Obscurity

I sometimes wonder if the greatest scientist who ever lived is toiling away somewhere in a government laboratory in North Korea.  Perhaps he is a supra-genius physicist who has sketched out in his notebooks a workable theory for the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity–the ultimate goal of modern physics which eluded even Einstein. Yet, knowing that the Workers’ Party has no interest in such things, he keeps his notes safely hidden at home.  During the day he spends most of his working hours designing atomic bombs.  No one except his family and his immediate superiors even knows his name; he will live a life of controlled monotony and moderate comfort (by North Korean standards) working on Kim Jong Un’s military machine, while his full genius and potentially revolutionary contributions to physics will remain completely unknown and overlooked.  When he dies he will be forgotten by everyone except his wife and children.

A thought experiment, of course, but is it so hard to believe? On a planet of seven billion people it isn’t that unlikely (perhaps a mathematician could even work out some kind of probability) that there are countless thousands–perhaps millions–of people who, were they born in a different place or given different opportunities, would rise to make great contributions to the world, perhaps revolutionizing our understanding of physics, biology, or chemistry or inventing a machine that would forever change transportation or agriculture, or writing a novel or composing a melody that would stand alongside the greatest writers or composers who ever lived.

What is not debatable is the simple fact that the vast majority of human beings spend their entire lives in obscurity, unknown to anyone except their family and friends.  Although we like to think we live in a meritocracy where talent and achievement are inevitably recognized and rewarded, the reality is actually quite different, and demographic and circumstantial luck play as much a role in our accomplishments as anything else. No doubt there are brilliant scientists whose theories are overlooked, great writers whose books are not read, and noble humanitarians whose sacrifices are ignored.

Entering the adult world, this is perhaps a good place for graduates to start: a recognition of their own obscurity (perhaps this is why I am never asked to speak at convocations).  It might sound depressing or discouraging, but I see it more as a dispassionate description of the simple state of things: a few people will rise to fame and adulation, some of it deserved (scientists, artists, humanitarians), some of it not (celebrities).  But the vast majority of human beings live out their entire lives in relative obscurity.  If this sounds at all depressing or discouraging I would suggest that the problem lies in our cultural assumptions: young people growing up in the industrialized world immersed in the Twitterverse, YouTube memes, and vapid celebrity culture have perhaps a disproportionate desire to be famous than previous generations did.  Certainly no twelfth-century European peasant had any illusions that one day everyone would know his name.  If the idea of obscurity seems unpleasant or defeating it is probably because of unrealistic cultural expectations rather than a realistic assessment of obscurity itself.

 
In the fourteenth book of the Analects of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius we find the following passage:
 
          ‘No one knows me, alas!’ exclaimed the Master.
          ‘Why do you say, Master, that no one knows you?’ said Tzu Kung.
          ‘I make no complaint against Heaven,’ replied the Master, ‘nor blame men, for though my studies are lowly, my mind soars aloft; and does not Heaven know me?’
 
I suppose there is something supremely ironic about one of the world’s greatest philosophers lamenting that no one knows him, yet it is important to remember that Confucius, at the time, had no way of knowing how famous–almost legendary–he would one day become.  At the time he spoke these words he was a little known social teacher and occasional government functionary.  It is only centuries later that we celebrate him as one of the great minds of human history.
 
I think we can take a few things away from this exchange with his student Tzu Kung.
 
 
We should be clear that Confucius was in all likelihood speaking somewhat ironically.  That is, although he was indeed relatively unknown, he was probably not actually lamenting this fact so much as pretending to lament it to teach an important lesson to Tzu Kung.  What is this lesson?
 
First, we must endeavor to guard against resentment or bitterness in being overlooked and ignored.  We must not blame Heaven (a term for Confucius which implied not only a personal Supreme Being but also an impersonal fate or cosmos) or men (encompassing our superiors, our peers, and our subordinates). 
 
Second, we should acknowledge our own limitations.  There is a certain humility inherent in stating ‘My studies are lowly.’  The more we can acknowledge our limitations, the less likely we are to shake our fist at a world that fails to recognize our achievements.  Yet we should also imagine the possibilities of what we do, imagine the possible impact we may have in our daily lives.  To allow one’s mind to ‘soar aloft’ is to recognize the power of our own potential.
 
Finally, there is psychological power in recognition of a greater purpose.  Confucius finds comfort in the idea that Heaven ‘knows’ him.  What he does matters in a way that goes beyond his own subjective beliefs or desires. 
 
So what would Confucius tell a group of high school graduates? And, for that matter, what would he tell our hypothetical North Korean scientist? I suspect his words in the fourth book of the Analects could not be improved on (how I wish I could have been alive to hear him speak them): “Do not worry because you have no official position.  Develop your qualifications.  Do not worry because no one appreciates your abilities.  Strive to become worthy of appreciation.”
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