The day had been rather torturous – one which not even four cups of coffee could improve – and I released my Economic Labor Theory class a few minutes early with the exhortation to begin their assigned papers immediately. Not that anything especially horrible had happened; it was simply one of those mornings and afternoons so devoid of any redeeming goodness that everything incidental seemed to reduce to a test of the will and the patience. So I retired to the manicured garden on the grounds outside of the sturdy red brick building devoted to learning in an effort to slow my brain’s frustrating ramble towards anger and therefore restore some of the sanity which had been noticeably absent since the day’s action had first gone wrong.
My feet meandered, almost of their own volition, along the dirt path that wound between tree and bush. Closely-cropped green grass sparkled with drops of the passing rain as the sun peaked out from behind the retreating clouds. The colors with which I was surrounded seemed more electric and alive than they should be. “Probably due to the wavelengths of light filtered by the grayness of the clouds,” I surmised lazily as my mind mirrored the wandering of my feet.
The beauty of the place quickly stole my hot emotions and restored calmness. I began to look for a dry place to sit and soak up the surroundings in a more full and intense way. A tree with roots shooting out from the base of its trunk before plunging into the dark earth offered the perfect seat under its dense foliage and as I sat down a light mist once again began to fall, though the darker clouds were already giving way to light. It was odd then, enveloped by the cool rain, to be perfectly comfortable in temperature. The stillness of the place allowed warmth to retain in spite of the danger of a dampness of the clothes wicking away heat from the body. My new seat induced me to lean back against my protector in order to appreciate comfort for comfort’s sake and my breathing slowed to a shallow and contrite oneness with the gentle beat of my heart. I sank into such a pleasant soothe that neither my eyes could have been more than half open nor my mind operating at more than half capacity.
I was still captured by the languid examination of the mild flutter of the green leaves over my head and the placid sway of lilies framed against the dark blue of the slow-moving creek in front of me, when I first got the impression that I wasn’t alone. Through the trunks of the trees across the creek I caught a figure stealthily moving nearer. I say stealthily because there seemed neither hurry to his movements nor sound made by his approach, however he most certainly was not hiding by stealing from tree to tree. His approach therefore did not upset me in any way and I simply hoped he was also in the garden to find solitude.
As he drew closer it did indeed seem that he was navigating to pass me, but our eyes momentarily met and his path diverted toward me, though only close enough as the creek would allow. He was dressed in a tweed suit and vest with a red tie peeking out at the top. His hair (what little was left) was turning white and was carefully groomed. He was a little more round in the middle than in his chest and he wore a singularly friendly grin which did not seem forced or unnatural in any way. The greeting for which I was prepared didn’t materialize however, and both his voice and words caught me off-guard.
“It is not true,” his words flowed with a rich Ulster accent, “did you know, lad?”
The frustration of having my privacy interrupted began to rise as this unwelcome intrusion pulled me from my trivial thoughts of color and shape. But I was still careful enough to be polite with my answer. “What is not true, sir?” I said.
“That which you were pondering,” his response came, puzzling me all the more and driving me to still more frustration as it seemed his continued walk was now even more unlikely.
“I was thinking about the beauty of this place and very little else. Why would that be true or untrue … and how would you know what I was thinking in order to answer a question which I hadn’t posed in the first place?” My response was meant to show a little bit of the edge in my emotion – something which might warn him to move along.
“No, my lad. You were thinking about things much deeper than that,” he said matter-of-factly. “You were considering things on a much higher spectrum and of a much deeper consequence.”
“Is the beauty around me some metaphor for something deeper?” I posed, thinking myself very clever for turning his frankness back on to him.
“Aye, but those are not the thoughts to which I’m referring. There was a question deep in your heart that was just beginning to peek out. It is a question you’ve long suppressed, though you’ve alluded to the idea in your lectures, and it is a question of the utmost importance.” The inflection of his voice rose and fell with the power of a stormy Irish Sea, but landed as calmly on the ear as a drop of the mist which still hung in the air.
“I am not familiar with the suppression of any question. I certainly haven’t suppressed any question on purpose, and it seems rather against my nature to purposefully NOT ask a question of significance.” My words flowed out partially out of anxiety over this unknown man knowing (or at least thinking that he knew) what I was thinking and partially out of a desire to curb any idea that I wasn’t open to certain uncomfortable thoughts. Had I not always been anxious to look into the questions of the day? To test the solutions posed by the experts? To measure the ideas of the philosophical marketplace by their logical conclusions? How could I then be accused of suppressing a question within my own heart … one which could never be known to those around me and therefore never be held against me?
