2017 March 2

Knowledge & Values

Topics

Statue of Minerva and a clock bell with owl and bellringers

—⁠Here you are, I say, handing Ashoka his ticket for the express train. —⁠Your pass to Boston.

—⁠And why are we going to Boston?

—⁠We’re not.

—⁠Then what’s the ticket for?

—⁠We’re going through Boston. But since we need to transfer stations anyway, and because it’s too long a trip for one day, I got us a hotel room in Boston.

—⁠Wouldn’t it be faster to fly? he grumbles.

—⁠You know me, I like to take the long way around. And to be honest, I need the time to gather my thoughts and put things in order.

—⁠“Things”? What things?

—⁠Everything. There’s so much, I hardly know where to start.

I scan Penn Station’s gargantuan arrivals and departures board. —⁠We just missed a train. Looks like we’ve got a couple of hours to kill. Come on, let’s explore midtown Manhattan while I try to explain.

Pushing the wheelchair up the zigzag exit ramp, I take us out onto 33rd street.

—⁠Which way should we go?

—⁠All the same to me. Food trucks as far as the eye can see.

He’s right about that. A mini–United Nations of pushcarts surrounds the station entrance. I scan the skyline and find a familiar outline. —⁠Look, there’s the Empire State Building.

—⁠I see it. Ashoka squints at me suspiciously. —⁠You’re not going to make us walk to the top, are you?

—⁠Of course not. But if we head in that direction, we can pick up Broadway at Herald Square.

—⁠You’re the boss.

We meander through oncoming crowds who, for the most part, give way when they see the wheelchair. The street sign for what I call 7th Avenue—⁠sauntering down the runway here as “Fashion Avenue”—⁠reminds me that we’re on the edge of the Garment District. —⁠Did you know this used to be one of the worst neighborhoods in Manhattan? When it was called the Tenderloin, it was a hotbed of racketeering and prostitution.

—⁠Seems to have cleaned up nice since then. What happened?

—⁠Discrimination. Masses of immigrants were pushed into the Tenderloin. They were mostly garment workers, so the area became the textile center of the city. But then the industry grew so fast that it transformed the Tenderloin into the Garment District and boosted the whole city’s economy. So I think they had the last laugh in the end.

—⁠Guess so. Now there’s all these fancy stores and restaurants. Like that one on the corner—⁠bet it’s a good place to eat.

It doesn’t look like anything special to me, but I don’t want to argue. —⁠Probably. Here we go, light’s changed.

We swerve around a friendly Labrador and continue east.

—⁠Anyway, I promised you an explanation… I’ve been thinking a lot about something you said to me soon after we met.

—⁠Was it “I’m hungry”?

—⁠No. You asked me, what should I do? I didn’t have an answer. But I keep coming back to that question because it covers so much.

The wheelchair stops suddenly, and I stumble. Ashoka is twisted around, glaring at me. He’s also pushed down the wheel locks.

—⁠What’s the matter? Why did you stop?

—⁠Because I want some food. Maybe you’re on a crash diet, but it’s after one o’clock in the afternoon and I’m not going anywhere until we have lunch.

I have to laugh. —⁠You’re the boss, I admit. —⁠Let’s eat.

 

One adequate if overpriced meal later, we’re back on the 33rd Street sidewalk approaching Herald Square. A nagging voice in the back of my mind insists I need to be a better caregiver. But Ashoka’s in a much more expansive mood and waves at me regally. —⁠Carry on!

—⁠What?

—⁠You’re itching to finish that explanation of yours. Don’t think I can’t tell.

—⁠Guilty as charged. You can see right through me.

He snorts. —⁠If I could do that, I wouldn’t be in the dark about The Date. Still not ready to spill the beans?

—⁠Not quite. But I promise to tell you everything before we get there. That’s what all this is about. I want you to be ready. But if I’m right, there’s a lot to prepare for. That’s why I’m having a hard time even starting. I wish I had a manual, or just an outline. Some kind of framework I could follow.

We reach the intersection of Broadway and 6th Avenue, and I turn us north. —⁠What I was saying before… Your question is as good a place to start as any. “What should I do?” Think about it. It’s a question we all ask ourselves a thousand times a day, about the most unimportant decisions. What should I do: wear the yellow shirt or the blue? What should I do: use a paper clip or a staple?

But at the same time, it’s the question we ask at the most significant crossroads in our lives. What should I do: take a new job across the country, or stay at home in a dead-end position? What should I do: marry this person now, or wait for my soul mate?

