When I watch my cats napping in the sunshine, I occasionally wish for the peaceful simplicity of the feline life. Sleep, eat, chase a moth, then race around all bushy-tailed at 3am—what fun. But then I remember that their limited lives exclude many of the beautiful complexities and wonderful depths of mystery that make living a human life so worthwhile.
I want to know everything. From astrophysics to marine biology, through the intricacies of meteorology to the cutting edge of AI development–I want to be an expert. And I know that’s just not possible; there are not enough hours in a lifetime to understand the depths of every fascinating field of study. I’m left with knowing a little bit about lots of arenas and choosing a few areas of expertise.
Practically everything is both very simple and at the same time incredibly complex. I’ve got the routine for making my morning coffee down to muscle memory and my enjoyment at consuming that tasty beverage is genuinely uncomplex—good beans, french press, no milk or sugar. And yet cultivating coffee, drying and roasting the beans, blending the right mixture, and even the actual preparation must be done just right. And that’s not even looking at the interconnected elements of the exploitation of labor, the environmental impacts, and the transportational logistics that go into that one simple cup of coffee. Basic, yet also complicated.
Reading a good short story in a single sitting is very satisfying, but the hours of agony and pruning that went into writing it followed upon years of failed writing attempts. It takes me less than 10 minutes to eat that fresh char koay teow, but the uncle who made it has spent 40 years perfecting his craft; I can use the same ingredients he does and will never be able to get it to taste right. The joy of cultivating a healthy ecosystem that keeps my fish alive in their aquarium is not even remotely close to understanding the difficult dynamics at play in marine conservation.
The world is incredibly complicated in all of its facets, yet we can experience many of those areas through the expertise of others. Likewise, we can appreciate the gorgeous shades of blue and the billowing clouds of a beautiful view without knowing the atmospheric conditions that bring it about.
But we live a lesser life when we assume that just because we do not see or comprehend the complexity of an issue that it must therefore be only as simple as we experience it.
I do not understand nor know how to appreciate abstract art. Part of me gets the scoffing at bananas taped to walls, urinals, and seemingly blank canvases. But I also know that it is not an area I have spent any time studying; I do not know the artists’ intentions, the traditions they are drawing on, nor the conversations they are taking part in. I expect an artist to have a much better understanding of what is happening there than I do. Likewise, I listen to music but play no instruments (and certainly don’t sing); if I don’t know how to appreciate a genre or musician, I should see that as a limitation in my knowledge of music, not in the craft of the artist. I can admire a good violin solo but will never appreciate it the way another violin player would.
I get this a lot when it comes to literature. I have exactly two areas of real expertise: Octavia Butler scholarship and how to teach high school English (American curriculum). Put me in a room with other experts in those fields and I will unabashedly hold my own because I’m confident in what I know because I’ve put in the hours and diligence. But I also know I still have more to learn. Snide comments about English teachers making up interpretations and that we can get anything to mean anything don’t bother me; they just highlight the ignorance of the person speaking. I think most understand the suppressed eye-roll when listening to someone talking about something that they don’t know anything about.
So please let us listen to experts and enter conversations with humility. A youtube video and one article do not constitute research. I’ve read many books on theology, audited theology courses, and regularly listen to theology podcasts—and I am in no way an expert. I’ve spent thousands of hours on my creative writing and have yet to complete a polished final draft of a novel—I am still an amateur. Just because I enjoy cooking and have a pretty decent repertoire up my sleeve does not make me a chef.
We do not need to be experts to gain pleasure and enjoyment from something. I plan to learn how to play the piano (probably poorly), and I want to learn how to paint clouds with watercolors, and I hope to keep bees and make my own mead someday. And I will never be an expert in any of those areas. And when an expert comes along and gives me advice, I sincerely wish to have the humility to listen graciously.
My cats don’t know what they’re missing out on. I can learn to enjoy a simple nap in the sunshine as much as they can. But they will never know the satisfaction of finishing a good book, the sublimity of watching a multi-colored sunset, the flavor of eating anything other than cat food and dead geckos. So let us learn both to appreciate the simplicities of life and to value its complexities. Because as humans, we can.