Zeitgeist and Giftedness

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The issue of fame

Leonard Nimoy, in I Am Spock, states that there were teachers in Hollywood for practically any additional skill an actor would need to portray a character in a movie. I don’t remember exactly what his list was, but this would include riding horseback, handling an ancient or modern weapon, using some particular musical instrument, speaking in some particular accent correctly, juggling or illusionist skills, various trades, some approach to singing and dancing not already known to the performer, and so on and so forth: I got the impression was that pretty much every skill you could name was covered, and a number of skills you wouldn’t think to name.

With one exception.

Nimoy said that there was one thing that was needed in Hollywood but did not have a single teacher: handling fame.

He talked, for instance, about creative ways of sneaking into a restaurant through the kitchen because a public commotion would happen if one person saw Spock trying to quietly walk into a restaurant’s front door. I’ve heard it said of one cast member of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that he dresses and acts flamboyantly and strikingly in front of the camera as he should, but consciously turns that off and acts much more nondescriptly in public is usually not noticed. But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has a smaller audience and is less mainstream; I’m no student of fashion history but a Google image search for Spock shows a consistent haircut, and one that looks to me like it was meant to be distinctive. (One would suspect that TV producers using humans to portray alien races would want actors to sport a distinctive look.)

“Fame Lite”

I might suggest that my own experience is of having some degree of fame, but to a degree that has mostly been a privilege where a much greater amount of fame would bring much more obnoxious difficulties.

I’ve had someone call out, “That’s Jonathan Hayward!” Like a TV actor. Once.

I’ve also had someone ask for my autograph. Once.

I also have paper and Kindle books on Amazon that bring me a symbolic level of monthly income. It’s not on par with the income for working part-time flipping burgers, but it is still more than most authors ever see.

I’ve also repeatedly encountered people who knew me by my writing.

This might be called “sheltered fame,” or “mini-fame”, or “fame lite”, or “fame à la carte“, and I am glad I don’t enjoy a far greater degree of fame. If I were more famous, I might be able to support myself just by writing, but I regard that as being beside the point: I am seeking monasticism on the Holy Mountain, where my job will be to pray and do the obediences assigned by an Elder and be challenged at the level of parents of a first newborn. Or more. The obediences will be meant to free me from my weaknesses: but I will in a very sense not be my own man, even if my Elder’s entire goal in dealing with me is to do whatever is necessary to make me my own God-man in a fuller sense than I could possibly get on my own.

For a last detail of my miniature fame, I receive correspondence from readers, and so far I have been fortunate to be able to respond to every reader email I really can. C.S. Lewis may not have been Orthodox, and he may sound very faithful to the Greek Fathers until you recognize that Mere Christianity marks him as one of the major architects of the ecumenism as we know it today, and ecumenism was formally anathematized by several bishops in the eighties and some serious Orthodox have called ecumenism the ecclesiological heresy of our day. But I want to single out one point about C.S. Lewis’s personal life that is relevant: he made a practice of answering every reader who wrote him, even though that resulted him spending much of his later life answering essentially pastoral correspondence. And on that point I consider myself particularly privileged to be entrusted with some correspondence, but not need nearly enough interactions to the point that it is a heavy ascesis to answer people who write me.

All of this says that I may share in fame in one sense, but I really do not know in the sense that stems from direct personal experience what fame is to household names. I believe that this may be changing. But for now I would like to distance myself from claims to insider status as far as extreme fame goes. My degree of fame, as privilege, is comparable in giftedness to being somewhere a bit below the lower boundary of the range of socially optimal intelligence.

The reason for this piece: Everyman

There is a medieval play, which I have read of but not read, called Everyman. The character is not an individual “me, myself, and I” as is much more common in today’s novels, but a representative of all that is human.

That basic approach to writing was fairly mainstream; perhaps the most famous tale of Everyman is Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a tale of the only way Everyman can be saved. The pilgrim is not characterized as an individual with individual tastes, interests, hobbies (though perhaps expecting hobbies would be anachronistic). He represents in a sort of abstracted form the common story of how one may be saved as understood in the Reformation.

Today that basic approach has mostly fallen out of fashion (or perhaps has some revival I do not know about), but it is not quite dead and perhaps can never die. The assumption in an Amazon review of consumer electronics is that the review should not be about “me, myself, and I” so much as a “what’s ahead” notice to Everyman, meaning other consumers, who are contemplating purchasing that item. Reviews are ideally written from Everyman to Everyman.

This work is intended to be written by and to Everyman, even if that Everyman represents a narrower demographic than the whole of humanity. Significant, and in large measure unique, details are included on the theory that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The assumption is that a specific picture in living color exposes the rhyme much more readily than a colorless abstraction that is propositionally true for all it treats, but lacks a pulse. It is an established finding in psychology that people are recognized more quickly from a sketched caricature than from an accurate photograph. I do not knowingly offer caricature in this work as such, but I do try to avoid bleeding out colors into abstraction, however correct, unless there are privacy concerns.

Danger! Beware of pedestal.

There is a quotation I’ve heard attributed to Gandhi, running something like, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” At a brief check Snopes marks this as misattributed, and speaking as someone who spent considerable time perusing All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, as Told In His Own Words, this simply doesn’t sound like something Gandhi would have ever said; its presence in the chapter “Ahimse or the way of nonviolence” would have been as obtrusive as Gandhi taking a brief moment to endorse some particular brand of toothpaste. Note that decent people do make attributions that are wrong; my Uncle Mark was a tremendously well-loved and respected schoolteacher, and more specifically a history teacher. He would open the day with some particular thought, from eclectic sources ranging over the Bible, Ben Franklin, and other historical figures, and after his passing, one student who had written down these thoughts posted pictures of her notes, and they were really quite a treasure. But one of them attributed “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” to Mark Twain. Sorry, but No. Without looking up exact dates, I believe Mark Twain’s lifetime overlapped those of the founders of modern psychology. The “shock-denial-blah-blah-blah-resignation-acceptance” grieving process could conceivably have been formulated in the nineteenth century, although it doesn’t sound like Freud to me, or any other nineteenth century psychologist I’m aware of. Kind of like how Freud’s various complexes don’t sound like something a behaviorist like Skinner would develop. However, even if we ascribe The Grieving Process to 19th century psychologists, these are technical terms in an obscure discipline, and would have been less-well-known than unconventional approaches to pig breeding or knowledge of how the results different knot techniques vary with different kinds of rope. The Grieving Process of “shock-denial-blah-blah-blah-resignation-acceptance” could absolutely not have been a lapidary part of pop culture that pops up in a remark by an unruly six-year-old boy in Calvin and Hobbes, or where saying “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” instantly telegraphs its intended meaning.

But let’s return to the pseudo-Ghandian quotation regardless of source: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” As a sloppy sketch, this might be true, but there is a caveat that eviscerates the whole triumphal gist: The last step might not be, “You win.” The last step might be, “They install you on a pedestal.” The difference between winning and being installed on a pedestal is the difference between diamond and diamond-back.

There is a source I read decades back; the book title and even the name of the figure escapes me beyond that he was a scholar of Confucius and perhaps others, Chinese by nationality, and he meticulously documented how, after “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you.”, the last step was “Then they install you on a pedestal.” And he documented how for a figure he studied how people went from hindering and hampering him by opposing him, to hindering and hampering him by launching him on a high pedestal. And the front matter, from a Western scholar and/or translator, said that the pedestal effect he documented in fact played out in the scholar’s own life; he spent the rest of his life trying to achieve constructive results despite the pedestal that he was forever stuck with.

Fr. Seraphim’s unwanted pedestal

I’ve personally raised serious concerns about Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, and it is my considered judgment that he has been harmful and a cause of arrested spiritual development among his Western convert followers. (He is also deeply respected in some Orthodox lands, but I get the impression that a Russian or Greek admirer has a more balanced diet of spiritual reading.) Do Western followers, of the kind who relate to all outsiders as superiors guiding subordinates and often teaching humility first of all, distort Fr. Seraphim? My suspicion is that they fail to live up to Fr. Seraphim’s guidance on some point, and on other points show problems that are 100% faithful to his trajectory. One of the central tenets of what has been called “Orthodox fundamentalism” is that the world is literally about 6,000 years old, and a “Creation Science” lifted from Protestants of yesteryear who were not scientists is the true and final science that proves that. That deeply entrenched feature is one where they are following the Master’s lead. I’ve read Fr. Seraphim charge his readers to straighten out the backwards scientific misunderstandings of people who believe in an ancient universe and either evolution or progressive creation. If this is a pattern, it is not a simple case of ideological hijacking; practically all I have critiqued in The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts: A Glimpse into the Soul of Orthodox Fundamentalism remains faithful to the Master’s guidance. Possibly they exaggerate the importance of Fr. Seraphim’s position on origins; somehow God comes out second banana next to Young Earth Creationism, but if they exaggerated, they took something big and made it even bigger. Whether or not they pushed things further than they should, for to have someone who is a nonscientist (and, at least as I’ve found, wouldn’t recognize even an unsubtle scientific argument at all, even if it bit him on the arse!), gently asks “Have I cornered you?” when the other person is frustrated by a Seraphinian inability to even recognize a scientific argument, diplomatically and gently offer to straighten out a biology PhD’s backwards understanding of science (perhaps by dropping Einsteins’ name and giving an example of how “pilots experience time differently when they’re traveling above the speed of sound“; one friend, on hearing this “example,” winced, slowly gulped, and said, “That’s not even wrong.”)… Someone who does every single one of these things is following in the Master’s footsteps and living up to his exhortations.

