Teacher Tom: “Bewilderment is the True Comprehension”

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Teacher Tom: “Bewilderment is the True Comprehension”

teacher tom


monday, may 17, 2021

“Bewilderment is the True Comprehension”


I was waiting at the crosswalk. Across the street was a building of windows. Behind me was a future building of windows, yet another downtown residential tower under construction. I could see a multitude of reflections of the building behind me in the windows of the building across from me. Then, in a flash, I was bewildered as it seemed that the building I was looking at, or its windows, or something strange inside of it, began to, it seemed, undulate or vibrate or wiggle. 
Was the building falling? Shaking? Were we having an earthquake that I somehow couldn’t feel, but only see? Was some magic afoot?
My confusion ended in a moment as I realized I was seeing a construction elevator ascending in those reflections across the street, it’s image flashing first in one set of window panes, then another, as it rose. The moment of disorientation had lasted but a second, and now, on the other side of perplexity, I’d created comprehension.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t, at least intuitively, comprehend reflections in glass surfaces, but certainly there was that time. I think of my own infant daughter who would sometimes seem startled by her own reflection in the mirrors of our home. That construction elevator, reflected in dozens of windows, had likewise startled me before, as the mind does, I made sense of the nonsense.
But, of course, all those reflections were not nonsense and there is no guarantee that what I’d constructed as comprehension had anything to do with reality. I mean, it might seen ludicrous, but it’s quite possible that the entirety of what we perceive is simply a mosaic of infinite reflections, that we each, individually, assemble into “sense.” Scientists assure us that we can never really know what we are “seeing,” the inadequacy of our senses limit what we can really know about the universe, and “comprehension,” as we know it, isn’t a way toward greater truth, but rather a way out of bewilderment.
Martin Luther, the original Protestant, wrote, “Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going it the true knowledge.” 
When I think of human history, or at least the tiny sliver that I know about, I see a species constantly seeking to overcome its bewilderment, to create sense from the nonsense, to comprehend the incompressible. I also see a species constantly trading one perplexity for another, understanding (or thinking we understand) one thing only to find something beyond it that we don’t understand. We delude ourselves when we believe that we are coming somehow closer to a universal and final understanding.
Confusion, bewilderment, perplexity, not knowing: that is the true nature of life.
It’s easy to see this in young children who have been entrusted with the freedom to play, children who are not being constantly instructed on how they ought to overcome their bewilderment, but rather left to pursue “true knowledge” on their own. Children move from bewilderment to bewilderment. Sometimes it startles or alarms them. Sometimes it intrigues them, peaking their curiosity. Sometimes children approach their bewilderment with caution, taking their slow, deliberate time, while at other times they throw themselves into it. As adults we too often see their bewilderment as something we must fix, so we tell them how, or show them why, or hurry their process with tips and hints that point them in the “right” direction. When we do that, I wonder if we aren’t robbing them of their true knowledge, which is, their bewilderment.
We tend to cast bewilderment in a negative light, as something to be avoided. I’m thinking now of a loved one suffering from dementia. This is a woman who, in her prime, was an intellectual giant, a person gifted in the art of creating sense from nonsense. But it’s not the bewilderment that disturbs her. No, it’s rather that dementia has taken away her ability to construct comprehension the way she once did with such panache. That is, to me, the real tragedy of dementia, not the bewilderment, but the inability to move beyond it. 
As I watched that construction elevator’s many reflections, each slightly different than the other, create the illusion of movement up the side of the building across the street, I found myself trying to return to that initial moment of bewilderment, to again see what I’d originally seen. I couldn’t do it, of course, but I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. There was, for me, a moment of sheer delight in my bewilderment, when the world suddenly didn’t make sense to me, when reality gave me a glimpse into its true nature which is to be fully, joyfully, and completely incomprehensible. 
We are the sense makers, each of us, all of us. We are windows that reflect according to our own, unique angle and perspective, each possessing true, but incomplete knowledge. Tom Hunter sang, “Build it up and knock it down, and build it up again. Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again.” It’s song that goes around and around, infinitely, reflecting the true knowledge that every preschooler knows. From bewilderment we construct comprehension, but being incomplete it cannot lasts, and then we do it again.