Monday, January 10, 2005

The Fool

I'm an idiot, an ignorant buffoon. But so are you. Don't get me wrong. We're all knowledgeable and wise in one field or another. But there will always be a subject in which we are unfamiliar with. If there is anything universal, it is ignorance. When we're born, there's a lot we don't know. We don't know that a world exist, we don't really know the pain and discomfort it takes our parents to care for us, and we don't even know who we really are. Yet somehow, as we mature and grow older, we slowly gather more information and we become less ignorant (or at least we think so). The question I want to ask is what drives us to do this? Some might argue that curiosity may be innate yet when I look around, I see people who stop looking for answers, people who think that they know everything there is to know about the world, or people who are simply tired of finding an explanation for things. So, what really motivates people to learn?

I lived under a household that said one thing and did another. When I was a child, my parents praised me for my curiosity. When I asked about this and that, they'd smile and tell all their friends that I was an inquisitive and growing child. Of course when I demanded answers, that's where they faltered. They returned the question to me: "Why are you asking?" or "Why do you want to find out?". Later on, it became apparent to me that the only time they returned the question was when they were unwilling to give me the answers to my question, because they either thought it was too complicated for me to understand (such as when I ask them what the nature of their business was), or they weren't willing to divulge it (like how much they were earning). As to why I was asking the questions, I think the answer is obvious. Because I'm ignorant, and I know it! There's a lot of things I don't know and I was on a search to find out the answers to my questions. Several years later and I still find myself ignorant of such matters. Yet what surprises me (and humiliates me) is why I've stopped asking those questions even when I'm not any more knowledgeable now than I was years before. And this is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to myself but to other people as well. Why do we stop asking questions? One reason (and perhaps not the only one) is because our society discourages asking questions. My philosophy teachers marvel at the curiosity of the child: why is the sky blue? Why is the world round? What is love? It might seem like a ridiculous question to adults, yet it's a question that philosophers ponder on and on. They might never arrive at a definite answer but it's the search that matters, the personal development and insight that arises from such exploration. Yet the questions these philsophers ask are sometimes no different from the questions we as children ask. The former get acclaim for it, yet the latter were merely ridiculed, or worse, ignored. So does it really surprise you that in our society, curiosity may be praised, but deep down, it's not really encouraged (or is out of place in the realm of adults).

School is supposed to be a place of learning. Yet for most of time I was in grade school and high school, me and my fellow students kept asking this question: why am I being taught this? Perhaps the biggest failure of schools is that knowledge is forced on the students. I'm sure a lot of you hate math. Perhaps you would dislike it less if it wasn't something that you feared (which arises from the fear one feels when we hear the words "quizzes" or "exams") or if it wasn't something you were coerced into learning (Math is a subject taught five times a day, whether you wanted it or not). Personally, I more or less liked math, not only because I had a limited proficiency in it, but rather because I saw the practical purpose. I mean I'd be at the mercy of the salesmen and women if I didn't know my arithmetic. Statistics and probability has always aided me in my decisions with the risk vs. rewards argument. And since we were kids at that time, we dared to ask our parents and teachers why needed to learn this or that subject. More often than not, they did not give us answers that satisfied us. Which I think is the root of most of the problems any teacher faces. Students aren't stupid. They just don't have enough motivation to learn a particular subject, especially when you fail to give them an answer that they can grasp, and can fully appreciate.

Of course failing that, perhaps our next natural instict is to ask whether doing this particular activity is fun or not. As I mentioned earlier, doing Math is not something pleasant for most people. It's difficult and requires effort. But so does playing sports and playing video games. Time and effort are exerted into it. Sometimes, it's not even pleasant. What's the difference? For most people, doing math isn't fun (although obviously, there are exceptions and some people find enjoyment in math). Playing sports and video game is the opposite. In fact, we usually associate the word "playing" with sports and video games. When did we last associate "play" with math? Or any other subject we loathed for that matter? Our mental perspective on things plays an integral part as well. Perhaps if we associated "math" with "play" more often (or presented it in such a way that doing math was an enjoyable game), more people would like it.

