One of my most memorable “lightbulb moments” came the first time I was reminded that the greatest discoveries were often made by people who started from the answer and then worked back through the steps to get there.
Although I would not have thought to put it that way, the logic of this explanation is the sort of idea that moves a person to say, “Of course, of course.” For example, after generations of flat wooden tracks someone acted on a hunch that round might be better, and the wheel and generations of progress were born. Of course, simple mechanics is a much easier to illustrate my point than say, astrophysics.
What got me thinking about the issue was a conversation with a budding computer network engineer. He observed that he hoped he’d one day be as good as his boss at solving clients’ problems. But better still, he discovered that the boss’s ability was a matter of recognizing what’s causing the problem as being a lot more important than finding the trendiest new tools that just might be able to fix it. That’s what I mean by starting with the “answer” and working back to discover the path that will get you to that answer.
That brought me back to the history of philosophy course that first moved me to think about how discoveries frequently begin with an “answer.” But before I could explore that side of the subject, an intuition and an invitation intervened.
Speaking of intuitions, I remember the time when all the fans of Macs told me, when I was an unreconstructed PC user, that I would love the Apple systems because they are so intuitive. (At this writing I’m still waiting. But don’t tell!) The invitation turned out to be more to the point.
The amazing independent book store Book Culture circulated an invitation to one of the events for which they are justifiably famous as book sellers and community builders. Thursday night’s event was provocatively entitled, “What We Do Now.” It shares that title with the Melville House publication that debuted January 3 and is subtitled, “Standing up for your Values in Trump’s America.” I couldn’t resist. And surprisingly, the two+ hours of dialogue and conversation sent me away with the perfect illustration of how starting with the answer is the best way to charting the right course to reach it. As it happens, the book evolved in the astoundingly short period from election day, the second Tuesday of November 2016 and the first Tuesday of 2017. It features a remarkable collection of contributors one can imagine taking months and even years to recruit, assemble and edit.
As I listened, I concluded that it was the respect the principals of Melville House had and have for their young staff and for the writers who trust them with their words and ideas, that was “the answer” that led to the creation of this book. A roster of well-known names, respected as economists, environmentalists, activists, artists, politicians and novelists, brought long and carefully-considered ideas to the pages of the slim book in record time. And in line with the “start with the answer” perspective I brought along to the event they all shared the conviction that constitutionally protected practices are the bedrock of response to the many unprecedented experiences that await this electorate starting January 20.
In the vibes of the room at Book Culture and in the pages of the book as thoughtfully as it was rapidly collected, the best discoveries were the ones that started with this “answer”: that the only productive responses to perplexing questions are based on the hard and rewarding work of identifying the common ground on which both the asker and the answerer stand. That of course, is commonly called communication and it stands in stark contrast to diatribe, name-calling, and innuendo.
The panelist that set the tone for the evening included Dennis Johnson, founder/publisher of Melville Books; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, who has been recruited to serve on eminent State and Federal bodies exploring the intersection of religion, public policy and human rights; and John. R. McArthur, author and President of Harper’s Magazine. Rabbi Kleinbaum’s description of her congregation’s instant response to the immediate post-election apprehension they sensed in their Muslim neighbors was to go as a body to join them for their Friday prayer. They came bearing white roses to put into the hands of the worshippers they visited. The visit was returned and now both sets of worshippers and a growing number of others now move more freely across boundaries that might once have separated them.
Communication was similarly the “answer” the group gathered at Book Culture this week identified as the path that could lead back to discovery of bettered relationships between disenchanted voters and their legislators. “Ask don’t just accuse” could be the mantra.
The answer to bursting the various “bubbles” that trap media reporters in a circumscribed beat that centers on midtown Manhattan or the D.C. Beltway is the active voicing of interest in “the rest of the story” that occurs where the real disappointed voters actually live. If a major network can admit that what is easy and good for its bottom line is the standard for its reporting, then the answer had better include voting with the remote or the radio dial. To ignore that will be to harden into a two-coast electorate versus one that asks about and listens to what is really in the hearts and minds of fellow Americans.
One young woman summed it up eloquently when she identified voters of her native Midwest and their concerns about the dwindling of the manufacturing sector and its related jobs, by saying, “These people are not stupid but many of them are desperate.” She summed it up by observing that instead of listening to the cry to make America great again (as if that were something that happens magically and in general) we all need each, in our deep diversity, to be great Americans.”
Now that, it seems to me, is an “answer” that can lead to a healing discovery.
Top photo from Bigstock