Ignorance is Bliss

     It’s a rare person indeed who hasn’t heard or used the expression “ignorance is bliss.” It comes from the last line of a poem by Thomas Gray (1716-1771) titled “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Gray attended that rather famous English school as a young man having that portion of his education provided for by his mother. According to most accounts and this poem he enjoyed his time there. The theme of the poem is that the paradise and bliss of youth is brief and will be lost as we mature and gain wisdom. Here is the last stanza:

      To each his sufferings: all are men, Condemn’d alike to groan---
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! Why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;---Where ignorance is bliss, Tis folly to be wise.

He wrote many other serious poems but also one slightly less sad called “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” so we can see he had a good sense of humor. It closes with the line, “Not all that tempts your wandering eyes and heedless hearts is lawful prize; nor all that glisters, gold.”

      Of course, our interest in Gray’s poetry is tied to spiritual matters. We remember Hosea 4:6 where the Lord spoke through the prophet and said “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” God’s people had forgotten His law and so He would forget their children. Such are the negative consequences of rejecting the knowledge of God.

     Thomas Gray’s poem centers in on another inconvenient fact of life: sooner or later we have to grow up and face the reality of this existence. A great thing about being a child is the happiness that comes from not knowing about the harsh and troubling things of life. As the Bible says, “Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). Those of us who are older know firsthand that what it says in Job is true. We know it is coming but still we try to protect our children as best we can from the challenges and even the dangers of life in this world.

     But there comes a time when the protection we offer must diminish and be replaced by preparation. Parents, grandparents, other relatives, teachers and friends have an important responsibility to provide direction for the children in their lives. That direction will of necessity require discipline and correction. Hard lessons have to be taught and learned. If early life is too easy, later life will be a disaster. Some of the so-called “Millennials” have grown up thinking all the good things of life are somehow owed to them. They will learn one day that this is fantasy.

     A child can and indeed should enjoy the bliss of not knowing how terrible things can be. Kids exposed to life’s cruelty too early can be damaged and have their ability to identify with God’s principles stunted. But sooner or later the children must learn. Perhaps Mr. Gray was overstating the case for the sake of emphasis when he said that it is folly to be wise. But with wisdom comes the ability to see the core reality of this life: it is temporary. This is hard for a materially blessed young person to see, but it is an eventuality that must be faced.

     In 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:7 Paul writes a set of ideas that require spiritual maturity to accept. We must learn to look beyond what we can see with our eyes and learn to walk by the vision of faith (Romans 10:17). Then the good and bad elements of the reality of life can come into focus. The happy bliss of childhood has its place but it must give way to the grownup understanding that this world is not our home.