My grandfather was one of the smartest men I ever knew. He was an academic with a photographic memory. He lived to be ninety eight, and I remember thinking when he died that his death was a waste of a lot of knowledge and wisdom. My father was a doctor. He was a restless man and a restless learner. He did the first intrauterine fetal transfusion in the South, to save babies whose blood cells were being attached by their mother’s antibodies. He died at fifty. All his skill in saving babies, all he had learned about a possible cure, went with him.
So it goes. Collectively, we pass along our knowledge, but individually each one of us more or less has to start over. We are born clean slates, waiting to be marked on. For a while, it is others who draw our lines, but it isn't long before we take over the effort ourselves. At that point, our life-long quest for things we want to know begins.
We build skills. We build understanding and reasoning. We go out into the world and use what we have learned to make money, make love, make art, make bridges and mobile apps. In our prime, we are machine learners, applying our CPUs to the task of learning what we need to know to do what we want to do; doing it, learning more, refining our skills, learning still more, becoming accomplished.
At some point we slow down. We make enough money. We tire of a passion and get antsy for change. We move on. We learn again. We do again, or maybe we just keep learning, not altogether certain what to do with the knowledge we are gaining, yet still as thirsty for it as one too long in a wasteland.
I found a new science feed for Flipboard, and you would have thought I discovered electricity. I'm not going to be a scientist—I suppose I have to finally admit that—but wow, is there ever a lot of cool stuff out there. The great thing about being a writer is that I can rationalize that anything I learn might be useful to my writing. I'm no longer limited in time or interest to “useful knowledge,” like the corporate tax and securities laws I had to study back in the day. Anything I want to know now, however arcane, is fair game.
Of course, I made better use of my narrower field of inquiry when I was a lawyer. Everything I learned had a purpose. I was like a giant processing machine: laws and regulations in the hopper, loopholes and evasions in the output tray. It was obvious to me why I was learning then. But why now?
I don't know the answer to that. This isn't one of those essays with an answer. The question is more or less its own answer I suppose. Or is that just the lawyer in me peeking out, offering a clever but meaningless aphorism?
I seem to need to learn in the same way I need to exercise. In both cases, I feel crappy if I don't. In both, the effort is exhilarating and frustrating. Too late to be a Nobel scientist. Too late for the Olympics. But still I love the effort. I even like the frustration. When I can't run as far as I want to, it just makes me want to try harder. When I see a policy issue that I think is getting mangled, it makes me want to write an essay. I'm not racing anyone but myself at this point, but still I put in the miles.
We're a curious lot, we humans. Both figuratively and literally. We're capable of great kindness and cruelty, great art and ugliness, great discovery and, now and then, especially when we don’t like what we hear, stubborn ignorance. It is our curiosity, though, that has gotten us where we are. It propels us. It is our heart. It keeps pumping until we die. And the parts of us we pass along to our children pump in them, fueling the unbroken quest that is our humanity.