Making a bad choice of that kind can resonate across years, and affect more than one life. That’s why it’s so important to make good decisions.

—⁠I hear you. Course, nobody makes the right decision all the time.

—⁠Absolutely not. But I’m talking about good decisions, not the right decisions.

Ashoka mulls this over, then shakes his head. —⁠I don’t get it. What’s the difference?

—⁠The right decision is the one that leads to the best outcome. But the only way to know which choice was right is to wait and see how things turn out. Sometimes you don’t know what the right decision was for years. So you’ll just go crazy if you always try to make the right decision.

What you should try to do is make a good decision. That’s a choice that seems most likely to work out well given the information you have at the time. Like… See that lottery billboard? Let’s say you want to win that $100 million. You have to choose a number to play. One number is the right number to pick, but you won’t know which one until the lottery is over. Instead, you just need to pick a good number, one that has a good chance of winning. In a fair lottery, all the numbers are equally good, so there aren’t any bad choices. But there are millions of wrong choices.

I know too many people who castigate themselves for making a wrong choice because it didn’t turn out the way they hoped. But that’s just hindsight. So often they forget that their wrong decision was actually a good choice! It was the option that made the best sense at the time. Instead of simply learning from the experience, their self-esteem nose-dives and they become convinced they’re bad at making decisions. Which means the next time they face an important choice, they’re hamstrung by doubt. It’s a vicious cycle.

—⁠I see what you mean. That’s kind of sad.

—⁠So promise me you won’t fall into that trap. That you won’t fret over the right decision, just try to make a good decision.

—⁠Sure. But I don’t think it’s as easy as you say.

—⁠I didn’t say it was easy. Making good choices is one of the hardest things to do in life. It takes a very special quality.

—⁠What’s that?

—⁠Think about it. If you were facing a tough choice right now, what kind of person would you ask for help?

He considers a moment, then points. —⁠How about her?

I was expecting a more abstract answer. He’s indicating a gaudy sign on a door squashed between a jewelry store and a gift shop. MADAME ROSE, proclaims the banner. PSYCHIC! SEER! TELL YOUR FUTURE! Gold stars bespeckle the purple posterboard, along with cards featuring fantastic images of knights, skeletons, and hermits.

I cringe. —⁠Please. Please tell me you’re joking.

—⁠What’s wrong with seeing the future?

—⁠What’s wrong is that no one can do it! Do you really think that if Madame Rose could see the future, she’d be operating out of a dingy walkup?

—⁠Maybe she’s humble.

—⁠I think the word you’re looking for is “humbug”.

Ashoka sighs. —⁠Too bad. Looked like fun. Particularly those fancy cards.

I start the pushing the chair on again, into the trees of Herald Square. —⁠They’re part of a deck of tarot cards. If you asked Madame Rose, she’d probably spin you a yarn about ancient Egyptian mystics inventing them.

—⁠Not true?

—⁠Not even close. Playing cards probably started in China, and moved west through Persia into Europe around the 1400s. The major arcana—⁠those “fancy cards”—⁠were simply added to make games more interesting.

—⁠What did you call them?

—⁠“Major arcana”. It’s Latin for “great secrets”, but the name was coined by a Frenchman in the mid-1800s. My advice to you: Forget about psychics, seers, fortune-tellers, astrologers, and anyone else who claims to know the future.

—⁠So who do I ask for help with these tough choices, then?

—⁠Well, I was thinking someone like her.

We’re facing a monument at the north end of the square. Ostensibly it’s a clock, but the Roman numeral–graced disc surmounting the edifice is not what draws the eye. A warrior goddess stands guard over a bell taller than I am, while a serene owl perches atop. Two burly figures in printers’ aprons astride the bell lift massive hammers, ready to strike the hour.

—⁠This is Minerva, the Roman deity of wisdom. That’s her owl standing on the bell.

—⁠You want me to talk to an ancient Roman god?

—⁠I didn’t mean her literally, I meant what she personifies. Wisdom. That’s the special quality you should look for in someone you ask for help. Because wisdom means making good choices. Being wise isn’t the same as being smart, for example. There are plenty of smart people who make terrible decisions. When we need life advice, we don’t turn to scientists. We look to grandparents and gurus, people we believe are wise.