“The questions of the physical are easy to pose, easy to answer and easy to test. It is with those questions you have played over the course of your life. But you have refused for a long time the call to move deeper, to move to the heart of the issue of life and the issue at hand. Every question you have posed has gladly skipped along the surface of the deepest trench of truth, never daring to sink into the unknown and afraid to challenge the assumptions with which it is posed.”
This man’s words seemed to intimate – more than intimate, they said outright – that I was shallow and surface-oriented, a slap to my intelligence and a complete disregard for the years of reading and study which I had conducted. “I deeply disagree with your statement, sir, and ask you to refrain from commenting on something which you would have no ability to know if we were friends and colleagues, much less the relationship of nothing which we share today. I have many letters after my name which state rather well that I am afraid of no question, no answer and no length of investigation which they might require.”
He smiled knowingly, but rather ruefully as well, and looked at me with compassionate eyes. “Oh posh! Your great learning, the letters after your name, have been the wall dividing you from the answer your heart of heart seeks, not the vehicle by which you will find the truth. Do you truly believe deep down in your heart, that the answer to the riddle which you suppress under pretense of its non-existence, can be found in the latest fad philosophy or recently-dredged proverb from ancient mysticism? Nay, truth rises not out of mere scientific inquiry nor out of an artistic bend of a phrase in a proverb – though both may be employed to help appreciate truth. Truth is, simply because it is. Truth stands on its own and can be known to both the scholar and the dunce.”
“If that is true, sir, then how and for what reason do you say that I have neglected the question which would lead to truth?” The man’s way of talking and congenial nature lent themselves to me in such a way that I felt my interest piqued and my anxiety at his presence pass in spite of the implications of his words and in spite of his presence’s intrusion. I needed to know more. “Surely I have not been that closed-minded to something which would improve my understanding of the most important things!”
In response he inclined his head and with a twinkle in his eye said, “In order to answer that, let me ask you my lad, to what questions do you devote your time when teaching?”
It seemed an odd question to get to the meat of the matter at hand, but I answered nonetheless, “Mainly the questions of the marketplace, the macro-economy, the distribution of goods.”
“And to what do you most attribute the inequality of distribution within and between nations?”
“Well, I generally attribute it to differing government policies, demographics, whether a country or region had been a colony or colonizer, level of freedom and several other things.”
“You believe then, that the most important things in determining the health of a nation are the level of action and inaction by the governing body, mixed with a bit of luck on the part of the present people living within a present border?”
I thought for a moment but answered simply, “Yes, but with a few minor provisos and asterisks to allow for exceptions to the general rule.”
“These questions are testable, are they not? At the very least, they are able to be studied in a scientific manner, yes?” His questions, I could feel, were shepherding me on to the point which he had been trying to make me understand from the beginning and I leaned forward on my perch with interest.
“Yes, that is what I have been doing for many years, that is what I try to teach in my classes and that is the type of study which I encourage through publication and policy. But what has that to do with a deeper truth? Isn’t truth simply truth – without levels or shades of gray? You said as much a moment ago.”
“Once again, you speak truly. Truth is indeed uncompromising, but it takes shape in that which can and cannot be observed directly. When I speak of a deeper truth, I speak not of the symptoms of things studied but of the causes – seen and unseen. The symptoms which you study and teach – whether the effects of governmental regulation or the history of a nation – are simply that: symptoms. And though they are most assuredly truths in the clear, unquestionable definition of the word, they are not the deeper truths which divide between bone and marrow.”
Something in my brain tried to slow the inexorable advance of this conversation into paths which were distasteful (a feeling that seemed to arise as if warning bells were going off internally) and pull me back to my ‘right mind.’ This old codger could not be able to give me a ‘deeper’ truth on a subject which I had dedicated my life to understanding. But something pulled me on and my apprehension at missing his lesson, or at least the point of the conversation, intensified until my response burst forth, “But these are the only truths of which I know, sir. Once again I ask you, how could I have suppressed a question or neglected a deeper answer which I did not even know existed?”
