On Knowing Stuff


I am grateful to have a device in my pocket that connects me with the world’s knowledge. Still, I think there’s value in knowing stuff. Really knowing it, not just knowing how to look it up.

When I first watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, I knew almost nothing about Chinese culture. Back then, I liked the movie a lot. It was visually beautiful, had a great soundtrack, and the acting performances were moving.

Watching it again with a little more knowledge under my belt, however, was an entirely different experience. Knowing a bit about Daoism and Ruism (Confucianism) opened the characters and their motivations up to me in a way that I missed entirely on my first viewing.

There is a short scene about three-quarters of the way through the film, for example, in which Yu Shu Lien, one of the main female protagonists lights two sticks of incense in front of a tablet thingy with Chinese characters on it. The scene lasts less than a minute. It passed right through my consciousness without leaving a trace the first time I saw it. I didn’t even recall it.

I now understand, however, the “tablet thingy” is an ancestral tablet resting on a home altar. She was venerating her ancestors and the look of pain and regret on her face makes perfect sense: she is grieving her lost opportunity to have a family of her own.

A scene that meant nothing to me 16 years ago now carries an almost unbearable poignancy because I know something now that I didn’t know then.

Even if I had a smartphone in 2000, what good would it have been? Would I have done a Google search for “tablet thingy?” Not only would I not know how to find what I was looking for, it never would have occurred to me to conduct the search to begin with. The scene was unremarkable to my mind at the time.

Life as a whole is a lot like watching a movie in that sense. Knowing things–really knowing them, not just where to find them–helps you see things that you didn’t see before, to make connections you didn’t know were there.

When my daughter watches birds, she sees things I don’t see. When my wife reads poetry, she experiences things I don’t experience. When my son opens a box of Lego blocks, he sees possibilities that are lost on me.

Knowing things makes life a richer, more satisfying experience.