Stuff and Guff, the two bellringers, swing into action as the clock’s minute hand ticks upright. Their hammers converge on the bell, stopping at a discreet distance to prevent actual damage while an internal mechanism chimes two sonorous gongs. When the reverberations finally fade, I start following Broadway north.

—⁠But do you know what’s even better than asking a wise person for help?

—⁠Nope. Somehow I bet you’re going to tell me, though.

—⁠Right you are! Even better is being wise yourself. Think what that means: Time after time, in little ways and big, you consistently make good choices.

Ashoka peers into the department store windows as we roll by. —⁠Hm. Think I can pick up some wisdom on sale in there?

—⁠Always looking for a shortcut. But you don’t need money to earn wisdom. You really just need two things: knowledge and values.

—⁠How do you figure that?

—⁠You know the expression, knowledge is power? Obviously it’s not literally true. You can’t send a truck down the highway just by knowing how a combustion engine works. But on a deeper level, it’s absolutely true. Power is the ability to cause change. The more power you have, the greater change you can create.

Knowledge also gives you the ability to cause change. Say you’re in an unlit room at night. If you know how a light switch works, you can change the room. If you don’t, you’re stuck in the dark.

Making a decision is making a change in your life. You want to make a good choice. But what if some of the possibilities are hidden from you? Maybe the best choice is one you don’t even know exists. And how can you choose if you have no idea what the result will be?

You need knowledge to make good choices. That’s why it’s one of the keys to wisdom. But like I said earlier, knowledge by itself is not enough.

—⁠You didn’t say that.

—⁠I said being smart wasn’t the same as being wise, and having knowledge is one way of being smart.

—⁠Are there other ways?

—⁠Sure. Solving problems is another way of being smart. So is empathy, when you deeply understand other people… But that’s a whole different discussion. This is why I need some kind of framework! I digress too often.

Knowledge will give you options and help you estimate their outcomes, but it can’t offer you guidance on the actual decision. For that you need values. After all, how can you make a good choice without a sense of good and bad?

—⁠Beats me. How’d you get to be such an expert on wisdom, anyway?

—⁠I can’t actually swear to being wise myself. But I am a certified lover of wisdom: I have a philosophy degree. And the word philosophy comes from the Greek roots philo, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom.

—⁠There was a woman named Sophia back at the house, but she wasn’t particularly wise.

—⁠And not everyone named Philip loves horses. But anytime you see phil in a word, there’s some connection to love: audiophile, a lover of good sounds; philtrum, a love potion.

—⁠Philadelphia?

—⁠The City of Brotherly Love!

We scoot along in silence for a while, surreptitiously taking in the surroundings while trying to pretend we belong here.

—⁠So this is Broadway, Ashoka finally remarks. —⁠I expected a bit more somehow.

—⁠This isn’t the flashiest stretch. But there is history here. The road is even older than the city is.

—⁠Really?

—⁠Yes. Long before the Dutch arrived, indigenous peoples walked the length of the island on this trail.

—⁠Guess it must being doing something right to last this long.

—⁠I guess so. And don’t worry, we’re already at 39th Street. Things pick up in just a few more blocks.

The closer we get to 42nd Street, the denser the sidewalks become. What had been nearly even two-way traffic becomes a single northbound stream, pulling us along and emptying into:

Times Square.

It’s a mild day, and the city’s most popular destination is predictably packed. Perhaps adding a souvenir bicycle bell to the wheelchair would help us push through the crowd.

Ashoka doesn’t seem to mind. His head keeps craning around, trying to take it all in. —⁠What do you see? I ask.

—⁠All the signs! Billboards and neon and TV screens… It’s a madhouse, but I like it. Feels alive. What do you see?

—⁠Mostly the people. There are so many, and they’re so different. I wonder: Why are they here? What are their stories?

Look at them all, and at us. They say if you stand in Times Square long enough, the whole world will pass by you. Some in a hurry, some lost in the moment. All the different ages, skin colors, creeds. But all in the same place, at the same time. Brought here by all the choices we’ve made throughout our lives.

Just before his execution, an ancient wise man said the unexamined life is not worth living. That’s a little harsh, I think… Some lives are an endless struggle just to find food and safety. But once you have the necessities, I believe you owe it to yourself to do a little examining. Owe yourself, and the rest of us who will ever pass through Times Square. Because every choice changes the world.

This is what I want for you, Ashoka. You have been given an invaluable gift: A space of time to examine life. To gain knowledge. To construct values.

To earn wisdom.

Related Pages

The Great Secrets (PDF)