During high school and sometimes when I meet older people, I get the "I-know-it-all" mentality. Don't get me wrong. These people aren't arrogant (at least outwardly). In fact, they may be meek people who are silent and don't reply unless asked. But these kind of people think that they don't need to do anything else and that they have all the tools and skills necessary to fulfill all their dreams in life. I have classmates who think "whether I pass or fail in this subject doesn't matter since we have a family business and that's where I'll end up no matter what my degree is". Obviously, if you have that kind of mentality, learning stops being a priority, especially when you're asked to go out of your comfort zone. Or I meet people who think that there's nothing else to be learned, especially from the likes of me, someone who's younger and lacks their experience. Any comments or suggestions I have are patronized, but aren't really taken into consideration. Or worse, people with "'I don't understand it'/'I never learned' it so it's probably not important". I'm not saying that kind of scenario is never true but hey, the world is changing and new discoveries and being made every day. How can I say this or that isn't important unless I investigate it? It's like saying this book or that movie is good/bad without seeing it for yourself.

There's also one thing that stops us from finding the answers to our questions. The fact that we might be wrong. And hey, I can sympathize. No one wants to make mistakes. I've humiliated myself several times, all the while thinking that I had the right answer when the truth was that the opposite was true. A perfect example is during oral participation in class. The teacher would ask a question and I'd raise my hand to answer their question. Guess what, my answer was wrong! I may have been disgraced but from then on, I knew what the right answer was (or at least my previous answer was the wrong one). Personally, knowledge and wisdom comes before pride. And let's face it, sometimes, the only times we really learn is when we make mistakes. So my advice is that we shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes. Yes, hate and loathe making mistakes. That'll give you more incentive to search for the right answers harder. But in the end, more often than not, we won't know whether we can do something, whether something is right or not, unless we try. And it's in the trying that we grow, become better people, and learn. We might make mistakes and more often than not, we will make mistakes. No one can guarantee a 100% risk-free experience. And so while we can whine about our failures, or worse, get into a situation where we have regrets and think of what-if scenarios, sometimes, it's best to dive into the thick of things and learn from our errors.

Failure can also wear us down. The reason I stopped asking questions from my parents was because I never got answers. Well, there's nothing I can offer to remedy that. The best advice I can give is to try and try. Be more stubborn than what fate deals you. Right now, I continue to ask my parents questions despite their previous track record. They're more or less consistent with their track record of not giving me answers but from time to time, they do give me insights. Persistence is sometimes the key. If you don't get it right the first time, sometimes, you'll get it at the hundredth time. It's not much for consolation, but hey, it's better than not getting answers at all. The only thing I can guarantee you is that if you don't ask, you'll never get an answer. At least if you do ask, no matter how small that chance is, there's always a chance. And if you studied your probabilities, your chance might be one in a million, but people do win lotteries.

Lastly, there's desperation. Perhaps one of my best example was when I was studying. Normally, the teacher gives you a lot of time to write a term paper. Of course writing term papers usually means research. If you're given half a year, it's a tendency of mine to be relaxed at the first month. I'm not out to get as much information as I can. In fact, when it's offered to me, I sometimes decline. Yet as the months pass by, the deadline looms closer and closer. That's when I start to get desperate. I scramble for information and data, even if it would be inconvenient for me. I have a set goal and I give everything I can just to fulfill that goal. In this case, it's learning and gathering information. But desperation for learning only works if you think the goal is worth it. For example, if you don't think passing or failing a particular subject is important, then you won't be desperate. But if it is something you deem important and your chances seem to be dwindling, you suddenly accept that fact and soak up information like a sponge. If anything was hindering you before, it's less of a hindrance now. Why? Because you have the mentality of the fool, someone who knows that he or she doesn't know anything. And thus one becomes more teachable, one gains the motivation to learn and to grow.

I'm not saying that there aren't brilliant people in the world, or even that you're not talented or wise. But if you are as good as you say you are, then you shouldn't be complacent. Stagnation is the worst enemy of geniuses. There must be continual growth and evolution. And perhaps the only way that can be achieved is by continuing to learn. And by learning, we thus grow and live.

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