A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Is Ignorance Bliss?

To know or not to know; that is the question.

The other day, I saw a bumper sticker that made me sit up and take notice.  It said, "Ignorance is NOT bliss!"  At first, I loved it.  That's my kind of bumper sticker.  I am, after all, a knowledge-is-power, the-truth-will-set-you-free kind of girl.  But I stopped to think about it for awhile more.  Is ignorance really bliss?  Or not?  Never?  Or sometimes?

So I did a little digging about the origin of the phrase and discovered Thomas Gray's famous poem.  There, he nostalgically reminisces about the bliss of youth with its carefree days of playfulness unmarred by the dark realities of adult life.  The poem reveals Gray's double perspective that not only is ignorance bliss but knowledge is misery.

So what does psychoanalysis have to say about this apparent contrast?  It is a kind of splitting, I think, in which we remember what we once had as better than it was and we relate to what we do have as worse than it is.  Is childhood really all that blissful?  And is adulthood really all that miserable?

Childhood does have a kind of bliss, indeed.  Children do not have the kinds of burdens that adults have—the burdens that come with responsibility and with awareness of the complexities of life.   As adults, we have a kind of primal longing to return to that idealized state, a state in which we felt that someone unconditionally met our every need.

Surely there are moments of bliss in early life—and every child should have them.  But the truth is that all children—even those with very fortunate beginnings—have a mix of pleasant and painful experiences. Childhood is messy—hunger, hurt, disappointment, and worry are natural and inevitable childhood experiences.  In fact, the less awareness one has as a child, the greater the bliss but also the greater the anxiety.  Lacking the big picture, you have no idea what is going on.  To a baby, waiting a moment for mom can feel like the end of the world!

Ignorance has its place in life for awhile, though.  Parents protect their children from knowledge which is too much for them to bear, too confusing for their little minds to process.  For some time, children can operate successfully under the "need-to-know basis" of parental protection.  But ignorance in this sense only works if there is an adult mind on the scene to do the protecting.  As we grow and become more independent, we must develop an adult mind of our own.  Otherwise, we are in big, big trouble.  It's not hard to imagine what I mean by that, but I like how one person put it: "When you're an adult, ignorance-is-bliss today means you have an STD tomorrow."

So what's the alternative?  Put simply, the alternative is growing up—not just on the outside, but on the inside, too.  And in growing up, there is both loss and gain.  Yes, grown-up knowledge brings misery—if by misery, you mean awareness of misery.  Whatever idealizations we had about the world are sullied by the facts of life.  This is a necessary part of growing up but does not necessarily lead to misery.   As the veil of idealization falls away and the realities of life are more evident, we see miseries we never saw before but we also see many joys. 

While in the muck and mire of adult life, it is easy to lose sight of its blissful moments.  But there is a real sense of pride, joy, and happiness that comes in being an adult.  In our better moments, perhaps we can feel the satisfactions of raising a child well, developing a skill, accomplishing a goal, or building a healthy love relationship.  But there are everyday satisfactions, too, that we often overlook like offering a kindness, telling the truth, having a good idea, paying our bills, learning something new.  In their own way, these moments bring a kind of bliss, too.

While the baby part of our psyches balks at responsibility and longs for the days when someone else took care of us, the adult part of our psyches reaches forward to new, good experiences.  As the new school year begins, maybe you know a child bound for kindergarten, high school, college, a first job, a new home, a new relationship.  We see in them a longing to go back toward the safety of the past and a longing to go forward to the new challenges of the future.  Ignorance is bliss on the one hand; curiosity and the thirst for knowledge on the other.  Like so much in life, it is good to have a balance.

Copyright 2011  Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her newly released book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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