Please allow this departure from my usual posts. It’s time to tell a story.
The Unexpected Question
The late Alan Rickman once said, “It’s a human need to be told stories,” and so I will tell you one today. Not long ago, while lecturing about cosmology at a speaking conference, a young man stood up to ask me a question.
“Excuse me,” he shouted from the back of the audience, waving his arms in the air.
“Yes you sir, the young man in the back trying to land a plane.” I gestured to the fellow in the blue-checkered shirt failing his arms, and the audience collectively erupted into laughter.
“Pardon the interruption. A mentor of mine, Lou Holtz, always said, ‘I only learn things when I ask questions,’ and I am the same way.”
“Normally you’re supposed to hold your questions until after the presentation, but I’ll make an exception. What would you like to ask?” I said.
A member of the conference staff walked over and handed him a microphone. He tapped on the microphone twice and cleared his throat. The sound reverberated throughout the room.
“To be or not to be— That is the question.”
Again, the audience burst into laughter.
“You cannot be serious,” I responded. “I can’t imagine there are many Shakespeare fans at this conference.”
“Actually, I am serious. You just were speaking about the cosmic insignificance of humanity in the grand scheme of time. So I have to ask, ‘To be or not to be…’ ”
The question caught me off guard. “Are you asking me if we should bother to go on existing?”
“Yes, that is what I am asking you.”
“Well I am not particularly religious, but Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.’ ”
“Well, I suppose it has an impact on the people around us.”
“Ah yes, ‘Real living is living for others.’ ”
“Who said that?” I asked.
“Bruce Lee,” he quickly answered. “Selflessness, giving to others, helps me find peace. Why do you think that is?”
“Well, we all search for meaning in our lives.”
I referenced Harold Kushner, a famous rabbi and author. “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so our lives matter.”
“And so the way to find meaning is to give to others?”
The audience grew more interested. One by one, postures began to change. As we exchanged words, heads swung back and forth like balls at an end of a pendulum.
“We have an urge to feel significant, to make a name for ourselves. It’s a psychological impulse, no less compelling than a physical one, to eat, to drink, to mate, ” I said. “One way to fulfill that need that is to witness the way our deeds affect others.”
“I can’t argue with that. As a young boy, I remembering reading a Dale Carnegie book, and one line has never left me. ‘A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.’ ”
I decided to clear things up for the audience.
“Ok… Seeing the way our actions affect our social network, our environment, can be psychologically satisfying. It quenches a man’s thirst for significance. If you remember anything from this speech, remember this quote from Kalu Nedukwe Kalu, ‘The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.’ ”
“So giving is important because it helps us leave a legacy?”
“But if it is all gone in a cosmic blink, what is the point, right? Once we all die one day, won’t our legacies die with us?”
“Yes, in the grand scheme of things. However, our legacies exist here and now. That’s all that matters to us,” I said.
“But won’t here and now will be gone in an instant?”
“Yes, but when this here and now leaves us, there will be a another here and now. We will never be here again, but we will always be here. As Albert Einstein said, ‘Past is dead. Future is uncertain; Present is all you have.’ Here and now is all we have.”
“So is here and now all that matters?”
“To us, yes.”
“So, it is time that is insignificant?”
The man in the checkered blue shirt asked the question again. “To be or not to be…”
Before I could answer, a middle-aged man sprung up from his seat.
A conference staffer grabbed another microphone and ran it across the room. People lifted their feet as the wire ran through the aisle and along the ground.
“I get it. We are always here and now. But, I’m miserable here and now. What’s the point of existing if my life is filled with suffering?”
I stepped back as the two audience members began to exchange.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Might I ask, who is filled with suffering?” the man in the checkered shirt asked.
“I thought I just made that clear… I am.”
“No, you said ‘my life’ is.”
“Is there a distinction?”
“You tell me.”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Ok. Well, why don’t you want to go on existing?”