“All of your life, my lad, you have toyed with the deeper truth, the cause of all things, the cause of all symptoms. But you have prevented yourself from seeing them because you have not wanted to. Do you remember that I said you were happy to skip along the surface, as a stone skips across the water? Though the stone in our analogy does not have a choice in the matter – having been thrown by an outside force – you do. You are able to take momentary stock of your situation and put a stop to the skipping. You can allow the weight of your humanity and intrinsic needs to sink you deeper into truth. You can find that all the surface effects of waves and current are merely a symptom of the infinite trenches of truth beneath the surface. And yet, the analogy does not entirely do the underlying truth justice, for the deeper truth is pure and perfect, while the ocean trench is filled with germ, bacteria, plant and animal. I tell you this because the deepest truth gives a powerful interpretive knowledge to the shallow. A man who knows the deep ocean may give answer to the mysteries of the surface.” The man’s eyes were half-moons of joy as he spoke these words, enthralled with his own interest in the topic and in love with their obvious implications. I meanwhile was simply aghast at the idea of him knowing what I had or had not considered throughout my life.
“So, do you sir, offer me the answer to all things? A Higgs boson of philosophy? A vine out of which all branches spring?” I asked eagerly, attempting to be as prosaic as he.
“Yes … and also no, my lad. I will allude, as I have alluded until now, to the answer of truth, but as in the cases of your study of the symptoms, you will have to work to establish a relationship with it. Indeed, the God of truth will reach out His almighty arm to connect with the one who seeks Him, but the final hand-clasp, the final embrace of deep truth, is one which is concluded by the seeker.”
Nausea seemed to set in abruptly. I had thought that I was speaking with a learned man, a man who held some key to something which I had missed in my studies. I thought that perhaps he knew of something from another branch of study which, when adapted for economic use, could open up new avenues of understanding. But no! He was yet another madman who believes in fairy tales. A purveyor of cheap tricks. A marionette forever repeating the same closed-minded ideas that had caused much of the poverty, inequality and war which I had studied. “Sir, you have misrepresented yourself. I thought you meant to bring me truth, not children’s bedtime stories. You have wasted my time considerably.” My distaste came out more politely than my emotion would have preferred, but I was still overtly dismissive as I leaned back against my tree again, closing my eyes and intimating that our interview was at an end.
Instead of being irritated and angry at my dismissal though, he seemed to relish the fact that he had made his point and answered me patiently and lovingly, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I seem to have struck a nerve. My dear lad, you are forgetting the main thrust of why I began this conversation. Though I potentially didn’t communicate it clearly.” He chuckled slightly at this before going on, “When I said that you have toyed with the deeper truth but prevented yourself from seeing it, this very attitude is what I meant! Do you think that I am saying that you have turned yourself off to some great learning of this world?! Absolutely not. You said it yourself that you have never been afraid of either a question, answer or even of the work required when it comes to learning … and you were correct in saying that. Your lack of learning, as I have intimated, is certainly not with the symptom truths but with the cause. And the very thing which you hold most dear, your considerable wealth of information and honor in its collection, is the very thing that prevents you from seeing that you are missing something deeper.”
The word “honor” caught my attention because I had very much always believed that honor was something which made good science and therefore good study. Honor was a necessary ingredient in my recipe for truth and was a prerequisite for the study which I demanded from my students.
The questions which I had posited earlier began to return and my attitude slowly softened again. Could it be that this man, however silly and convoluted his ideas were, had seen a blind spot which I had not even considered? Could it be that this pawn of the ancient order of lunatics had identified a chink in my intellectual armor? Even though he had to be wrong about “God’s” role in the answer, perhaps he could help me become a better, more complete scholar? Maybe I did have a dismissive attitude to something which was important for learning on a ‘deeper’ level? And maybe he was an honest man, though obviously prone to mythology.
I got up from my seat under the tree and took a couple of slow steps toward the creek which separated us. “Alright sir, I may not believe in your God, but I would like to know more about this lack of learning in the ‘cause’ department of truth. Please enlighten me.” My words were inviting but I was certain that my body‘s statement revealed my lingering arrogance.
In response to this, the man bent down and wrote something in the dirt with his finger, a few crude characters which were incomprehensible from where I stood and I unconsciously took another step forward, craning my neck to read it. When he straightened up, he smiled at me and shifted slightly so that he blocked my view of his doodle. “I don’t know that you are quite ready to see what I have written, but I promise to reveal it later.”
This was highly irregular but I nodded at him haughtily to encourage him to continue.