the humility of knowledge
dispatch from 02139 (in which we recognize our humble stature before the gates of true knowledge…)
class is back in session. and that means my shoulder is sagging from the weight of books. my right hand aches from scribbling, fast as i can. and my whole body is inclined to bow down before the gates of knowledge, and confess how empty a vessel i truly am.
i’d intended to go easy this semester, spend whole days holed up inside this book-lined aerie. cut down on the classes to which i zipped across the leafy harvard yard.
but then the course catalog rolled out. and so too an inkling that this was but a last-chance vault to a long life spent with nose in books.
so why not, i reasoned to my reasonable self, take the hardest, highest bounce off that bouncy leaping board?
why not give it one with-gusto whirl, you and this heady voyage, the one where you get to slither into cushioned seats (for seats are cushioned, oh-so-cushioned, here in harvard halls), yank hard on the itty-bitty writing perch, and open wide for all the learning swirling through the chambers?
convinced, i signed up.
my class list stretched and stretched — and stretched. somehow, i got to seven. and all the books to boot. (which is why my credit-card patrol called this week to see if someone had gotten loose and run amok with my account at the coop, that magnificent university book store where great minds — the professors’ — have curated stacks of books, and even browsing through a class not yours imparts a heady lesson in what tomes are deemed worthy of study.)
and here’s the thing: all week the image that’s floated in my mind is one of standing at the precipice of, say, the grand canyon, tiptoeing out to the edge, where you can see how far and wide that great gulf stretches, yet you can’t begin to make out the nooks and crannies, can’t see beyond the etched granite walls, into coves, up sheer cliffs. and you can’t help but feel so small, so incidental beside such grandeur. such majesty.
and so it is with the magnificent humankind creation, knowledge.
the closer you tiptoe into it, the grander all the vastness appears. the higher, the deeper, the more intricately chiseled.
and that’s where i perch. i am at the brink of something so immense it will take all my life to begin to grasp the flimsiest grasp. so immense it makes me wish for two or three lifetimes to wrap my feeble fist around a simple starter’s course.
i sit in african-american history, jaw-dropped, wondering how i got to my own mid-century and knew so very little. i need to speed-read, speed-think, speed-swallow to catch up on all that i don’t know.
i move to poetry, with helen vendler, that great mother northstar of all that is poetic in america, and i get dizzy. she recites line after line, from poet after poet. she makes it all make sense, makes it feel like for the first time in our lives we’re netting moonbeams and twinkling stars. and then i zip home, and plunk oh-so-slowly over the tomes that will last me a lifetime. i flip from poem to dictionary. i scribble words — and lines — that send me to jupiter and mars.
i even got ultra-brave and signed up for “postwar american and british fiction” with james wood, whom some have called “the greatest living literary critic,” and gosh-darn if i’m not going to feel adrift, but i’ll not stand ashore for fear of owning up to my sorry unschooled self.
what point in learning if not to start from scratch, or close to scratch, and swallow, chew, inhale, imbibe with gusto?
i’ve just been struck, at every turn this week, with how it is that as you step into the canyon, you begin to truly grasp its immensity, and your own itty-bitty dismissible stature. and isn’t it paradoxical — blessedly, beautifully paradoxical — how the deeper you thrust yourself into learning, the humbler you become?
you know so little, there is so infinitely much to learn.
it makes me sad for all the hubris in this country. all the clutter on the airwaves, and cyber-waves, of folks who’re sure they know everything because they read one blip as they went to click their email. lord help us, all.
a good dose of humility might be a fine prescription for the rampant cultural ails. all the know-it-alls might do well to ask, “just how much do i really know? and might i learn a wee bit more?”
but mostly it comes back to the simple posture of laying down our sorry selves at the time-worn feet of Infinite Wisdom. of assuming the age-old pose of acknowledging that we’re but empty vessels, and we are begging to be filled.
vowing: we’ll do the work, the fine act of turning pages, scanning wisdom, and breathing in the accumulated knowledge of all those who’ve trekked this way, and picked up a thing or three along the way.
we’ll dedicate our days to the holy work of trying to grow in knowledge, yes, and wisdom, absolutely.
do you often feel small, oh so small, in the face of all there is for us to understand, to come to know? and do you make lifework of learning? if so, what’s one book we should all add to our reading list?