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. And the way we see 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 riddler 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 lie 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 embraced what becomes obvious. 

Riddles enjoy the veneration of age, the essence of surprise, and the agility of youth. Riddles climb into crossword puzzles, without ever acknowledging their dependence on different ways of valuing clues. Just the other day, one of the local puzzles asked about a five letter word for 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 adds “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 that we can broaden our choices and perceive answers that otherwise are 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 say “what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three legs when it is 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 citizen he walks with a cane. This answer won’t be found in a small frame – or legs measured as body parts. It offers an overview of life that all humans share – or have the potential to share – when viewed over an entire span of years. The riddle is more than an inquiry – it is also a teaching tool.

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, desk top computers and IPads decrease socialization while increasing access. It’s unclear which approach – human interactions or interactions with computers – lets us consider more scenarios and a greater number of options. Since 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. 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 (and at more times on weekends) a gathering of young adults with I phones that they feverishly work to advance to other 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 others. The concentration is so deep that players cross streets, sit on curbs, or wander off sidewalks without any appreciation of the danger they pose to themselves and others as they blissfully ignore bikers, drivers, and other pedestrians.

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 achieved results in peace and in war that almost defied understanding.

During the reign of 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 other choice, 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 stamp collection, 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 before and 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. There is no issue that 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, the 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 those living in the 21st century must address. 

Many riddles just amuse. The riddle asks “What’s between heaven and earth?”  The correct answer - albeit a silly one - is  the word “and”. 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. Not only is a life and death struggle happening between them – but the interaction is a struggle for life itself. Whether we are looking at wisdom, ingenuity or creativity, it requires another person to expand ourselves into being our best. Riddles aren’t the answer to challenges – they are merely a pathway to our growth - and it is up to us whether or not to follow the opportunity before us.