Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Ignore what matters least to avoid ignorance of what matters most
There is a difference between ignorance and ignoring. True, one can ignore the facts and be ignorant of the truth. The distinction is when one chooses the power to ignore the wrongs of the past and depression of our time. Then one is enlightened, not ignorant.
Life is time. Therefore, how we spend our mental minutes will be the sum total of our lives. We become what we focus on. The objects of our concentration integrate into our brains. They walk with us. They sleep with us. They do not leave. They do not take lunch breaks. If doubt and fear are how we occupy our time, they will only finally depart if we learn to ignore them. Here is the difference: If we choose to ignore negative, jealous or demeaning thoughts, we are not ignorant.
Ignorance of facts or figures does not help when we take tests or balance the checkbook. Likewise, ignorance of others and their plights only deepens the collective sorrow. The ability to choose permits us to direct our attention to subjects of value and ignore the extraneous. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer, said it best: “Things that matter most should not be at the mercy of things that matter least.”
Beyond ignoring the compounding errors of the past and the mindless amusements of the present, we also can ignore the failings of other imperfect human beings. This is not to dismiss evil or call bad good. Instead, it exposes the mercy that needs to accompany justice.
When people deal with juveniles in trouble, it is better to ignore the offenses and focus on the boys and girls. Let the courts and law enforcement deal out the justice. This purposeful divide between the criminal and the crime allows one to give to these kids a feeling of acceptance that they may have previously received only in the distorted brotherhood of a gang.
At other times, it is important to ignore the mountains of distractions disguised as information. A constant flood of stimulation drowns our mental circuits. Trivia has become critical and minutia meaningful. We are supposed to care about the morsels our pals consume or share in every minute of their daily lives. We divulge our latest thoughts, but they have to be less than 128 characters. We are friends to everyone, and everyone is a friend to us. Our brain can juggle only so many plates before they all come crashing down.
The challenge is to know what to ignore and what detail should not escape our attention. The original mirror on the Hubble space telescope was off by one millimeter. Ignoring that error doomed the images of the stars to be blurred and unhelpful. There are other times when the workmanship is good enough for “government work.” Sweating the small stuff can cause our system to be overwhelmed, not to mention wet and smelly, especially when everything is the small stuff. This discrimination demands that we are not ignorant of the significance of what we choose to ignore.
Dr. John Watson, the British Army veteran created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was the chronicler of the mythical detective Sherlock Holmes. When they first met, Watson was amazed at what Holmes knew but was equally perplexed at what the master sleuth ignored. Sherlock did not know much of world politics, but he could identify soil from different parts of London. In a pinch, we hope those helping solve crimes are equally ignorant of the extraneous.
To ignore by choice is not the same as being ignorant. To ignore personal failings does not mean we are ignorant of our weaknesses. Ignorance of the needs of others does not make them go away. However, if we ignore our excuses of inaction, we will more likely assist in times of need.
Let’s be careful to ignore without being ignorant. Stupid may be happy, but it is not very smart.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org