“Don’t look for the answer in a book”
This is where it all starts. In the very moment the inclined reader consumes this verse, a major mistake is happening. But which one?
Is that major mistake to look “in a book”? – If so, there seems to be some kind of hope: it may make sense to look for the answer elsewhere. We will come back to that.
Alternatively: Is it a mistake to look for “the answer”?
If so, this needs to be dissected further: is the problem to look for “the” answer? – as if there was just one answer, and once we start to open up to the possibility that there are several answers, everything is fine?
Or could the problem be to look for answers in general?
A famous science fiction novel (Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) claimed that “42” is the answer to the great question to life, the universe and everything – and that the problem is that we are lacking a sufficient understanding of the question.
In fact, I believe all of the above is true. The following joke may help to explain why:
In Germany, there is a joke about Tünnes und Schäl. Let’s transpose the story to Punch and Judy or some other couple of comedy characters.
One fine sunny summer day, Punch and Judy walk by a lake. Three swans are swimming on the lake, and as they walk by, the three swans take off and fly away.
Judy says: “I’d like to be one of those swans. Then I could enjoy the sun, the lake and flying into the sky.”
Punch replies: “I’d like to be two swans! – Then, as the first swan, I could enjoy the sun and everything, and as the second swan I could watch the first and share in his joy.”
Judy says: “You are right, then I’d like to be all three swans. Then, as the first swan, I could enjoy the sun and everything, as the second swan I could share in the first’s joy, and as the third swan I could share in the second’s shared joy.”
What we learn from that joke is: There are different vantage points we can assume relative to the world. The first swan is “in” the world. The second swan is observing the world, and the third swan is reflecting on the observations.
The first swan is: you go to the pub and have a beer (or anything else in life).
The second swan is: you read a book (or a poem) about having a beer .
The third swan is: you comment on a book (or the poem) about having a beer.
Only the first swan has access to real happiness, so anybody going after happinesss by reading a book (the second-swan-vantage point) has already taken a wrong turn, and the confusion is only growing if you believe that there are universal answers that will help.
Mind you, there may be specific answers that help, specific answers that apply to certain specific situations but not to others.
If you try to narrow the space of possible supporting experience down even further to one single answer, the mismatch is growing even more.
When I was starting my university studies in physics, my very first lecture started with the following words:
“Just to avoid disappointment: physics doesn’t explain the world. Physics merely describes it. And most of these descriptions are pretty patchy.” (Prof. Franz von Feilitzsch, translation mine).
There is not “the one theory”, and in physics, this is clear to everybody: There is the general theory of relativity, and that works pretty well in one context: for describing galaxies and their relationship to each other. Then there is classical mechanics, which works pretty well for, well, everyday mechanics. Billiard balls are frequent examples, or cars, or apples falling off trees. And there is quantum mechanics, which works nicely for describing Atoms, Electrons, Protons, Neutrons and things like that. And there are many many more theories that describe the world we live in. Most of them are useful for something – from building moon rockets to calculators to cars to microwave ovens. But none of them describes everything, even less explain it.
That’s how life is. What you experience is as close to the truth as you can get (first swan), and what you read about it or even what you think or feel about it (second and also third swan) may or may not be helpful at all.
Which takes us to the second verse.