“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” One of the most powerful things we can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” Not about everything of course—just most things. Because most things don’t matter, and most news stories aren’t worth tracking.
It’s a trade off of deliberate ignorance for the ability to prioritize and see with clarity.
Thoreau acerbically noted that for all the eagerness to construct a telegraph to bring news across the ocean, the first bit of information to arrive might likely be nothing more than the nineteenth-century equivalent of celebrity gossip. Nowadays, I’m sure there are brilliant minds working hard to figure out how we can implant SIM cards in our frontal lobes so that we can keep up with the Kardashians without having to go to all the exhausting labor of manipulating our pocket computers with our fingers, like savages. But even “serious” news and information is often nothing of the sort. It exists to keep people perpetually agitated, not informed. The skewed incentives of nonstop cable news and social media reward rumors, trivia and useless opinions as much as, if not more than, reporting that any of us could actually use to make a practical difference in our lives. Like a bewildered librarian in Colchester, most of us are confronted daily with information we will not, cannot, apply in any meaningful way to our own routine.
In chapters 47 and 80 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu suggested that contentment and knowledge could be attained without being curious enough to visit a neighboring country, indeed, without even needing to leave one’s house or look out the window. I suspect a bit of literary license being taken here, some poetic exaggeration, as was often the case with these old mystical parables. (I mean, really; who has ever had a plank or beam in their eye? A man with even a small wood chip in his eye would probably have far more pressing concerns than sanctimoniously lecturing others. But I digress.)
Yesterday, while hiking in the national forest, to which I am fortunate to live adjacent, I took notice of a couple unusual lichens I hadn’t noticed before. At home, I spent a little time trying to count how many different birds came to the feeder. It crossed my mind that even trying to become enough of an amateur naturalist to be knowledgeable about the flora and fauna around here could be a years-long project. That, I imagine, is the spirit of Lao Tzu’s assertion. In a world that frantically urges me to care about the newer, the faster, the popular, and the maximum quantity, I could easily live out my remaining years wandering mountain trails and returning home to old books without ever being bored, let alone missing out on much of importance.