Random Acts – Riddles

Questions - What is 4,000 years old, but fresh as a daisy? What crosses all cultures but never moves?

Answer – A riddle.

Riddles have an august history, with the earliest known riddle dating back some 4,000 years.  In that riddle, the question is asked, “A person enters a house blind but exits seeing. What is it? Answer – a school.” The answer is deeper than we anticipate, for our ability to answer riddles depends on more than our imagination. It depends on the way we see the world. And the way we see the world limits the choices of what we see.

There is a dead man in the center of a field with an unopened package. As he neared the field he knew he was going to die. How did he know he was going to die? Answer -The package was a parachute that failed to open. In trying to figure out the answer, we may initially look at the problem from too narrow a perspective. The person creating the riddle is delighted when our working assumption assumes that the man would enter the field by walking to it on the ground. To solve the riddle it is necessary to broaden the number of scenarios which meet the stated facts but which are hidden below the surface of the obvious. Once we expand our field of inquiry to include entry to the field from above, we have solved the riddle, understood the creator’s trick, and widened our perspective.

Riddles enjoy the veneration of age, the essence of surprise, and the agility of youth. The design of crossword puzzles has elements of riddles by the type of clues they provide. Puzzles stretch the mind to consider answers that are responsive to the clues provided, but the correct answer is rarely the obvious choice. In a puzzle I was working on, the clue given was to find a five letter word that was something “above the foot.” It could have been a sock…a meter…or, as it turned out, an ankle.

Winston Churchill began one of his wartime speeches by stating that, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” And then he added, “but perhaps there is a key.” He suggests we are entering the unknown, with many portals, few clues, and no maps. It’s not that there aren’t ways of unraveling the mystery and revealing the riddle – it’s the process of how we think that sends us down blind alleys. Only when we modify how we think can we broaden our choices and consider answers that otherwise fall beyond our imagining. 

Riddles cast a broad net, having been described as a rhetorical device, a form that invites you to exercise ingenuity, and a reflection of the culture that creates its own stock of puzzlers. As an example, Oedipus is asked by the Sphinx to respond to the riddle which asks “what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three legs in the evening?”

The answer is a human. A man crawls on four legs as a baby. As an adult he walks on two legs, and as an elderly person he walks with a cane. The riddle is looking for more than a cute turn of phrase or odd mutation.  The answer holds within its question a larger wisdom—a universal understanding—of the stages of human life.

Lumosity is a business that claims it can improve cognition and brain function by having people work on “brain-teasers” and intellectual challenges in the form of games. What used to be done around the campfire is now carried out in front of the computer. What used to be played in groups is now a solitary endeavor. Smart phones, desktop computers, and I-Pads decrease socialization while increasing access. It’s unclear which approach—human interactions or interactions with computers—better serves our evolutionary trajectory.

I am reminded of comments made by author Warren Bennis when he warned us that, “the factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Technology is growing at such a rapid clip, we need to embrace the benefits it provides or be brushed aside as a holdover from the horse and buggy era, with our relevance limited to feeding the dog. Yet even as we embrace technology, we need to be aware that choices involve costs and costs involve selectivity. Something gained…something rejected…something lost.

I live in Eugene, OR. Two blocks from my house there unfolds every night a gathering of young adults with I phones who are playing stages of the Japanese game Pokemon Go. In a sea of people, each seems to be alone. Even though there are 20 or so people physically close to each other, no one is interacting with one another. Their concentration is so deep that these youngsters cross streets, sit on curbs, or wander off sidewalks without any appreciation of the dangers they pose to themselves and others as they blissfully ignore bikers, drivers, and other pedestrians. There is no goal other than the game, there is no ending other than a staged victory, and there is no learning other than being facile with the software.

What I believe we are losing is the creativity that historically our interconnections had sparked. We are trading in the miracle of surprise for the technician’s wand, with results that may be astonishing but are nevertheless predictable.  We can do more in a shorter time than we had ever conceived possible. But what is not clear is whether we have done it better. We can’t imagine life without computers and their related technology. And yet we constructed a complex and interrelated world without that technology and in the 20th century achieved results in peace and in war that almost defied understanding.

During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, he led a nation out of the Great Depression, steered America away from war until Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor left us no choice other than retaliation, created the Lend Lease program to support Great Britain and later Russia by providing them with the machinery of war, and finally led the United States and Great Britain through a world war that was unprecedented in scope, detail and intensity.

Throughout his presidency, he still devoted time to his favorite hobby, stamp collecting, took vacations and retreats (a necessity if he was to maintain his vitality during the grueling period he served as America’s President) and entertained heads of state that continually met with Roosevelt, both formally and informally during the war. He expanded civil rights in the military, created benefits for returning soldiers, and approved the research at Los Alamos for the development of the atomic bomb. What inspired a nation in its darkest moments were the words of Churchill, the fireside chats of Roosevelt, and the faith of these leaders in the justness of their cause more than the brilliance of their technology. Clearly, technology framed the war – but creativity and compassion (the Marshall Plan; rebuilding Germany) framed the peace.

If we can harness technology so that it serves us, mankind will emerge a winner. If, however, technology is manipulated to function as an aspect of power, our future will be uncertain and troublesome. How we will emerge is a riddle that only we can answer.

Some riddles just amuse. Other riddles tap into more abstract thinking, such as those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins is locked in mortal combat with Gollum, for only by besting him in riddles will Gollum show him how to escape from a tunnel under the Misty Mountains to the shire where Bilbo lives. At one point in the story, Bilbo challenges Gollum to tell him the answer to the following riddle:

Thirty white horses on a red hill.

First they champ,

Then they stamp,

Then they stand still.

Gollum responds that the answer is “teeth”.

And on and on they go until Bilbo Baggins stumps Gollum and Gollum is forced to show Bilbo Baggins the way back to his shire. A mighty struggle is happening between them. The interaction is more than a struggle for life. It is a struggle for life with meaning. Riddles aren’t the answer to challenges—they are merely a pathway to choices—and it is up to us whether or not to follow the choices that technology provides.

We can embrace technology for the ways it satisfies our own form of avarice – whether that is reflected in creature comforts, acquisitions, power, or control. Or we can embrace technology to reduce suffering in all the ways that life-affirming goals would support. In short we need our humanity to control our technology rather than have our technology limit our humanity. As our technology advances with dizzying rapidity, we have a set of values choices to make that will mark the direction of our priorities.

If we don’t commit to life-affirming choices, our choices will soon disappear. We argue over climate control, nuclear weapons testing, military readiness, organic food, and a score of other options which threaten to dramatically crumble a habitable planet. If we generally recognize these risks to be true, the riddle to me is why we don’t act accordingly. We have done much worse than just trading in long-term goals for short term pleasures. We are in the process of pursuing short-term goals even though they threaten to wipe out long-term opportunities.

I don’t know if we are already too late, but unless we commit to advance life for all sentient creatures, we may never know the difference between late and lost. 

George Kaufman Jan. 2017 ©

Download the first chapter of  Accidental Spirituality as a free gift from George. 

You'll also receive George's newsletter