There are other points where no matter what harassment I have met from his evangelists, I believe they weren’t faithful to Fr. Seraphim, or at least weren’t faithful to what he hoped for. Probably the kindest remark to him that I can genuinely respect is, “Fr Seraphim (Rose) is included in the mix of folks who tried to explain to folks they were sinners, but were still put on a pedestal anyway.” I have not seriously investigated the contours of Fr. Seraphim as regards guruism, but my understanding is that he would had a very simple answer: “No.” Or maybe he wrote at length about why guruism is toxic. At any rate, he now stands on a very cruel pedestal for a monastic who tried to free people from the idolatry of inordinately focusing on a single charismatic personality. And it seems that there is cruelty to Fr. Seraphim himself, of the sort one would associate with vengeful, schadenfreude-laden claims of poetic justice, except that it was quite the opposite of poetic justice: he challenged guruism, and did his best to dodge it, but his standing today is that of a polestar of a guru who serves as a primary orienting figure to a significant following of Orthodox Christians (you can call them “Orthodox fundamentalists”) where the sun rises and sets on the Master’s teachings.

This is a cruel pedestal, as it would be cruel to celebrate an environmentalist hero by starting many forest fires (in non-pyrogenic ecosystems) to celebrate by the beauty of great leaping flames. I have not read what Fr. Seraphim’s response to his pedestal actually was, but the image comes to mind of Francis of Assisi returning to his movement’s apparent success and being a lone dissent who was utterly aghast that the “success” that had been achieved was his followers’ desertion of his, and their, ever-faithful Lady Poverty.

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

I would like to modify a position I strongly endorsed, albeit in a way some might call superficial.

Dorothy Sayers wrote about how, in recent centuries in the West, there has been a belief that “ideas grow rust like machines and need to be replaced.” And that deliberately crude image spoke to me. Ideas may be wrong from the very beginning and need to be replaced; but the quote “an idea whose time has come” embodies something very strange. The doctrine of progress is tied to this, so that each new idea whose time has come improves the overall picture.

That much I still hold fast to, but with a caveat. I do not believe in progress (one friend summarized the academy as saying “We’ve progressed enough not to believe in progress”), but I do believe that fashion exists and can sometimes have a spooky effect. Mathematicians are well-advised, if they find a solution to a major unsolved problem, to submit it as soon as possible. The core reason is that it is a historically common phenomenon for a question in mathematics to be unsolved for quite some time, and then be solved by several mathematicians independently. And on this count, mathematics would be expected to be perhaps the least Zeitgeist-shaken academic discipline. There are some things that change over time; the standard of mathematical rigor was rising when I was studying it, and the history of the parallel postulate in geometry shows a now-respected mathematician as working out an entirely valid non-Euclidean geometry and then publishing work under the title Euclid Freed From Every Flaw, is not today’s mindset. However, as a general rule, theorems do not go out of fashion. And still mathematics, relatively free from Zeitgeist fashions as it might be, manifests a phenomenon where major problems remain unsolved for a considerable time and then simultaneously be solved by multiple mathematicians. The same has been observed in other areas as well; Nobel Prizes are given to two or three people who make the same discovery almost simultaneously, and independently.

The question of when the automobile was invented is messy and is not “Why, Henry Ford!” even if Henry Ford invented a mass production that drastically reduced the price of an automobile. There is a similar simultaneity, and I’ve read an author enumerate a dozen mechanical inventions, all of them an automobile or something like an automobile, in the West over a short period of time. Questions come into play of, “Where do you draw the line?” and there are what might be called shades of grey or judgment calls. I’m not saying that there can be no decisive resolution to these questions, but unless you settle on the oldest, incomplete candidate, answering “When was the automobile invented?” in a responsible hinges on looking at several vehicles or devices, that were automotive at least in part, and were invented in a surprisingly close interval of time.


I would like to illustrate a particular point, and clarify what modification I mean to a standard trope. Phrases like “An idea whose time have come” partly describe a pattern of trends and partly frames things in terms of progress: “An idea whose time has come” is always a gain and never a loss. By contrast, I have come to share belief in the pattern of trends, but in place of framing things as progress, I suggest they be framed in terms of fashion. No one seems to consider that “an idea whose time has come” might be a bad idea that is worse than whatever it replaces. Nor am I the first or only one to frame things in terms of fashion (though my hybrid position might be new, for all I know).

One psychiatrist recounted how the professional community once believed that divorce was so terrible to children that except in the worst and most pathological casess it was worth keeping an very unhappy marriage together so as to avoid inflicting the pain of divorce on the children. Then the psychological community said it progressed to believing that really if a marriage is Hell on earth, the children are really better off with a divorce however nasty divorce may be. Then they claimed to have progressed to realize that an unhappy marriage was horrid, but however horrid it might be on the kids, it really is best to keep the marriage together if possible. His point in this tale of heroism and magic was that the shifts that occurred, both ones he agreed with and ones he didn’t, didn’t represent progress. They represented fashion, and I could envisage him using a term I heard from a quite different figure: “the herd of free thinkers.” Progress, or what at least is labeled as progress, is really more accurately understood as current trends within “the herd of free thinkers.

An example of my own

When I was at Cambridge and my pre-master’s diploma was winding down, I was looking for a topic for a master’s thesis. I wanted to study the holy kiss, and my advisor ridiculed the question and me with it. He asked sarcastic rhetorical questions like “Can we find justification to only kiss the pretty people at church?” When I persisted, he consulted with another scholar and came back, without ridicule, saying the question was under-studied. (This is, by the way, an extreme rarity in academic theology; usually scholars try to find some vestige of unexplored turf and when they fail at that, write things like rehabilitating a founder of heresy, as the Archdruid of Canterbury has done with Arius the father of all heretics.) Furthermore, things never sat well with the department, which kept pushing my work into the pigeonhole of what German scholars called Realia, meaning physical details (other examples of questions of Realia might be what kind of arms and armor a first Christian would have seen a Roman soldier carry, and would have given shape to the words by which St. Paul closes the letter to the Ephesians, or what kind of house would provide the backdrop to Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about putting a lamp where it will illuminate the whole house. I am not aware of any Cambridge faculty member who was open to the idea that the “divine kiss” (as St. Dionysius the Areopagite called it) might be studied under the rubric of liturgical or sacramental theology.

My desire and interest was a doctrinal study, and my advisor there, who was Orthodox, kept pushing what I was doing into an unedifying sociological study of kissing that involved a great deal of Too Much Information, with lowlights such as the assigned Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. I tried to draw a line in the sand, saying that I wanted to do “a doctrinal study.” He immediately laid down the law: “The best way to do that is to do a cultural study and let any doctrines arise.” Other help that he offered was to suggest that narrowing scope would be helpful, and suggested that it would be a good bailiwick to study “differences between Christian and Jewish understanding of kissing in the Song of Songs.” I held my tongue at saying, “That’s impressive. Not only is that not what I wanted, but that doesn’t overlap with what I wanted.” And then, two thirds of the way through the year, the department decided that my study of the holy kiss was off-topic for the Philosophy of Religion seminar that had been selected for me, and I pulled out all the stops to write, as was demanded, a vastly different Artificial Intelligence as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skepticsthat left all my prior thesis work as wasted.

So what’s out there? What did my research turn up?

