Monday, May 20, 2013

Ignorance is not bliss

Here's a shocking confession:

I have been comfortably ignorant for all of my life.  And here's another truth: being ignorant, while adding a false sense of security, never brought about a sensation of bliss.  For me, bliss always arrives in the split second after a mind-opening, soul-expanding discovery.

I'm talking about the kind of discovery that brings you from a limited, "I can't do this" perspective, to the growing awareness that you can. You might not be a virtuoso or a prodigy, but the moment you arrive at the overlook on the mountain and see with your own eyes that you can do it, it also means you can go on to do something even more exciting. It is totally possible to start a chain reaction of doing things you thought you couldn't, and thus expand the satisfaction and enjoyment of your life.   You don't have to be a professional or an expert to have bliss.  You just have to decide that it's okay to be ignorant at first.

The embarrassing fact of my existence is that I limit myself.  I restrict my own potential.  I wrap the bonds of ignorance around my wrists and cover my eyes in secret shame because I am afraid to admit that I am ignorant.  I don't like the feeling of asking for help or asking questions.  It's uncomfortable to walk blindly into any situation and reveal the depth of my non-understanding.  I've lamely attempted to cover up my ignorance since I was a child in school.  Part of my identity was tethered to this idea that I was "smart." Someone forgot to mention that the "smart" kids are the ones that ask the most questions.

Seeking often requires letting things rest for a while until the ripples of water you create with questions vanish and the surface becomes clear.  Yesterday I let things rest and tried to be comfortable admitting my own ignorance.  It's not shameful to sit in a dark room.  In one way we are all ignorant:  none of us can say what will happen tomorrow.

I'm not a fan of the "for dummies" series, because it reinforces a negative stigma about not knowing some basic knowledge in a particular field.

So, if you're wondering how it happened that I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by this recent epiphany, it all has to do with tooting my own horn.

Yesterday I realized that there were some barriers to my decision to join the Greensboro Concert Band.  The first barrier was that I didn't know how to get the second valve lever to loosen, so that I could play a smooth scale.  In the past, I would have had to drive downtown to find a music store, take it in for a repair and wait for the bill.  Now, with the totally accessible and non intimidating teachers on youtube, I watched a demonstration and successfully repaired and conditioned my instrument!  That victory led me to ask another question:  how would I approach this new decision to devote six months of daily practice?

I decided to proceed as a person waking up from a coma:  as a new baby learning to walk again.

What I received was a discovery and a memory:  the discovery, which bought bliss, was that I still have muscle memory and can match notes with guided instruction.  The second was a memory from the fall of 1989, when I was preparing for college.  In all of the junk I packed for the dorm room, I unhappily left my horn behind because I was afraid to appear ignorant to the college music department.  I was afraid that I had only been pretending to play along from 5th grade to my senior year, despite the fact that I earned an outstanding I rating in a competition.  Despite the fact that I also learned to play other brass instruments like the coronet and the trumpet.  Despite the fact that repeatedly I experienced huge thrills performing in concerts with our band.  Playing in these concerts were something extremely special in my young life and I took them for granted.

I took it all for granted and did not comprehend the positive energy that arrives in your soul when you are a practicing musician. As a teen, the thrill of playing took a back seat to social acceptance.  I was teased for being in band, and publicly razzed on the bus if I brought my horn home to practice.  It was large, I bumped people in the knees on the way out, and I looked funny carrying so much.  I allowed kids on the bus to limit my enjoyment and success.  So I didn't practice nearly as much as the flute section, who could fit their instruments in a backpack.  I didn't bother to take the sheet music home and practice with my mouthpiece, not realizing that I could creatively solve my personal problems.

I also didn't feel brave enough to explain to my band teacher, who was totally kindhearted and understanding, what I didn't know about certain pieces or about scales.  I never felt bold enough to explain the situation that had me sitting with a large brass instrument in the back of the room, hoping to hit a couple of notes now and then so it would appear that I was playing right along.

He must have known. I knew that underneath those generous grades on my report card, he was happy that I just kept showing up year after year.  I was learning a little just by being a part of the group and I was well behaved.  So, A for Jenny, every single time.  Even though Jenny didn't pass the written final.

So there I was, in 1989, going off to a university famous for a party atmosphere, wanting desperately to feel "smart" and "cool" and not anything like a band geek.

When I got to college and heard the band during football games, felt the rush of their enthusiasm, I was overcome with surges of regret. I stood like a hopeless outsider wanting to go in.  Fear of being ignorant kept me out.  There was no bliss in going off to the drunken section of the stands, where all the non musicians sat lamely with their cups of froth.  Ignorance is not bliss.

The point of this reflection?  Be like a baby.

Be unknowing.

Then ask a question.  Bliss will follow.

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