Ignorance is bliss. Thomas Gray said that. In 1742. There was a lot of bliss back then. But somehow, I can't imagine most ignorant people of the time feeling particularly blissful.
Thomas Gray was a poet and scholar, a teacher at Cambridge University. What he actually said about ignorance and bliss is this: "... where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise." He said it in the final lines of his poem, "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College." The poem busies itself with the simple pleasures of academic life, divorced as it is from the harsh and often brutal reality that awaits people in what is laughingly called the real world. It draws a distinction between being educated, or knowledgeable, and being wise to the ways of the world. It suggests one can be knowledgeable and remain blissfully ignorant of the larger world outside academe.
I've never been sure about the premise. It always seemed to me ignorance was, well, ignorance, a Rumsfeldian world of not knowing what you don't know, if you will. I always assumed people who opted for ignorance of, say, world affairs weren't really blissful, they were just whistling past the graveyard and spending their spare time in denial. I grudgingly admired their ability to be ignorant and therefore blissfully unaware that they were, in one way or another, doomed.
I understood the concepts of both whistling past the graveyard and being doomed. I grew up during the Cold War. I was repeatedly reminded the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over my head by a very, very thin thread of mutually assured destruction. I fully expected that thread to break and knew when it did, I'd have about 20 minutes to kiss my ass goodbye. I never bothered practicing duck and cover because I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years within five miles of a first strike nuclear target, well within the vaporization zone. The thought of someone scouring the remains of ground zero and finding a nuclear shadow of me ducking and covering was too comical; I preferred to go out in a defiant 'bring it on' pose. I mean, who'd want to survive? Only the blissfully ignorant, most likely.
I thought my neighbours building bomb shelters were absurd. I envied their children though. I wanted my father to build one. Not to save us but because they were pretty cool places to play and even cooler places to escape the summer heat of Arizona and New Mexico.
But I have been fully ignorant of the world's goings on for most of the past month. Before we slipped our moorings in the Canary Islands on a cross-Atlantic sea voyage, I heard there had been a terrorist incident in Paris. Heard it was bad. Didn't hear any more about it after that.
Our land-based weatherman, sent along a few words about a terrorist attack in California a week or so before we made landfall in Barbados. I didn't hear about it being perpetrated by some whacked-out Muslim jihadists until later. Never really got the details. Didn't really care. Ignorance is bliss and I was still coming to terms with my blissful ignorance. That reality had no place in my reality, still tethered as it was to cycles of light and dark, hot and cold. My brain had been in the spin cycle of constant motion for so long I'm not sure I even had the capability of processing information like that.
I was having enough trouble coming to grips with all the bizarre Christmas decorations and reggae Christmas music spilling out of speakers at every bar, restaurant and beach in Bridgetown. Christmas... oh yeah; I forgot. Notwithstanding I grew up in the desert, Christmas elves, Santas, reindeer and harried people shopping in 30°C heat and enough humidity to run rivulets of sweat down my back when I was just standing still was another reality I couldn't process.
I've been on solid ground for almost a week now. I still feel stoned. My inner ear is still dancing to rhythms of wind over current and three-metre swells off my stern. Even when I try to engage with the despair so prevalent in the world around me, I can't process it. I couldn't figure out Donald Trump before I left. Now I'm more convinced than ever he isn't real. Maybe just the vanguard of aliens sent to infiltrate us and kickstart a new fascism for the 21st century.
But I'm reminded too graphically of Stanley Milgram's experiments in obedience at Yale in the early 1960s when he demonstrated you don't have to scratch too far below the surface of most people to find their inner Nazi. It can happen here. Might be happening right now. In the case of The Donald, I'm pretty sure his inner Nazi lies just below the surface of his polyester orange hair.
But it's Christmas. I know because Santa Claus Never Comes to the Ghetto (you know you want to listen to it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcFNu136Pnc) was playing all over Barbados, a catchy reggae beat with another disturbing message, belied perhaps by the long lineups of people frantically purchasing presents and shopping over their lunch hour.
So I'm choosing my news carefully. I'm feeding my way back to whatever the opposite of ignorance is with selected, blissful news. Heartened to see Canada's new prime minister welcoming refugees. Symbolic? Hell yes. Blissful? Depends on your point of view. My glass is half full; I'm not sure I can even handle that much right now. A pox on the naysayers, the haters, those who can't wait to find fault and wallow in failure. A pox on global markets and the moneymen swindling the world. I don't want to know how badly you're picking my pocket.
I'm drawing Santa a map to the ghetto. I'm tuning out the world's static, laughing at the terrorists, testing my unsteadiness against the relentless pull of gravity, bracing myself even when I know the floor I'm standing on isn't moving, notwithstanding my unshakable knowledge it is, gently reintegrating myself into the alternate reality of Whistler in the days before the onslaught of very welcome Christmas guests, coming to grips with sharing my space with more than three other people.
It'll take a while. So bear with me if we bump into each other and it seems as though I'm not there. I'm still somewhere in Blissville, ignorant though that may be.