Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Tree of Knowledge

Context is everything.

For awhile I fascinated by the idea of knowing too much. I'm a research person, a get-the-facts person. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil seemed a strange metaphor to me because I couldn't imagine why it would be good to not have knowledge. (Excepting kids and sex--I can see the point of that.) Knowledge as Power is pretty much the standard in Western culture, I'd say. We associate knowledge with the idea of progress. At the same time, I wondered about people who had been put in extreme situations. I thought one of the difficulties of Vietnam was that after a tour of duty, someone would come back, be discharged, and then having spent nine months in a situation where the rules of everyday life were really, astonishingly basic--do anything you can not to be killed, including killing others, destroying their homes, taking what you can--they were expected to worry about things like Walk/Don't Walk signs. A lot of social rules are predicated on making them matter more for the individual than they probably actually do. It makes a lot of sense to have Walk/Don't Walk rules when you have 20 million people working in Manhattan, but it doesn't necessarily make sense for the guy standing on the corner. And nothing particularly cosmic is going to happen if he ignores the rule. He's not going to die, he's not going to jail, he's not even going to miss lunch.

I re-realized this when Adam was a teenager. When he was sixteen, I suddenly understood that if he stopped doing what I told him to, there wasn't a whole lot I could do. I mean, if I said to him, 'You can't go out tonight, tomorrow is a school day,' and he said, 'Fuck you,' and left, what was I going to do? Try to lock him in his room? Our whole relationship was predicated on the power I had accrued raising him, and the glue of social and familial habit. And of course, I know people who's teenaged children did figure out that there was no stopping them from what they wanted to do. Adam was always more invested in life having a certain, predictable order with his family than he was in rebellion, but I think in some essential way, he hadn't eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He didn't realize how powerless I was.

Illness is another bite of the apple. People talk about living each day knowing it could be your last, but the truth is, that has its drawbacks. In the short time before I understand how not-severe my illness was, I found myself thinking things like, 'I've got to clean my office. I couldn't possibly leave that mess for someone else.' Years ago, when we were selling our house, I had to go to work every day leaving it in shape to be seen by others. And living with a sense of my immediate mortality has sort of the same effect on me. In a sense, we didn't live in the house anymore. It was more a shrine to our former lives in the house. Being sick makes me long for the messy unconcern of not being sick. Of not having the knowledge.

In neurobiology, that is, brain science, they are studying how important it is to forget things. In my own life I keep thinking of how when I have a cold or a sore throat, my symptoms become the filter through which all experience passes, but how they imperceptably subside. There's not a moment where I suddenly realize that at this precise instant I got over the cold, but there is often a moment where I recognize I have, in fact, become healthy, and it is pleasurable. But a few days later, I cannot really recapture the experience of being sick, except in a sort of intellectual way--I know I had a sore throat, and I know it drove me nuts, especially at night, but I don't really have a sense-memory of it.

I think that is a miraculous thing.

I think it goes back to that cancer survivor thing. For me, to be a cancer survivor, I think I either have to get to the forgeting what it felt like to be sick, or I have to be deep enough into this whole process that I forget what it's like to be well. So that surviving is the context.


Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I think forgetting is crucial: otherwise (among other things) the human race would not survive. I cannot tell you the number of women I know, myself included, who have mentioned casually that the only thing that let them contemplate a second child with any equanimity was that the whole experience of childbirth had become somewhat fuzzy, where as the day to day pleasures and travail of raising the first child were with them all the time.

On a less life-or-death level, forgetting is what lets us try new things, or go up against an old failure again. I sometimes wish I were better at forgetting, as I can be paralyzed by the fear of an action calling up a remembered bad result ("if I screw this up, everyone will hate me, just like they hated me that other time...")

On the knowledge front, I have to say I made it a point to give my girls the straight information about sex and its possible consequences. The result, with a young girl, is a resounding "eeeeeww!" With the older girl, more something like, "not ready yet. Too big a deal. Where'd my book go." Which is just fine for now.

December 23, 2004 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a lovely post, Maureen.

Mad - re:labor - yes, indeed. What pain? I would have gone for a fourth child but I wasn't able to forget how much I disliked being pregnant, so I just didn't want to do that part of it again. Labor and delivery I could have done again, though. Maybe the short span - measured in hours not months - makes it easier to forget the particulars.


December 25, 2004 4:59 AM  
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^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 24, 2009 12:10 AM  

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