Sunday Snippet: James Garfield

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

It’s a saying that I’m sure you’ve heard before: ignorance is bliss. By implication, we also have to realize that the reverse is true. If ignorance is bliss, then wisdom must be misery.

That’s the idea proposed above by James Garfield, the 20th President of the United States. He is sometimes remembered as the President who made the (then) bold moves of appointing several African-American men to prominent federal positions. Remember that Abraham Lincoln was only the 16th President, so not a lot of time had passed since slavery was abolished. Like Lincoln, Garfield was also assassinated, except his presidency lasted a mere 200 days, the second shortest term in American history.

Would life really be easier if you knew less than you do? This is a fascinating conundrum to consider. If you had no awareness of death, then you could pursue potentially fatal activities without worrying about any sort of imminent danger. If you had no notion of wealth and money, then you wouldn’t experience the angst of comparing yourself to your peers. There is a reason why children, in general, seem to be happier than their grown-up counterparts.

But at the same time, do you really want to lead the ignorant life? There is absolutely something to be said about the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of truth. We want to know. That knowledge has intricate value, adding complexity and fullness to our lives. This is what makes life worth living.

Garfield was right. Learning a painful truth is going to make you miserable. It’s going to hurt, but at the same time, this is how you can learn what is truly possible. This is how you can strive to reach your fullest potential. This is how you can live truly free.