What kind of doctrines did I pull up? Someone, perhaps with wishful thinking, who wanted the holy kiss to be important might try to attach it somewhere under the rubric of Holy Communion. The last prayer before Holy Communion does the opposite: it places Holy Communion under the heading of the holy kiss. How? “Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss:” neither like Judas will I give you a hollow kiss, betraying this kiss and you yourself by receiving the Holy Mysteries and then not even try to live a holy life. Incidentally, although there are ancient precursors, it is remarkably recent, 20th century or possibly 19th if I recall correctly, that the ethical concern represented by “a kiss can be seductive” appears in Orthodox theology. In the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections, the kiss that is wrong is pre-eminently a kiss like that of Judas, the kiss of betrayal which Orthodox remember by fasting on Wednesdays, and was a double-layered betrayal: a betrayal of the Lord first of all, and with it a betrayal of everything a kiss, of all things, should be. In patristic times the holy kiss was a kiss on the mouth, and this is doctrinally significant. A Psalm prayed in preparation for Communion says, “Who is this King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war. Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the Lord, the King of Glory, shall enter in.” St. John Chrysostom drives home the implication: “But about this holy kiss somewhat else may yet be said. To what effect? We are the temple of Christ; we kiss then the porch and entrance of the temple when we kiss each other.” If, in my present locale, the holy kiss is three kisses on alternate cheeks, the underlying reality is unchanged: a liturgical kiss, on the cheek, is always by implication a kiss on the mouth, on the gates that receive the Lord. And indeed St. Ambrose pushes further in his remarkable letter to his sister, discussing how we can kiss Christ: part of the unfolding truth is, “We kiss Christ, then, with the kiss of communion.” There is a very tight tie between the holy kiss and Holy Communion, and while there may be much greater laxity about a closed holy kiss than a closed Chalice, according to strict interpretation of the rules a holy kiss is only ever between two canonical Orthodox Christians. In ancient times the closed holy kiss represented an additional boundary besides a closed Communion after the catechumens actually departed. But even today I have heard a priest lightheartedly say after a convert’s chrismation, “You may kiss the convert.” Something of that essence is here, even though nobody I have met makes a big deal about the enforcement of that rule. One last note here, which may be most of benefit to Catholics: In Rome, there is a sharp “do not cross” line between between the sacraments, including Holy Communion, and what are called “sacramentals”, which include the holy kiss. Sacraments are something that Christ might as well have personally etched in diamond; sacramentals are things the Church worked out that are a different sort of thing that is far below Christ’s sacraments. The Orthodox usually list seven sacraments, and they are in general recognizable in relation to the Roman list of sacraments (overall but not in every detail), but the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental is only a difference of degree, not of kind, and people can say things like, “You can say there is only one sacrament, or that there are a million of them.” If there is one sacrament, it is a Holy Communion where nothing else comes close, but the sacramental of the holy kiss is tied to Holy Communion in multiple ways and participates in its essence. My main, brief work on this topic was in fact called The Eighth Sacrament. The title is provocative, but not daring. For one final point on the holy kiss, at least one aspect of a Protestant framing on worship is that worship is something you do with your spirit; there’s a fairly strong association between worship and singing, or worship and listening to a pastor, perhaps, but worship is contained by the spirit alone. The Orthodox understanding, besides recognizing that it is not a slight to Christ to show reverence to His Mother, refers to an act of adoration that is done with spirit and body alike. As to what the act of adoration that encompasses the body, there are variations and some ambiguity, but the Greek πρσκεω refers to bowing or kissing, usually with some ambiguity as to which physical act completes the adoration. The worship due to the Lord is in some measure to kiss him, and there is a profound tie, even if there are important differences too, between worship of Christ expressed by kissing his icon, and worship of Christ expressed by kissing a fellow Orthodox Christian as so much an icon of Christ that he is defined as being built in the image of the whole Trinity. (I find such things as these loads more interested than sociological investigation of kissing as such.)

(Some people may find an irony between my efforts to study the holy kiss that Judas betrayed, and Cambridge University’s constant “improvements” to how I was approaching that study.)

What it was that I pulled up eventually found a home in fiction in The Sign of the Grail, which is presently one of my top-selling titles on Amazon and top fictional work. I will not attempt to reproduce the material here, beyond saying that it is in fact a doctrinal study, that a number of primary sources can be found in a brief search of the Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections, and to the person who read The Eighth Sacrament and asked didn’t I know there was more, I said that there was much more but that represented my attempt to crystallize something in a tight format.

But what I would point to is this: I am not, to my knowledge, a cardinal influencer in what happened. I presumably influenced someone, somewhere, but what was met with repeated hostility became something mainstream. I don’t think that I was a primary influence in that I met with people who never seemed to recognize me as a pioneer or having already made serious investigation. My suspicion is that had I never touched the matter, it would have still been explored; I may have been the first person to publicly note one particular point, that the holy kiss is the only act the Bible calls holy, but had I never investigated the topic at all, other people would have, and my suspicion is that without me the holy kiss is still a sacramental that would have been studied as doctrinally significant and seen in continuity with sacramental and liturgical theology, and that none of the dubious help I received at Cambridge (such as classifying the holy kiss as Realia and therefore not rightfully subject to direct doctrinal investigations) would have been the last word. I think my inbox has been quiet on this topic for a few years, but when I was getting people contacting me and wanting to inform me about the holy kiss, we were usually on the same page. (I do not recall any nonscholar trying to steer the conversation to fit under the heading of Realia.)

And I would suggest that this basic plot and pattern of events are more or less generic. First I was rudely dismissed, then people kept more rudely pushing my work away from what I asked explicitly, and then some years later when I had practically forgotten the discussion, I was caught off guard by people opening up conversations about the holy kiss. And I may not have “won” in the sense of acquiring a pedestal (good riddance!), but the subject was no longer met with hostility such as was first faced, and some people found it to be of interest. (I have never gotten a disrespectful response on the topic after the point where people started to contact me on the topic.)

It is my general experience that gifted and profoundly gifted people are not, in fact, unaffected by the Zeitgeist. Often they may want to challenge the Zeitgeist, but it is not characteristic to rise above it, and the more common pattern is to concentrate the Zeitgeist and to run ahead of it, perhaps getting into the game when it is greeted with hostility. In this case, I was disappointed when I realized the topic of the holy kiss had reached the status of being more or less fashionable. I felt, if anything, violated that I had channelled the Zeitgeist, a Zeitgeist that had spoken through my mouth.

While the classification is essentially as irrefutable as Berkeley’s arguments, famously said to “admit no answer and produce no conviction,” I don’t find it helpful to say, “If your birthday falls before this year, you are ancient; if your birthday falls in this range, you are medieval; if your birthday falls in this range, you are a modern; if your birthday falls after that range, you are a postmodern.” Some people have noted that not only are engineers modern, but they probably do not know a postmodern, even though postmodern students are easily enough found in other fields. Speaking personally, I’ve been wary of postmodernism, but I have recognized points of overlap. I have been interested in thick description for more than a decade before I heard the term, and what I most want to know in history is “the way it really was,” which is a boilerplate postmodern desire as far as history goes. The postmodern figures I know could justifiably regard me as making an undue claim to insider status if I claimed to also be a postmodern, but I see more continuities now than I would like, or that I did before.

(I might briefly point out that “thick description” and “the way it really was” remains fundamental and guiding principles in the endeavor of this article, where a synopsis would be much easier to write, much briefer, and much easier to read. I could simply state that I pursued scholarly research into the holy kiss years before it was fashionable to do so, and that I sought a doctrinal, and sacramental or liturgical, study of the holy kiss where a respected Orthodox scholar only saw legitimate room for a secular history of kissing. That much is true, but it is a sketched outline where my hope is to portray something in depth and full living color.)

Other examples

One friend talked about how a boy entered an Orthodox altar to serve as an acolyte, and the priest brusquely told him to unvest, leave the altar, take off his tie, and come back without his tie; the stated reason was, “You are not a slave!”

This was presented as counter-cultural, and it may have been such at some point. However, it fits with another conversation where a business owner had individual contributors wear ties, managers wear a suit and tie, and the owner wore a suit and no tie. Last I seriously checked in, the professional jobseeker fashion was for men not to wear ties.

I might mention, by the way, that when something is taking credit for being countercultural, it’s usually a mainstream fashion before too long.

Last example for now: it is presented that violin-making is a “fossil trade.” This trade may be mostly or exclusively practiced by violinists; I doubt I could produce a decent violin personally unless I had enough exposure to recognize good and bad-quality violins. Possibly I could learn enough to be a luthier without developing the level of skill appropriate to public performance; but I rather guess that takes less practice to be able to perform well in public than to be in a position to make a good violin. And on that score, I met or heard of one luthier, introducing violin-making as a “fossil trade”, and then the count quickly escalated to something like half a dozen. On which point I suggest that it’s a turn in fashion, and the number of people embracing the new fashion is chiefly limited by the fact that most people have never been trained to play a violin. (I’ve never, to my recollection, heard a musician say, “I play the violin but I am not interested in becoming a luthier.”)

Icon and Idol

There is something about the theology of icons in Orthodoxy that looms so large that I missed something.

In one passage that I have never heard Orthodox quote, Herod dressed royally, gave a stunningly good speech, and the people who were listening shouted “The voice of a god and not a man!” and when he accepts this praise and fails to give God glory, God infests him with worms and kills him.

This is as good a place as any I see to introduce the distinction between an icon and an idol. And please do not see the distinction in terms of “If an Orthodox Christian makes it with paint and gold on wood it is an icon, and if a Hindu makes it a statue with many arms it is an idol.” I don’t remember what they are, but I’ve heard from Hindus some very nuanced thoughts about god(s) and idols. For that matter, I don’t especially wish to discuss idols in relation to Graeco-Roman paganism, even though they, and Old Testament ancestors, form the basis for the universal Orthodox condemnation of idolatry. I wish to articulate a distinction, not from comparative religion as such, but as a distinction within Christianity.

Probably the #1 metaphorical name for icons is “windows to Heaven”, and the theology that St. John the Damascene among others articulated is that the honor paid to an icon passes on to the prototype. Honor to an icon of a saint honors the saint; honoring the saint honors Christ. While I am not aware of people using the term “icon” in reference to the saints’ lives, reading the saints’ lives is strongly encouraged for beginner and expert alike, and what it is that’s really worth reading in saints’ lives is that you see to a small degree the face of Christ, otherwise it’s not worth reading. This theology undergirds structures, and supports an understanding of the human person as made in the image of God, which I have not seen disowned in Western Christianity, but it grows on poor soil. Although terms like ‘icon’ and ‘image’ are not used in this specific passage, looking on and treating people as the image of Christ is given a chillingly sharp edge in Matthew 25:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, â”Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, “Depart from me, ye who are damned, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.” Then shall they also answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not serve thee?” Then shall he answer them, saying, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

The damned are damned because they failed to love and honor the icon of Christ, and the insult might have as well been made to Christ personally. That’s how he felt it.