“My reputation is ruined. I lost all my clients. My wife left me. I have no children, no money, nowhere left to turn. My life is in shambles.”
“If all of that changed today, would you want to exist?”
“But, if it did…”
“Then you do want to exist. You just don’t want your reputation to exist. You don’t want your circumstances to exist. There is a distinction. Are you really any less of a person, because you have less things?”
“So what do you want to have? Where do you focus most of your energy?”
“Obviously on setting things straight. I am not a bum. I want my clients back. I want my wife back. I want financial security. I want to be admired again.”
The man was noticeably defeated. I think we all felt his pursuit was hopeless.
“But do you have those things here and now?” the man in the checkered shirt asked.
“No, that’s the problem!”
I jumped back into the conversation.
“So you’re saying that because this man is focusing his energy on rectifying his mistakes, on the future, instead focusing on the present that is why he is suffering?”
“Yes,” the man the checkered shirt responded.
“That’s a load of bullshit,” the suffering man chimed back in. “If we didn’t focus on the future nothing would ever get done. I didn’t make millions in investment banking by plopping my ass down on the couch and soaking in the present moment.”
A petite woman rose from her seat. “I know you!” she said. “You’re Miles Hefferman, your Wall Street firm dissolved during the financial crisis.”
The suffering man quietly sat back down.
“If I had a fraction of what you make in a year, I would be set for life,” she said.
“You don’t have my bills, my lifestyle expenses. In my world, I’m broke!” he shouted back from his seat.
The man in the checkered shirt pointed to a sign hung besides a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the wall of the auditorium. The audience’s heads swung in the direction of the wall. The conference was held in Lincoln Memorial High School, so the wall was littered with Lincoln memorabilia. The sign read, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
I had to interject and regain control of the room.
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
The petite woman shouted, “I know that one. Friedrich Nietzsche… I was a Philosophy major.”
She sat down.
“I didn’t even know that was a quote,” I said.
The man in the checkered shirt held the microphone up to his mouth. “There is one fact.”
“What is it?” I asked. “This way we can all disagree on it…”
The audience laughed one final time.
“That we can disagree. That we can interpret. That we can perceive.”
“Hmm, I never thought of it that way, but I guess that’s true,” I said.
“That is our gift as humans, to be aware of ourselves and our existence. To be conscious of the amazing things that unravel in our lives on a daily basis. Our breath, our heart beating, the wind, the sunset, sex, emotional bonds, the way the keys we type on a computer in New Jersey changes the life of a 17 year old kid in New Zealand, love, experience itself. Anything that you become conscious of reaffirms your uniquely human experience on this planet, and you can chose to take these conscious perceptions and do with them what you chose. You are the filter and filtered. You can believe what you want, and make this world your own. No one can take that away from you. You will grow. You will achieve increasingly impressive things. Your goals will change. Even your perceptions will change– what was once amazing will one day be ordinary, and vice versa. But one thing will always remain constant: your ability to perceive. That is your fact.”
The man in the checkered shirt had completely taken over the room.
“Well clearly you know your stuff. Why don’t you speak publicly?” I said
“I mean on stage, for an event,” I elaborated.
“ ‘I do not give lectures or a little charity, when I give I give my myself.’ Can you guess who said that?”
“I guess you know more than you think.”
The man handed back the microphone, and sat down quietly for the rest of the speech.
When the conference finished, people applauded and began gathering their things. I hastily tried to reach the man in the back row, but people began to shuffle out of their seats. I lost him the bustling crowd.
I expected to never see that man again.
On the drive home from the conference, I kept reflecting on one thing— a quoted passage I read many years ago…
“We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
We will arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Later that night, I found the quote in old literature book with a photograph plastered next to it. It was a photograph of a man, T.S. Elliot.
I swear he looked identical to the young man in the blue-checkered shirt. But then again, who knows?
Maybe it was just my mind.
Thanks for reading!