The Inner Light

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on Earth
Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of Heaven

The other day, on my way to work, the Beatles’ Inner Light came on my MP3 player. I knew immediately it was the Beatles, but I didn’t know the lyrics—perhaps I never had, or perhaps I never had listened closely. This time, having nothing else to do, I did.

I know that for the Beatles—or for George Harrison, at least—these lyrics were meant to be taken metaphysically. Mediation as a means to insight. But it occurred to me as I listened to the first verse that this has become the way of the material world. This is the world we live in. I first met it in the 1990s, when I was a software engineer, and a friend of mine preferred to hit a web page to check on the weather rather than look out his office window. Since then, we’ve just moved progressively deeper into our own digital worlds.  And away from the real world.

Thanks to the Internet (or at least, Wikipedia), we now can know all things on Earth. We can know the ways of Heaven—at least as far as the weather is concerned.

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

But it’s not precisely true that, as the chorus goes, “the farther one travels, the less one knows.” Rather, what’s true is that the farther one travels, the more one realizes how little one understands. (All of this turns on the distinction between knowledge and understanding. While knowledge can be gained from a web page, understanding cannot.)

Many years ago, I sat in a theater in Cambridge, England (which is not all that far away) and listened as an audience laughed at the places in a Monty Python film that I wouldn’t.

Do you know that a regular coffee is different depending on what part of the country you’re in? Black. Black with cream. Black with cream and sugar.

Do you know that people in other parts of the country don’t think the way you and I do? That our religions and our politics are among many? That other countries are far more technologically advanced than we are? That soda and pop are the same thing, but in different places?

Do you know the difference between Sunni and Shia? Would you know a Wahhabist if you met one?

Put down your phone. Close your notebook. Put your pen in your pocket.  Meet the real world.

Travel. You won’t know any less, but you will understand more.


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