The one big question

Many of us still bear the scars from high-school science classes, from memorizing facts, figures and laws — Boyle’s law, the laws of motions, the laws of thermodynamics.

It was dull, dry, boring stuff and we couldn’t wait to write the final test so we could forget it.

But with the perspective of time, we know science isn’t as much a collection of facts as a worldview, one that most of us use when the fireplace won’t turn off or the TV won’t turn on. We ask questions, check assumptions and figure it out.

While life is more art than science, we can use scientific method to fine tune our philosophy if we but awaken from our slumber — what Deepak Chopra calls the psychosis of social conditioning — and develop a central vision that’s part of a broader world view.

Werner Heisenberg, who devised the Uncertainty Principle, one of the cornerstones of quantum physics, said real advances are made at the intersection where two different lines of thought meet.

We are always at that intersection and the light is always green, but we spend so much time looking ahead, attempting to anticipate what will happen so we won’t be surprised, hurt or embarrassed that we don’t see what’s here now.

We jitterbug from one thing to another, juggling commitments and being tugged to and fro on our electronic leashes, but don’t take the time — think we don’t have the time — to figure out who we are beyond the labels and job description.

Granted, it’s easier to ignore the bigger picture and the bigger idea because they appear overwhelming and intimidating. It’s less threatening to grab a beer or a glass of wine and watch the hockey game or another rerun of NCIS.

But if we’re willing, we can reduce the seeming immensity of the problem by using the elephant-eating method: one bite at a time. We don’t have to ask all the questions about all the issues. We just have to ask one.

“In science, we take great pains to design experiments that ask only one question at a time,” Yale University biochemist Scott Strobel is quoted in The Canon.

“You isolate a single variable, and then you see what happens when you change that variable alone, while doing your best to keep everything else in the experiment unchanged.”

That’s what the ancient Greek poet Archilochus had in mind. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

 “Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations,” Jim Collins writes in Good to Great.

“‘You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs.’ Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labour — they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it.”

We tend to admire foxes, or their human equivalent, for their cunning, smoothness and slyness, and disdain the hedgehog for its simplicity and single-mindedness.

“Hedgehogs aren’t simpletons,” Collins writes. “They have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns. Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.”

Cutting through the minutiae and seeing what is essential is a wonderful gift. Some of us spend so much dithering, trying to choose between A and B that we never decide either. We could be less fox-like and concentrate on the one big thing, like Alexander the Great did when he cut, rather than untied, the Gordian knot.

It isn’t just scientists, philosophers and writers who tell us to simplify, simplify, simplify.

“Got to ask yourself one question, where are you now?” James Blunt sings in Wisemen, on the Back to Bedlam CD.

How many know the answer to that question? How many have even asked?

Journalism students are taught five Ws — and one H — but the one most neglected is why, and what’s true of journalists is true of the rest of us.

Ask why. It’s a simple, yet insightful question.

  • Why do we get angry over nothing?
  • Why do we fear the unknown?
  • Why are we the way we are?
  • Why do we do what we do?
  • And if we’re not happy, why don’t we change? 
  • Why do we…?

Even if we ask, we often let ourselves wiggle free with a weak answer or no answer at all.

We must ask with a single-minded purpose, never settling for because or we don’t know, but peel away each layer of deception until we find out.

Knowing why is important because we create our lives with our thoughts, our decisions and indecisions, our choices and lack thereof. Each moment is a crossroads — and an intersection — and we are free to go one way instead of the other.

“Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question,” said Carlos Castaneda. “Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

As wonderful as science is, eventually we have to go into the deepest recesses of ourselves to find the answers to the central questions we pose.

We have to find the mystic in ourselves and part the veil we have hung to hide us from who we are.

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature and it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve,” said Max Planck, the father of quantum physics.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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