With all of these things said, and I am really not trying to shoehorn a place to save the Greek fathers’ teaching that we should become divine, Herod was not destroyed because he allowed himself to divine honor. He was destroyed because, receiving divine honor, he failed to pass it on to God whom it properly belonged to. Given the choice between letting honor pass on through him to the creator, and keeping it to himself, he chose to stop the honor from rising higher, and that is the difference between being an icon and being an idol.

Orthodox who like me (or for that matter Orthodox who don’t like me, but are choosing to be polite) pay a respect whose contours are set by the Orthodox theology of icon and image: I am respected for being made in the image of God, not for being godlike on my own. Respect for my writing has drawn, if I may mention my most-cherished compliment, “You write verbal icons!” The respect paid to my writing is a subordinate respect to works that salute One greater than them, and the respect paid to me is a subordinate respect that salutes One greater than me. I am respected for being to some degree divine by grace (people wanting a Biblical proof-text may cite 2 Peter 1:4 which dares to call us “partakers of the divine nature”); I am not in any sense honored as being a god in some sense independent of the Creator or stopping with me instead of referring glory to the Creator. Evangelicals often like my works, and while they may not have the doctrine of the image of God defined in such articulate and sharp contours, there is some continuity in respect I have received. Specifically, it is practically always a subordinate respect, and my works are praised as drawing them to God. There is a tale, true or apocryphal, of a visiting African pastor who came to the U.S., and after observing things, said, “It is amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit!” Evangelicals have never praised me for being great without needing God’s help, and if they did it would most likely be sarcasm or a stinging rebuke, almost on par with saying that something is “more important than God.” Among both Orthodox and Evangelicals, whatever the differences may be, to be great is to be permeated by God’s grace.

I will comment briefly, for the sake of completeness, on one point where I am just a beginner. The saints do not seek ordinate human honor; they usually try to dodge all human honor at all whether or not that honor is ultimately referred to God, and some among them have immediately left town, without any sort of modern vehicle, if that is what it took to dodge human honor after their gifts had been discovered. I am not at the stature to do that, at least not yet. However, hostility and abuse come quickly nipping at the heels of honor, and I am trying to progressively restrain searching for human honor or accepting unsought human honor. My author bio has become progressively shorter, and at present the main glory I claim is that of a member of the royal human race. The more time passes, the more I think that seeking human honor is a fundamental error, a way of “drinking out of the toilet” that deserves a section in A Pet Owner’s Rules as something that, if you know what you’re doing, you really, really don’t want to do. On that score, I count myself fortunate that, while I was a forerunner who ran ahead of the Zeitgeist in study of the holy kiss as a legitimate matter of doctrinal study, I didn’t acquire a pedestal in reward for my endeavors. That’s about as much winning as I’d ask.

And there is one other point to mention: usually, people who have respected me have respected me like some minor icon. I had guessed, with excusable but near-disastrous naïvete, that if in the future I am put on a pedestal, I will receive more of the same and I will serve as an icon in not the best position. Now I believe it far more likely for me to put on a pedestal as an idol rather than an icon. The Church does legitimately place people on pedestals as icons; I believe that the practice of choosing bishops from the pool of monks is, without judgement against the married, a good monastic may have a fighting chance of surviving and functioning effectively in an ordeal where the title of “Bishop” has a job description of, “Whole burnt-offering without remainder.

The Orthodox Church can, at least sometimes, put an icon on a pedestal…

…but the Zeitgeist only knows one trick: putting an idol on a pedestal, adapting an icon to function as an idol if need be.

A cloud the size of a man’s hand

St. James, the brother of the Lord, wrote, “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” This is extraordinarily terse compared to the Old Testament narrative, albeit completely faithful. But I would like to give just one vignette not unfolded in this shorthand reminder about the story: it has been a long time since it rained, and there is a deep famine, and there has been an ongoing rivalry with multiple dimensions between the wicked King Ahab and St. Elias. There is the great contest with the prophets of Ba’al; St. Elias, who has suggested that (in modern terms) “Maybe Ba’al isn’t answering your hours of frenzied prayer because he just can’t come into the phone now,” asks that his one prophet’s sacrifice to the God of Israel be drenched with excessive /mounts of water. (Saltwater, perhaps: freshwater may have been extremely hard to come by, and rare enough to make a terrible famine, but any time during the famine you could go to the Red Sea and take as much particularly salty saltwater as you could carry.) After Ba’al had already failed to get off his porcelain throne, St. Elias makes one single prayer and calls down fire from Heaven that consumes his entire dripping sacrifice.

That story is famous; but there is a slightly less famous dramatic detail that is worth noting. St. Elias told his servant to go and look out by the sea. The servant comes back, and says, “I see nothing.” St. Elias, who had told the servants to pour water on his sacrifice again after it was already quite wet, and then for good measure asked for water to be poured a third time on already drenched it again. But for the servant, he goes six times reporting nothing, anad the seventh time he barely says, “I see a cloud the size of a man’s hand.” At that point St. Elias sends his servant to tell King Ahab to get in his chariot and get back to his castle before he would be trapped in mire by the deluge.

If you are profoundly gifted, and you think of or take a position that is attacked and ridiculed beyond due measure (and, honestly, make a good allowance for due measure), it is my suspicion that the opinion you are ridiculed for will be the fashion in 5-10 years, or longer if it’s something profound. I try to respectfully welcome visitors to my website, although some people have clearly stated that I have failed in that measure, but I pay particular attention to profoundly gifted who contact me, not because they are better than other visitors, but out of survival instinct (and recognition of a shared experience, a bit like another actor who had the cumbersome side of equal fame would be on the same page as Leonard Nimoy about sneaking into restaurants by the kitchen, and that I had better therefore try to listen hospitably). Those emails usually provide an advisory that’s a bit like insider trading, though I have never made a financial decision that was influenced by the outcome of such conversation. They, in essence, by running ahead of the Zeitgeist, let you know what’s coming. And the profoundly gifted I meet usually see something that I don’t.

Chris Langan, considered the most gifted member in almost all ultra-high-IQ society (or some might give that accolade to Paul Cooijmans), has worked on a CTMU or “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe”, pronounced “cat-moo” by insiders, with homepage at CTMU.org, which I don’t agree with: one conversation helped me see the need to write works such as “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution after I left him flabbergasted by saying I was not interested in cosmology. (Note: In the years after I wrote “Religion and Science” Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, things have shifted almost to a point that alleging some opponent of “scientism” is in and of itself halfway there to, “A hit, a very palpable hit!” And again I am not a prime actor.) However, I am inclined to regard Chris Langan’s CTMU as significant on the evidence by how hard people fight against it alone. I know that some profoundly gifted individuals suffer from mental illness, and in fact I believe mental illness is significantly more likely among the profoundly gifted than otherwise. He is called a crackpot, but meeting him face-to-face and conversing via email do not give me any reason for agreeing with the label about him as a person. Every interaction I’ve had with him has had him looking brilliant and in touch with reality. It’s possible enough to be brilliant, in touch with reality, and wrong, but I have not heard of any critic recognize one point which is consensus under the tail end of the high-IQ community: that he is bright such as few people ever set eyes on. Characteristic of the reception of the CTMU is that its main page on Wikipedia was deleted, but its CTMU Wikipedia talk page is still there. Possibly the CTMU does not lend itself to experimental investigation: but we live in a time where superstring theory is very much in vogue, and where we are very hard-pressed to find a feasible or even infeasible experiment where superstring theory predicts a measurably different outcome from the best predecessor theories, and it is genuinely provocative to say “Physics is an empirical, hard science and as such is not validly practiced without claims being accountable to being tested by experiment.” And maybe we should remember, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” If we are going to join in the euphoria about superstring theory, perhaps we would do well to give the Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe a fair hearing. The main reason I believe it is significant is that it is ridiculed well beyond the hostility that greeted my study of the holy kiss. He is consistently and repeatedly dismissed as a sheer crackpot, but people do not spend anywhere near that much energy dismissing genuine crackpots as crackpots. I continue to believe in the conceptual framework’s significance even if I do not subscribe to it.

