get the sound system and the projector and my computer to talk to each other correctly. Then there are the glitches that no one saw coming and that no one seems to have an answer to yet – like the strange wiring fault that lets us in the choir room hear what the band kids are listening to when the teacher plays a recording through the speakers. What humans make, humans will have to fix. But that’s not the point of this post.

Coming back to ignorance – did I mention the motion-sensor lights? I was delighted with this little feature of my classroom. Never mind that if I sit quietly at my desk for 12 minutes or more they switch off and I have to get up and dance around to remind them that I’m still in the room. It’s great. Built-in stretching for me if I want it, a reminder of how long I’ve been sitting in one spot, a power-saving device for the school, and I never have to remember to turn the lights off when I leave. It’s a fail-proof system … until something fails.   On Monday of the second week of school, I walked into the room and nothing happened. No lights flickered on so I jumped around a bit (maybe the sensor was sleepy). Still nothing. Not a big deal … with all the glass windows, there is always enough light to work and teach in. That Monday was set to be busy, so I decided to make do and just send a quick email about it to my principal. For the rest of the week, I taught in the semi-dark and joked with the kids about new buildings and technical glitches. (Most of them didn’t even notice the problem right away.  Clearly I have plenty of natural light in this fancy new room.) Two or three times, different maintenance people came in and waved their arms around, said something about testing the sensor and left. After about a week of this, I start to get concerned. Parent open house night was only two days away and I still didn’t have working lights. I explained the problem again to my principal. Surprised that it hadn’t been fixed, he vowed to have it dealt with before the parents night. The next morning, before students arrived, I was sitting at my desk in the dim morning twilight when the Head of Operations walked in. With nothing more than a “Good morning,” he walked up to my desk, reached behind me to the wall on my left, and flipped a switch. The lights flickered on and I stared at him, mouth agape. He gave a shrug and said, “Yes, the lights are motioned-sensor, but there has to be a way to turn them off if you want better visibility for the projector. This is the switch.” I looked at the switch on the wall and back at him a couple of times, still speechless. He chuckled and I stammered something along the lines of “WHAT?! That was there the whole time?!” “Someone must have turned it off after you left. Probably the evening cleaner.”

For almost a week, I taught in the “dark” because I believed that something was broken that in fact worked perfectly well. The power to change my environment had always been there two feet to my left. Straight and simple ignorance – my own and that of almost all the people around me – kept me and my classes in a state of “making do” when we could have been enjoying the light.

The truth hidden in this experience came up again in a different way that month. August is the end of winter in the southern hemisphere, and in Johannesburg, winter is very, very dry. When I first landed, I was instantly dehydrated. I would wake up in the middle of the night parched and have nosebleeds every morning. During the day, I struggled to drink enough water and my skin was constantly chapped. Figuring out the water situation was a challenge.  Back in Nairobi, I had a water dispenser in my kitchen and I kept 20 liter bottles in my pantry for that dispenser. When I arrived in my Johannesburg apartment, there were three big bottles of water waiting for me in my fridge. When those were almost gone, I wondered where I could get either a dispenser or a filter for my tap. When I finally ran out, I made an emergency trip to the grocery store for a 10 liter bottle. Finally, over dinner one night with a group of teachers, I asked where I could get a filtration system and several of the teachers who have been here a while just looked at me and smiled. “Why do you need a filter system? You know you can drink the water, right? South Africa has some of the best water anywhere. Better than New York, for sure.”  I was stunned.  Drink the water … straight from the tap. Never have I lived in Africa and thought it was ‘safe’ drinking from the tap.  I never even considered it a possibility.  Once again, ignorance (colored by previous experience) shaped my actions. I lived as though I lacked, when really there was abundance at my finger tips.

Here is the mystery: people live as much by what they do not know as by what they know.  Ignorance, therefore, is a kind of captivity, and knowledge is more than just power.  It is freedom. Or at least, it is the possibility of freedom – the option of light and life.  This truth is indeed a mystery with a double edge.  Only by knowing are we able to see the ways our ignorance shapes our lives (there is always more than one thing to be known) but how are we to know what we do not know?  How would our lives change – spiritually, emotionally, relationally – if we knew the things that most need knowing?  Once knowing, would we be willing to examine the former power of ignorance, or would we stop at the joy of knowing the first thing?  There are many layers hidden in these questions, so for now I’ll leave it there.  In short, for those of you who may have been wondering what I’ve been thinking about these last few weeks, there it is – the relationship between knowledge and freedom, all thanks to a light switch.

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