Modeling awe and wonder like Bill and Ted
Published 9:24 pm Sunday, November 14, 2021
As a child, I loved the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I still love it. Honestly, I always preferred the sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, but both of them are so very excellent. I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t remark on George Carlin’s performance in these films. He plays Rufus, a time-traveler from the future who guides our two main characters on a journey of self-discovery. If I could make George Carlin the Patron Saint of Stand-Up Comedy before I die, then I would die a happy man! But I’m not here to talk about George Carlin. That’s a column for another day. I want to talk about wisdom, and there’s a line in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure that captures the essence of wisdom.
In case you’ve never seen the movie, Bill and Ted travel through time in a time machine that looks like a phone booth, encountering famous figures from history along the way. At some point, they find themselves in Ancient Greece, hiding from the crowd of people at the feet of Socrates who is quite eloquently philosophizing about the nature of reality. Finally, Socrates says, “The only true wisdom consists of knowing you know nothing”. At this point, Bill and Ted look at each other and Ted says, “That’s us, dude!”
That’s us, dude! An admission of ignorance that many of us would never dare to make today in a society that teaches us to mask our shortcomings or perceived inadequacies. But therein lies the true beauty of what Bill and Ted realized. To admit such a thing is simply to admit that the universe is much bigger and more complex than we can ever fully comprehend. It’s not admitting an actual inadequacy, because the truth is that there is no one in the continuously-expanding span of the cosmos whose intelligence is ‘adequate’ enough to comprehend the whole of existence, the mysteries of the universe yet to be discovered, or even the complexity that exists at the heart of every human being.
Rather than modeling willful ignorance, Bill and Ted model the position we all should be taking in our complex world: awe and wonder. To admit that ‘we know nothing’ is to admit that we are always learning, always growing, always evolving. To admit that ‘we know nothing’ is to encounter reality as an existential treasure hunt. At every twist and turn of our lives, we find something new we didn’t know, experience new sensations and emotions, and discover that the richness of the world means that we simply can’t reduce life to bite-sized nuggets that can be forced into our pre-determined world views. A square peg can’t fit into a round hole, and neither does reality always square nicely with the ideologies we so tightly cling to.
How boring would the world be if, after a certain age, we could count on never experiencing anything new, never gleaning knew knowledge and insight, or never evolving as a person? Even just typing that bored me to tears! I think about this often in regard to my own religious tradition. If there really is nothing new to learn about God beyond what our ancient doctrines say, then I think Christianity has worn out its welcome. This applies to politics, too. So much of the deadlock in the endless debates between liberals and conservatives lies in the fact that both sides claim ownership of the truth and would never even consider that the knowledge we trade in is most often culturally conditioned and rarely absolute.
Sometime this week, I dare you to read something that is diametrically opposed to a view or position you hold. But don’t read it looking for all the ways it’s wrong. Read it and ask yourself, “What does this have to teach me?” You might come out of the experience holding fast to what you already believed or were committed to. That’s wonderful! But you might also find yourself shifting some. That’s wonderful too! Either way, I hope you have a very excellent adventure. In closing, here’s a wise nugget from George Carlin: ‘Think off-center.’
Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.