Not all clouds in the sky are tied to giftedness. I saw a major step towards Nazification in Amazon, and then Apple, drop anything bearing a confederate flag faster than a hot potato. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus made quite an opposite point in saying that if a Klu Klux Klansman wanted to injure black America, he could scarcely do better than promote Afrocentrism. Here, it may be said that white racism has had a bad name for quite a long time. That doesn’t mean that it was ever nonexistant, but most whites at least tried to not be racist, or become less racist. Here it might be said that if you want “white nationalism” (great job on the layer of whitewash, but befriend a “white nationalist” on Facebook and your feed will have Nazi flags and news articles with comments fantasizing about “[insert alternate spelling of the N-word]” criminals being lynched) to attract droves of new followers, and make white racism respectable in many places where it is not at all respectable now, you can scarcely do better than to continue flipping the bird at white descendents of the Confederacy. The significance of Amazon dropping displays of the Confederate flag is not that some goods were delisted or that the censorship affected some people’s income; the significance is essentially an announcement of a new direction in policy, as illustrated in a very first installment. I don’t know who’s safe as this enlightening policy goes; I have serious difficulties believing it will remain confined to black-white relations in race, or that purges will remain only in the South. I don’t consider myself safe, and I honestly am not sure that even people trying to be politically correct are safe. At the French Revolution, there was serious scope creep in the public enemies who were sent to the guillotine, a monstronsity that at the end was killing cleaning maids and children seven or eight years old with people standing by the foot of the guillotine to be sprayed by the enemies of states’ blood and eat their still-living flesh. And this happened in an educated Republic. The present removal of venerated public statues is not a final installment; it is if anything a reminder that the overhaul is just beginning. But there was a cloud in the sky the size of a man’s hand when Amazon dropped the Confederate flag. I have come to believe some non-Southern perspectives, that yes, the Confederacy was fighting for States’ rights, but the States’ rights were chiefly the right to maintain slavery. But the moral I take is not that white Southerners are being asked to make a few adjustments; the moral I take is that we would be well advised to read “The Cold Within” and that those of us who are not white Southerners should not say “This does not concern us.” The classic poem “The Cold Within” reads:


Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.

Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.

The next man looking’cross the way’
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.

The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.

The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.

It’s not often that I quote an ecumenist poem as authoritative. In this case the point is universally human, and while I believe in an Orthodox closed communion, I believe that nothing that is truly human should be foreign to me.

A change in experience

It was sometime in the past few months that I began asking pastoral questions about what to do with someone who is in awe of me.

The motivation and intended nuance, which I did not end up making clear, could be outlined as follows. Years back, my Mom invited neighbors across the street to some minor social function. They hesitantly said, “No,” not because the suggestion was unwelcome but because it would create a scheduling conflict, and they wanted to know, in effect, whether their “No” had alienated her. She was pretty quick to answer, “This is valuable!” She explained that now that she knew they would be willing to say “No” to a suggestion that would be less that ideal for them, or a scheduling conflict, or… Now part of this was politeness or a gracious response, but I believe she genuinely meant what she said about knowing they would be willing to say “No” when they should say “No,” and she was genuinely grateful for a safety-net of “I can extend an invitation and not worry about whether they’ll give a ‘Yes’ they shouldn’t be giving.” And in that framework, I was motivated by a difficulty. Most visitors have and maintain boundaries. Not that everything is perfect, but my visitors have been willing both to say “Yes” and “No,” and in general do not seem to worry about dealing a capital insult if they happen to say “No.”

Boundaries matter, even if I’ve voiced serious objections to Cloud and Townsend, and I felt myself in the uncomfortable position of negotiating with someone who was defenseless before me, who was too far below me in his conception to express a boundary, who would only answer “Yes” no matter how destructive a “Yes” would be, and where any knowledge that I sometimes sin and I am sometimes wrong exists only on a purely academic plane. I know there are cultures where this kind of dynamic is normal and something people can deal with, but I felt really uncomfortable and really at a loss.

The pastoral advice I received was helpful, particularly in a reminder that people that, to a one, shout “Hosanna!” and spread palm branches are entirely capable of shouting, to a one, “Crucify him!” five days later. And in Christ’s case the earlier accolades were accurate, and higher accolades would have been justified. In my case the “Hosanna!” is in fact not justified, and as I was reminded of the toxic nature of all human praise. (I am looking forward to the possibility in monasticism of being under the authority of an Abbot who treats everyone with deep respect, but might not give a single compliment, or at least not to me.)

And things like this, though varied and though I wish to refrain from providing thick description’s details out of concern for others’ privacy, have become a consistent fixture. Though varied in detail, the attempt is to place me on some minor pedestal, on terms that are unreal to me, and probably unreal to me because they are unreal to God. I regard it as very fortunate that the inundations of compliments have, by God’s grace, appeared utterly unreal to me. Future temptations will probably be more subtle.

Clearing away a distraction: NF goggles

David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me (I prefer the first edition to the more than the second) is one introduction to classical temperament theory. The book has hypocrisy as well as strengths; it is eminently nonjudgmental in describing one temperament’s liability to promiscuity, or another doing whatever their system of ideas calls for, or another’s doing what their spiritual path calls for, but when one temperament tends towards chastity or fidelity, it is described in language that is at once clinical, and the most degrading language in the entire book: metaphors are used as a basis to this temperament with seeing sex as basically a merely economic commodity, or something like being physically dirty or clean. Classic postmodern hypocrisy here.

However, there is one particular point that I wanted to pull: the “iNtuitive Feeling” or “NF” type, which is ascribed what might be the most striking characteristic in the book: they appear to other people, without any effort on their part to cause this, to be whatever the other person would most like them to be. People look at them through rosy “NF goggles,” if you will. I think I can usually detect NF’s, albeit indirectly: I am drawn to another person, especially women, to a degree that is out of step with that person’s attractiveness and the social setting, even though there is very little I have directly observed as signs of what is going on (the one cue I notice is that about half the time they appear close to crying). My guess is that this boils down to a layer of nonverbal communication that is possibly very subtle, even if it is still very effective and does not apply, or applies far less, to email and other basic electronic communication that flattens nonverbal signals beyond emoticons.

A question might be raised of, “How little or much of an NF are you?” Before Orthodoxy I considered myself to be at the boundary between “NT” (“iNtuitive Thinking”) and NF, called NX, and wanting to shift towards NF. In Orthodoxy I found that silence that I desired personally was not my particular personal trait, but something normative, and the Orthodox Church’s hesychasm or silence is bigger than what I had. Similarly, the Orthodox Church out-NFed me by making normative observations like, “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” In both cases the Orthodox Church’s answer was to challenge me to go further. And that raises at very least the possibility that I am close enough to (or far enough into) NF territory that some people see me through NF goggles.

I admit this as a possibility, and furthermore a possibility I think is at least probable. There is always some ambiguity and I do misunderstand some social setting, but there have been face-to-face encounters where someone seemed to really like me as something I wasn’t. I’ve worked hard to write well and I’ve received some very rosy compliments, but usually the reader and I are on the same page about what a particular work is doing. (Most strands of criticism are also usually something I can recognize as a response to something I wrote.) My writing is usually not taken to be whatever the reader would like it to be. So while I admit a likely NF layer to people drawn to me in person, the majority of the encounters where I’ve been offered a pedestal have been online, with people who have not met me face-to-face, or electronic communication that preserves nonverbal information such as Skype’s offerings. So the question of whether my nonverbal communication is enchanting is largely beside the point. Whether the answer is true or false, the question is irrelevant.

A tentative conclusion

I remember thinking, “My website hasn’t really changed; why is the response to it changing?” And then I came to a “Yes, but…” answer. Most of what I consider the best works are relatively old, at least a couple of years; the only one I would consider “inspired” (in a broad and secular sense) is Eight-Year-Old Boy Diagnosed With Machiavellian Syndrome By Proxy (MSBP), which I would genuinely place alongside Evangelical Converts Trying to Be Orthodox and Pope Makes Historic Ecumenical Bid to Woo Eastern Rite Catholics for quality. The previous Monasticism for Protestantsand this work itself I consider to serve a legitimate purpose not served by anything else among my posts, but they are not classics.

So why, if my website hasn’t grown any major new features for quite some time, why would it be drawing fundamentally different response? The answer is simple, and one I should have predicted: I’ve run ahead of the Zeitgeist, whether I had the faintest intent of doing so or not. Whether or not it’s the same article, some of what I wrote may draw people more effectively now than when they were fresh and new.

And the question of a pedestal weighs on my mind. Advertisements run repeatedly because people don’t fall for a product the first time they see an advertisement targeted to them; they fall after repeated familiarity. Only humility can pass through certain snares: and I am scarcely humble. I see the possibility that, some time after I have seen five or so clouds the size of a man’s hand, a deluge will break forth. And I would really prefer the storm hit me when I am on Mount Athos, as a novice under the authority of an Elder, who does not care how smart I am and who sees that I have the same needs as many other novices, such as humility and obediences that build humility. Possibly I will not escape the deluge by getting to Mount Athos before it breaks: but I’ll take my chances with a loving Elder rather than my own wisdom.

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Legend has it that a sage was going to leave his locale, and a guard asked for a guide to live by. And so the sage left the Dao De Jing and disappeared, seemingly without further trace.

On this point I do not care if the legend is history: speaking as one with interest in the humanities, it does no violence to the text to read the Dao De Jing in this light, and speaking as a one interested in history I know that I am at some remove from a position where I could offer informed opinion whether the legend should be seen as historical.

My intent, though, and my point in reading it, is to offer a survival guide for the profoundly gifted, and one that speaks to adults as well as perhaps children.

On this point, at least, I am taking a break from tradition. The originator of the concept of IQ was Darwin’s envious cousin Galton, who wanted some of the fame Darwin had, and wrote a book, Hereditary Genius, which dealt with individuals up to a point, but only to see how good candidates they were for his eugenics platform. In response to that, Leta Hollingsworth was teaching a class that used IQ tests to measure levels of deficiency; and decided also for what it was worth to include an unaffected test subject. Much to the astonishment of any reader who understands statistics, that one person was profoundly gifted, past the “one in a million” mark. She went on to write the thickly descriptive Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development.

