“Beware. Ignorance protects itself. Ignorance promotes suspicion. Suspicion engenders fear. Fear quails, irrational and blind. Or fear looms, defiant and closed. Blind, closed, suspicious, afraid. Ignorance protects itself. And protected, ignorance grows.” -Octavia E. Butler, from Parable of Talents
There is an unwillingness to recognize ignorance. An unwillingness to admit it. To accept it. It is difficult to define one’s shortcomings, much less to understand them. Even less to speak openly about them. But I want to understand my own ignorance. I want to identify it. I feel like I would be better for it. Maybe we all would be better for it. The above quote resonates with me. I think of all the things of which I am ignorant. Of which I have been ignorant. There are many.
It wasn’t really a house. I was 8 and we were taking Christmas gifts to a struggling family. But the place…the thing they lived in wasn’t a house. It was, at best, a shell of a house, with sub-flooring but no actual floors. With wooden planked walls, but no actual sheet rock walls. It was a barn, maybe, or a large shed. Meant to house tractor parts or lawn equipment. Not meant to be lived in by people. Not meant to be lived in by children. I can remember bumping along in our minivan through the pasture to get there. My dad slowly navigating the overgrown road, trying to avoid getting stuck in the ditches and cow paths we crossed. The smell of hay blew hot through the vents in the car. Manure and mud, grass and dank dirt. There was no step to get into the wooden shack, just a single cinder block. We hoisted ourselves inside only to find a cluttered mess of broken everything. There was no central air or heat. I peered down at my feet, stepping lightly, praying I wouldn’t fall through the gaping cracks in the rickety floor boards. There must have been running water, though, I didn’t see any functioning sink. The walls too were unfinished with gaps and cracks that let in the daylight. Dingy blankets were pinned up to help insulate the structure. It was dark. It smelled like damp soil, mold and kerosene. The grandmother huddled under several quilts in a room littered with mattresses, clothes and trash. The kids meandered around us as we carried in our gifts. Looking back on it now, it seems so silly to bring dolls and toy trucks to children that clearly didn’t even have a real home. Until that point in my life I was ignorant of poverty. Blind to the indigence in which some people, some children, live. Children like me, and so very unlike me.
I’ve written about this experience before. It is tattooed in my memory. Imprinted like a dark poem. It unveiled something about the world to me. Something I didn’t quite understand at the age of 8, but that I can understand more clearly now. It enlightened me. It lifted the blindfold of ignorance.
There are so many more ways of living, ways of surviving about which I am completely ignorant. This example from my childhood is tame comparatively speaking. It was mostly benign. After that experience a level of compassion would color my actions in regards to poverty. The ignorance became fully visible. It is now quashed by empathy.
In motherhood I have realized many times over how ignorant I was to parenting. I try to learn as go as best I can. But I stay open. I listen and read and talk to other parents. I try to shore up my ignorance. To minimize it. To prevent it from negatively affecting my family. The weight of it presses on my shoulders sometimes. Sometimes it stops me breathing when I think of all the life my children will live, all the paths they will traverse that are completely unknowable by me. Yet, this too, the opacity of parenthood is made more visible by my experiences with my children every day. By my experiences with other parents. The ignorance I once had, lifted.
Not all ignorance is the same. It is not always protected or suspicious or fearful. Or maybe my personal stories above are more about naivete than ignorance. Regardless, what I mean to point out is that when ignorance IS protected, when there is no openness, no curiosity, no compassion, ignorance is pernicious. This destructive ignorance needs a post all of its own. I cannot leave the topic without addressing this dark side. Which is why there are two parts to this.
We are all ignorant for the most part, to the lives of the people around us. We all have a choice to either open ourselves despite that ignorance or let if fester. I hope that I always choose to open myself to the unknown parts of life. I hope I teach my children to do the same. I hope my ignorance does not grow, but is made smaller and smaller and always smaller.