Public Service Announcement:
Only you can prevent forest fires.
This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.
Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.
Have an emergency action plan for your family.
It’s been ages since I saw a PSA. I remember seeing them in between episodes of Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow, but I can’t recall a single PSA from the past fifteen years. Public Service Announcements—they reminded us about the important things of life: preserving nature, staying healthy, being protected in the midst of natural disasters…
However, if you are someone who spends time on the internet outside of the boundaries of your email, Google, and Facebook, you have probably run into the (ironic) revival of the PSA phrase, “The More You Know,” which features a shooting star proceeding the helpful information revealed through the commercial. The assumption, therefore, is that the more you know about a particular subject, the better equipped you are for coping with real life.
Over the past few years, I have begun to fully realize that if there were a public service announcement for my own life, it would proclaim “The More You Know, The Less You Know” with episodes focused on the categories of culture, politics, and history.
For example, the first episode would be titled, “The More You Know: Identity Crisis.”
Think you understand what it is to be American? Ha! Just wait until an Australian co-worker asks, “Why are Americans so obsessed with guns?” or your new Dutch friends say, “Why does America take such poor care of its citizens when it is one of the richest countries in the world?” Or, even worse, wait until the latest political farce in your own country makes you question what you had always believed it meant to be an American in the first place.
I have been living in Indonesia for almost three years. When I first moved here, I knew all the facts—my new city was the eleventh largest in the world, Indonesia is an archipelago with an always fluctuating number of islands, it is the largest Muslim country in the world by population. But knowing stats about my new home wasn’t knowing my new country. Every month—every week, even—I ask new questions that have difficult answers. Once I settle into my new knowledge, I develop more questions, which, three years ago, I would have never even thought to ask.
We have let those questioning muscles atrophy, and we hold close the facts that we believe we know.
I have come to realize that sometimes, knowing a fact or two is dangerous. The more facts you have, the more questions you should ask. There will always be questions. In our pursuit for answers, we ask Siri, or we do a quick internet search, and then we are satisfied. But having an answer isn’t having an understanding. Sometimes, we need experiences to understand. Sometimes, conversations.
I think we are complacent in our small microcosms, happy to brush past understanding if it means that we can feel as if we have walls secure enough to keep us in. We don’t ask more questions, so we accept answers from inside the walls of our quick-search worlds. We start to believe that our experiences are universal—that everyone else believes what we believe, so it must be correct— and so we stop asking questions.
I used to think that I needed to have black and white answers to everything. It’s good that I don’t know everything— life would be boring if there wasn’t more to learn, if an experience could be complete and tied up nicely in a bundle of infallible understandings.
But it’s a strange feeling, to know you don’t know, and to be comfortable with that. Not because it’s ignorance, but because it’s part of the human experience. I am starting to like it, though. I am starting to like not knowing.
Because the more I know, the less I know. And acknowledging that means that I am about to ask questions, to learn, and, hopefully, to understand.
This piece originally appeared on the PostCalvin daily blog, which is run by a group of lovely alumni from my alma mater.