Hollingsworth, and her modification to Galton’s eugenics program, have been decisive in effect. For one example that could be called “so close, and yet so far”, she studied gifted children because “adult genius is mobile”, and if interventions are to be useful, they will be of most help in childhood. And she set the programme for gifted education, and for the fact to this day, about half a century after her passing, formal study of giftedness is first and foremost the study of gifted children and only incidentally of gifted adults.

This may be a point on which she should be challenged. One basic point of human psychology which applies in giftedness as much as anywhere else is that “like attracts like.” Children who are gifted and are at a mental age of older children or adults can often find like companionship. Adults who are gifted may have the Internet, and with it gifted organizations, mailing lists, etc., but my response to Hollingsworth is, “Adult genius is mobile? To go where? To some colony or Utopian village which requires IQ above 170?” A gifted child, including profoundly gifted up to a point, stands good chances of social contacts (not via the Internet) who are of similar mental age enough to give a certain comfort. Now profoundly gifted can organize online, in a kind of New Social Movement, meet and have contact with other profoundly gifted, which may or may not be an historical novelty (the foundation of Universities itself was what may be seen as a New Social Movement of profoundly gifted movement in centuries past: Renaissance men), but however helpful it may be to attend to the peculiar needs of gifted children, gifted adults have needs, too.

And so I wanted to give a survival guide, of sorts, with the Dao De Jing taken very loosely as a model. I am not so silent as to leave a scant 81 poems, nor is this intended to directly help Everyman. People who are not profoundly gifted may be free enough to read it, but it is directed towards a few who may need it the most.

The Pearl of Great Price, and a word on anger

There is a C.S. Lewis quote, if I may persist in the Evangelical fashion of incessantly quoting an ecumenism and architect and apologist for ecumenism as we know the heresy today. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about nascent science that emerged in a Renaissance environment practically saturated with the occult:

It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it might be true to say that it was born at an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.

For my first stop after a preamble, I would mention a text connected with a figure I have great trepidation about: Fr. Seraphim (Rose). Whatever might be right or wrong about the deceased monk, the movement that unites in his name is a pest, and he alone has left me wanting to write a title like The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts (consistent one-star reviews saying, “BEWARE,” alleging logical fallacies etc.). Fr. Seraphim and his followers are usually classed as conservative, and I suppose they may be willing to assume the position of law and order in taking charge of Orthodox liberals’ spiritual condition: I may consider myself conservative and consider ecumenism to probably be the ecclesiological heresy of our day, but Fr. Seraphim’s crowd certainly commandeered a positon of law and order in straightening out my own spiritual condition in ways my priest wouldn’t dare.

But in a sense of “Do as I do and not as I say,” there is a profound nugget of wisdom in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Thoughts and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovnica. It is subtle, and some would say occult, in its treatment of barely consciously made curses having extraordinary effect, even if the point is that we should not curse even in the subtlest way.

The essential point is not uniquely Orthodox, but I would put it this way. Between the point where a thought really isn’t active in our minds at all, and when it is genuinely and clearly present with mental images, there is a subtle point of consent that most of us are barely aware of, an opportunity to put out a smouldering candle to be delivered from needing to extinguish a full-fledged fire. This is present in how a psychologist tells addicts that “You have more power than you think.” My recollection of discussions of the book, which I haven’t read and may be portraying incorrectly, is that Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning hinged on the discovery of this freedom in a concentration camp. The nexus is tied to the satyagraha championed by Gandhi and held as precious in India today: one of the bigger compliments I have been given is that it is rare to find this kind of understanding of satyagraha outside of India. There are many contestants for the most politically incorrect verse or passage in the Bible; one that is emphasized in Orthodoxy, especially in Lent, is, “…Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” The patriotic reading is that this refers to barely conscious thoughtlings which we can crush against Christ the Rock, ideally as soon as we can. The longer we let them grow, the more Hell-borne trouble will infest us.

That much is the big picture for this title. The microcosm Elder Thaddeus offers and fleshes out most is in anger; Elder Thaddeus may be faithfully following a tradition where the most deadly of sins is not lust, as the Victorians are rightly or wrongly charged with thinking, or pride such as some Protestants today may think, but anger. And that may seem an un-sexy choice of opponent for the elder to attack, but his choice may make perfect sense. And here a Law of Attraction comes into play. Perhaps we will not by placing our hands on a steering wheel of our SUV and saying “Thank you” (while imagining a much nicer one) thereby manipulate God into giving us more luxury. If there is some kind of Law of Attraction, it is simply not about acquiring luxuries. What is it about, you ask?

Like thoughts attract like thoughts. Thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude attract further thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude, and action with them. Thoughts of lust and anger attract more forceful thoughts of lust and anger, and action with them. And more to the point, thoughts of peace attract harmonious relations with others, and “warring thoughts”, thoughts of anger, bring Hellish conflict. On this point I count one of several anecdotes:

4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.

This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!

This is at best one percent of theology and moral philosophy, and I am quoting it in an instrumental manner, which is to say falsely, or something like that. But in terms of immediate impact, it is front and center of what I have been trying to learn. You will have plenty of opportunities to forgive. Or at least I have. But there is something immensely powerful about the gentleness of spirit dealt with here. In another piece, I wrote a highly redundant piece, The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount. The title at least is worth considering, and is explained in the work. For this whole first point, I would say that the entire arena of morality (or at least that’s how things are cut up: in Orthodoxy, there is ascesis or spiritual discipline, and the field of morality, especially with outcroppings like social morality, does not arise on the same terms) is as important as it can be, but there are crimes that will get you executed in some places, and there are crimes that will get you dead before you get to the police station. For you, this is a crime that will get you dead before you reach the station.

One friend said of his parenting to a parishioner, “I tell my kids that they can say anything they want as long as they don’t use the F-word.” And continued, after a brief pause, “No, ‘Fair,'” and then said (this was a few years ago and may or may not be current) “File [U.S. Income tax forms] and don’t pay, and unless you owe $10000, it’s not worth the IRS’s time to come after you. Don’t file, and the IRS drops the hammer on you.” And there is something here that is not fair. Part of this point is that “A soft answer turns away wrath;” part of this point is meeting anger with meekness. But there is something unfair in that if other people offend here, they may not face particularly bad consequences. If you offend, you may receive a law and order response, or the hammer, or whatever you would like to call it.

Elder Thaddeus makes this question decisive and central, and I’m not sure it deserves that status; I have trouble pulling what he says from what I have seen in the Bible and the Fathers. Some of my attempts to turn the other cheek have met with further ill treatment. However that may be, I have deliberately placed this point as first after introductory comment.

One added remark before moving on to the closely related point of humility: there was a psychology experiment where people were shown brief video clips of doctors, without sound, and asked simply whether the doctor was “nice.” That simple question predicted, at 70% accuracy, whether the doctor would end up getting sued. The point sketched able may be your best shot at being taken to be “nice.”

Humility and pride

I have said earlier that sin, all sin, is like a pet ignoring a water bowl and drinking out of the toilet. Pride chokes off ability to respect others, and ability to enjoy others. But trying to be humble, perhaps under guidance, isn’t just good for what will happen in the next world. It is good for what happens in this world. And this hinges on something unfair again. Pride, arrogance, boastfulness–these benefit precisely no one, and people are rarely drawn to pride. However, pride is even more of a survival liability to the gifted. It offends others more than you have to, and it endangers you more than you have to…

…and it is also a form of stupidity, one you acquire even if natural intelligence does not demand it. Hubris has been described as “blinding arrogance,” and it is the behavior of pride to decide what you want to believe and ignore conflicting evidence that could save you were you to be humble enough to listen.

The proper place of humility is in a montage of interdependent virtues; I have called one to the forefront because of its survival value. You may be able to buy a little space by posturing and flattery, but this is false coin and doesn’t deliver much real weight.

Back in Greece, a member was one school was asked if he was “sophos” or wise, and answered that he was “philosophia” or one who “loved,” partly meaning “sought,” wisdom. The response was humble, or at least trying to act humble. “Philosophy” has meant different things over different times, and there is rich culture shock in people finding Eastern monasticism a much purer philosophy than the sort of thing taught in a philosophy department today. However, practitioners have retained a modest term for over two millennia. And it is perhaps an attitude even more appropriate with reference to humility would be to disclaim being humble, but if asked state that one is seeking humility.

Humility is a profound virtue, it has a great deal to do with the well-ordering of our soul, and there are two ways the profoundly gifted particularly need it. First, it is a sharper survival value and our failings hurt worse in the short term. Second, our gifts (meaning everyone’s gifts, really) are given to humble us. The Philokalia talks about how you can only take credit for actions you.    performed before you were born. Meaning, put vividly, that none of us, not even if we arrive at such purity and growth that we can work miracles, should be taking any credit for ourselves. (God might do so at the Last Judgment, but here now it is not permitted or helpful to us.) How much more, then, if we cannot take credit for even the most heroic of our acts, should we be stuck up for our giftedness, which we did nothing to create or acquire, and indeed could do nothing to create or acquire?

Furthermore, humility has been described as a kind of spiritual honesty. It has been called less of a matter of thinking less of oneself, and more a matter of thinking of oneself less. I was told in response to one confession, “The only true intelligence is humility,” and the honest character of humility really gives something that a sky high IQ plus pride does not. There may be cardinally important differences, and they really matter, and it is not normally helpful to relate to most other people as if they were directly as smart as you, but humility is still even more of a necessity to the profoundly gifted.

In Christian Koans, I wrote:

Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”

The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”

Other people may lack humility and get along fine. We need humility in a much more pointed fashion now, even though our eternal needs are the same.

Blaise Pascal said that there were two types of people in this world: sinners who believe they are saints, and saints who believe they are sinners. The pre-communion prayers speak of “…sinners, of whom I am chief,” and there is more.

There is a valuable lesson to be taken from the U.S. of years past, and possibly also the present: “No one in America is rich.” No one says, or at least said, “I have these luxuries; I am rich.” “Rich” is a word we use to describe someone else with a more rarified level of wealth and possession, perhaps with something we covet: whether a more prestigious brand of car, or a nicer house, or a better position in the stock market. Perhaps under present economic conditions some Americans are starting to wise up that a house you own, with a mortgage, an income, and a working car are nothing to sneeze at. But there is still much of the earlier attitude, and precious few Americans are “rich”; “rich” refers to wealthier people whose wealth and property one covets. The wealth and property one already has is, or at least was, taken for granted.

I propose that the above attitude can be lifted to a higher plane. None of us are humble; we seek the priceless treasure of humility, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, see the humility we have. Instead we see humble people around us, or humility in the saints’ lives, but no matter how much we have it should be nothing in our eyes, and we have an insatiable search for more.

The above version of the Law of Attraction, and humility, are two points taken from an encyclopedia’s worth; I have wondered if I have shortchanged humility by giving it too few words. But let’s move on.

Communication under the “Theory of Alien Minds”

In Profoundly Gifted Magazine Interviews Charles Wallace Murry of A Wind in the Door, I discuss what might be called a “theory of alien minds” which reaches beyond the psychological “theory of other minds:”

Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?

Charles Wallace: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes?

Charles Wallace: Asperger’s Syndrome.

Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?

Charles Wallace: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…

I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!

The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.

Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appopriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.

The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invador, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)

Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?

Charles Wallace: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”

Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”

A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; To pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.

The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.

In conversation, I’ve found people somewhat repulsed by the title of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title sounds gimmicky, or worse Machiavellian. It sounds like a way to manipulate and use people. However, it has (some would argue) a legitimate place, and some of us who have read the title prefer to deal with others who are following its lead. I’ll refrain from simply condensing the title; rather, I will take its summary key points and address how they relate to us who are profoundly gifted, with some adaptation in the process. This partial expansion is not intended to replace or supplant original text, but stand in its proper position after one has taken an hour or two to read Carnegie. I also after some thought am not covering all his chapters; there is a limit to what I have to say here that is useful.

  1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. This one also makes Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, and there is a general principle in Orthodoxy that we should be strict with ourselves and lenient with others. I would suggest further: Don’t cause culture shock, at least if you can avoid it or unless you are willing to deal with the consequences. You see options that others can’t. That’s a blessing, but one thing that plays out is that people in a culture will make sense of what they see in terms of the options the culture defines as possible or even thinkable. Furthermore, there is negative attribution at play. “Negative attribution” is a phenomenon where actions that are not understood are assumed to have dishonorable, shady motives. It takes some doing for you to come to understand what makes culture shock, but if nothing else be aware of it, and be aware that causing culture shock comes with a social price tag.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation. Orthodox may take issue with this in some part; some regard frequent compliments as spiritual poison, either dodging them or calling them Devil’s talk. Which, perhaps, they can be, and perhaps “guilty as charged.” But there is another shoe to drop. Compliments may be spiritually toxic and feed spiritual disease, but we are called to infinite respect. It is decreed in at least one monastic rule that guests “are to be received as Christ himself;” the chilling end of Matthew 25 clarifies that whatever we do for the very least beggar we have done for Christ himself. There is perhaps no need, really, to give a diet of compliments, but the respect or disrespect we show to our neighbor is, come Judgment Day, respect or disrespect we have shown the King returning in glory.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want. What precedes this statement in Carnegie’s chapter here is more than is really summarized; subsumed under “Arouse in the other person an eager want” is seeing things from the other’s perspective and speaking in terms of what the other person would find attractive. This, for profoundly gifted, is squarely a matter of “theory of alien minds” competence, and I will not speak further here than give one generically geek example. It has to do with when someone, having had a frustrating experience with technology, calls in the geek and the geek sees what principle or whatever it is that the user failed to understand, uses the moment to try to explain the principle the user needs, and meets with forceful existence. Geeks don’t like this situation; some of them in great frustration have asked, “Don’t they have any curiosity?” To this I would say, “You don’t seem to be showing much curiosity about people. ‘At the end of their rope’ is not the usual example of a teachable moment, at very least not with computer difficulties.” As far as spiritual growth goes, amazing things are sometimes learned at the end of one’s rope: one chapel speaker said, “God’s address is at the end of your rope.” However, it is simply not helpful to give a technology lesson to someone who is exasperated and stressed out. Similar technology lessons might make complete sense another day, when the other person is relaxed and in a good mood. However, there really is something to be said about taking an active interest in other people, and trying to get inside the other person’s head, and communicate in terms they will find attractive, not just what comes most naturally to you.
  4. Become genuinely interested in other people. One friend identified herself as “a psychologian,” and it was fascinating to me to watch her turn her whole attention to a younger woman and see how she worked. We think today of psychology today as the discipline that understands people, but it was historically an alternative to the understanding of people provided by religion. There is another embodied sense in literature, and there are ways a literature major may understand a person better than a psychology major. But in any case, knowing people should be at least one of your chosen areas of expertise. You owe it to yourself, and others!
  5. Smile. And if you’re one of those people like me who is not very animated by nature, it might not hurt to go to improv classes. (At least a conceptual understanding of method acting might also help.)
  6. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Carnegie does not discuss standard memory techniques such as are discussed in Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory; there is some debate how useful such techniques are, and they may or may not help. However, it is helpful by some means to learn. And this principle is a token of respect for a whole person. If a business says “You’re a name to us, not a number” (as the puzzled secretary at a sprinkler company read an advertisement), that is a claim of respect for the whole person. And if non-semantic information is not your main area of strength, this does not change the relational necessity of learning and using other people’s names. (Perhaps you might memorize the etymology that gives the name?)
  7. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. One expert negotiator was asked, “If I could shadow you for a day, and observe what you do, what in a sentence would I learn?” He said, “I don’t need a sentence. I just need two words: Listen better.” Listening, and a listening attitude, are bedrock to communication, persuasion, negotiation. The more important your message is, the more important it is for learning.
  8. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Make it a spiritual practice of being with other people, perhaps without even discussing their interests. There is a time and a place for persuasion, but even those who deprecate idle talk assume something far greater. Meet people where they are.
  9. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Part of mystagogy is simple: if a person is wrong, and you know that person will not hear correction, you do not correct that person. On Judgment Day, it is better for the other person not to be guilty of hearing the truth and rejecting it, and it is also better for you not to have put the other person in that position. More broadly, argument and persuasion have a place, but the chief means of persuasion is one that a politically incorrect passage from the New Testament advises for the wife of an unbelieving husband. What we say is drowned out by how we live, and in the great scheme of things persuasion by Western logical argument is drowned out by the silent witness of our lives.

Why I am not a disciple of a staretz (or at least, not yet)

A staretz, or spiritual father in the monastic tradition, is one feature of Orthodoxy that is expected of monastics and open to non-monastics. I have heard varying opinions about whether laity should have a staretz. One bishop, perhaps associated with scandal, said that most of us living in the world should not rightly need a staretz, and that one should get the blessing of one’s priest and perhaps bishop before embarking on that unusual choice, even warning it might be out of pride / prelest that such decisions often spring from. Others have suggested that having a bond with a staretz is normal, and that one is limping spiritually to be Orthodox but not participate in that powerfully strengthening relationship.

I am not interested in advancing either of these positions, or criticizing either, beyond saying that I know Orthodox faithful who have their heads on straight and are not disciples of a staretz, and I know Orthodox faithful who regard a relationship with a staretz as a basic essential and also seem to have their heads on straight. There is a slight logistical detail about geographic location that is not of interest here, but what is to the point is the primary reason I do not now have a staretz.

A leading example of due diligence in Orthodoxy is the investigation that a prospective disciple is urged to make before entering obedience to a staretz. There is something of a monastic “Marry in haste; repent at leisure” phenomenon here, in that a prospective disciple is commanded to investigate the staretz, but once obedience has been entered, it is inviolable.

What I have found as a profoundly gifted individual is that a lot of authority figures have issues with the profoundly gifted. I’d like to give one or two examples, but they come from bosses, from professors, from clergy, from medical providers, from family, and it can take ten years for a repeated “No” to take effect.

One example from work

Let me take one example from work. I am deliberately mentioning work (not a first choice for jobseekers) rather than the offenses of someone who is close to me now.

I was brought on board to create a micro site that would supersede previous ways of tracking information about XYZ. I worked hard, and two days into a three week contract (we had already lost one week to administrative / paperwork issues that were not my boss’s fault or my own), I presented my first deliverable, a roughly 50-60% complete solution with an obvious trajectory to fill in the gaps. And let me preface what follows by saying that there are at least three ways in which I don’t believe my boss understood I was doing well because I was operating on a greased track:

  1. The contract was for either Python or Java development, and I used Python with Django, “the web framework for perfectionists with deadlines.” Each of the two languages has its own sweet spot where it vastly outperforms the other, and this specific contract fell squarely in Python and Django’s sweet spot.
  2. Second, I had just finished the publishing process for an IT title where the main software I developed to showcase my tools could serve as an example for what I had. Doing a project the second time through, as long as you avoid what is called “second-system effect”, is almost always faster. A lot faster, in most cases.
  3. In terms of personal working style, I had nearly optimally conditions for how I work best. I am not interested in commenting on what Agile variant or whatever provides the best working conditions overall, but I had a task, clearly defined and well understood in this case, and autonomy to do my best work. There was not much more for me to ask for.

So I came in on a greased track, politely and respectfully submitted my work, initially with pleasure of assurance that I had turned in something good, until my boss started making some very ominous remarks.

I plucked up my courage and asked directly, “How should it be different?”

I was assured that it would be explained in an upcoming meeting with him and one other employee.

In that meeting, I was told that my boss’s boss had asked how things were going with the project. My boss lied to save my skin, or so he said, telling him that we were only in “early planning stages”, with “nothing to show,” and my boss said that his boss was “LIVID“, emoting in a way that suggested he used “livid” because he couldn’t think of a stronger word to convey anger. I was also told, “Your only two friends within the company are in this room,” and that I should be terrifed of anyone else seeing my abysmal work. What the meeting left completely unaddressed was my question of, “Well, how should it be different?” Nothing in the meeting addressed my questions of “If you don’t like it now, how should I change it?” My boss walked out of the meeting looking very, very impressed with himself; he seemed proud for having cleverly defended himself from an attack.

Incidentally, I had run-in with my boss’s boss a day or so before; he asked how things were going, and I showed him pretty much what I showed my boss. He looked slightly bored at a reporting informational answer to what he apparently meant as a purely social question. (Note: this is not a hallmark of a particularly good liar.) I do not think he would have emoted that calmly if he were concealing rage towards me; and I also do not think that if he were in a rage he would let me continue to be employed there.

That was the biggest obnoxious thing that went on; it wasn’t the only one. The runner-up is that as part of his effort to make himself equal to me–and it has been my universal experience that when people try to make themselves my equal, things never go well–is that on one point in particular he spoke in riddles, refusing to give direct answers to my direct questions about what he wanted in the way of change even though he knew exactly what he wanted and he could have stated it clearly. He kept on forbidding me to copy the user interface to some internal-use system, and I thought, “Well enough: I’ll leave that system alone. I’ll refrain from even looking.” This was apparently not good enough; he kept on forbidding. After some point I realized that he wanted me to copy a key user interface feature exhibited by that other system, and when I did the work to copy that feature, the upshot was that I finally got it!

(As an aside, alongside people trying in sometimes nasty ways to make themselves equal to you, they will also sometimes show kindness, after a sort, by acting in a heirarchical relationship above you. Hence you may have people eager to advise you, or teach you, or start to provide unsolicited psychological services and feel very hurt if you politely decline–possibly talking to you for a solid hour without any request on your part–just whatever possible kindness will situate them above you. Now this is reason not to be arrogant as that is the one part of the problem you can most prevent, but even if you show a true and flawless humility, people can get intimidated.)

Another encounter at work

To muddy the waters a bit, this was a position where I requested accommodation for disability, and my boss tried a couple of times to push past the accommodation until I put my foot down. This can’t have improved my standing with him.

There was one major stint of my work that was handed in, and my boss accused me of doing a “fix one, break two,” after getting a bunch of people to find as many bugs as possible. This was an extremely serious allegation of incompetence, and I did not say anything immediately because I wasn’t sure how to respond and it isn’t something I am used to hearing. Then I got the big list of flaws in my work, and it was in fact not a list of flaws in my work. Every single one, without exception, was either a request to handle an ambiguity differently, often to the detriment of the product, or else it was a request for a feature enhancement that was not mentioned on the specifications I was working from. I told him this, and said that it is normal in the workflow for requests to be added, but I asked him not to frame requests for new features as evidence of my incompetence.

My boss never again made a specific allegation as to what was wrong with my code. After some time passed, he said in generic terms that my code was poor quality, and after a bit longer said it was not improved, and fired me.

I didn’t have any talent!

I could read music before I could read English, and as a little boy even… I love to play piano, but at a certain point my parents shut off my lessons and discouraged me when I continued to practice.

What my piano teacher told my mother, years later, was that she felt the need to distance herself from certain friends including my mother and me as connected to her. I might gently suggest another possibility. What she told my mother when discontinuing my lessons wasn’t that I should continue with another teacher. She instead shut down my lessons by telling my mother that I didn’t have any talent.

As one friend who was a piano teacher said, you don’t say that. It might possibly be true, but you don’t say that of your least talented student.

What exactly does “He doesn’t have any talent,” mean?

In this context, among other things, it meant that when I attended a Ken Medema session that was for Wheaton College Conservatory students (but open to others), I was the person who accepted an invitation and found myself placed to give a public performance. So I did, and people found it astonishing: one friend listened to it on tape and said, “That was you? It was beautiful.” That was my first time touching a keyboard in ten years.

My piano teacher couldn’t have known that. What she did know was that I was confused by the standard way of teaching relative pitch. I could do it, but I didn’t see the point, and the reason I didn’t see the point was that I had perfect pitch. And she knew I had perfect pitch.

I might comment that having authority figures trying to rebel against me didn’t begin when I had adult mental function and crude social skills. I’ve had authority figures rebel against me even as a young boy.

An example of a time bomb that blew up

There is also a time bomb aspect to these nasty (non-)surprises. I recall one mailing list where I had a conversation with one contributor, and joined the list for a time. At first the leader of the list said of 1054 and All That, “It tortures my funny bone,” which later changed to, “When you write satire, I grimace and bear it.” The woman who introduced me to the group asked me early on why I was guarded, and said, “We’re among friends.”

Things seemed to be on a sustained even keel for a while, but after a certain point the head of the mailing list increasingly opposed me, publicly attacking what I said and me as a person, which he tried to explain to me was introducing me to friendly candour, and even communicated that he was taking emotional risk and my place and obligation was to to validate and endorse the “friendly candor” he was so boldly poured forth.

I progressively withdrew from the conversation, first from stating opinion, then back from core Orthodoxy, until finally I was trying to make one and just one point. One of the members of the group was having a stressful, and really entirely needless, crisis of conscience: it was during the Nativity fast, and she had an obligation to attend a Christmas party, and she thought there were no exceptions or leniency to the rule of fasting. And at that point I was not interested in scoring points or being right as such; I was acting on a pastoral concern (if laity are allowed to act on pastoral concern) to tell her that there was a legitimate and time-honored exception here: she should go to the festival and enjoy what was offered her with a genuinely clean conscience. And the mailing list leader opposed me here as much as anywhere else: “I reply with three words: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.”

After a side conversation, I made a long post quoting ancient and modern sources in Orthodoxy, and explained that every source in Orthodoxy I had seen apart from the mailing list leader’s response said, in the words of my parish priest sometime back, “Hospitality trumps fasting.”

He locked me from posting on the list.

And there are several other instances like that that I can mention.

The pattern as a whole: and, more specifically why I am not attached to a staretz

The whole incident just mentioned–another was arguably betrayal by an Orthodox priest I looked up to–fed into a moment of “I have no mouth and I must scream,” that appeared in crystallized form in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, which I encourage you to take the time to read, perhaps now. A psychologist might talk about how a professor may have a need to believe “I’m an A and you’re all B’s,” the point being that non-threatening B’s get the A’s and unsettling A’s get B’s or worse. But the insight is hardly a new insight. Someone who knows the Bible well may note a decisive turning point after Paul heard people singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David has slain his tens of thousands.” He asked why he was only credited with thousands, if David was given tens of thousands, and that is pretty much the point where David began to be in serious danger from Saul. For that matter, even fairy tales contain a similar point. Snow White was pretty safe as long as the Queen still heard the answer she wanted when she asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” When the answer became “Snow White,” the Queen, like King Saul, sought noting short of murder.

And on this point this is why I have not sought a staretz. It is beyond a doubt to me that there are many startsy much too mature and humble to actually rebel against their disciples, but what I do hold in extreme doubt is my ability to distinguish them. Sometimes people show their colors immediately; it has also happened that harassment only began years later. I am not saying that I will never place myself under a staretz’s authority, let alone wish to criticize the institution as a whole. I am not interested in convincing people that they shouldn’t be disciples of a starter, or that they should. However, words like “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” and a history of time bombs leave me chary of placing myself under a bond of absolute obedience.

Saying “No” and enforcing that boundary

The standard psychological advice on this point is to give compliments, and show kindness so that anything unpleasant is sandwiched by things that are much more pleasant. And in terms of general social rules, it is good sense for people in general that if you have to say something unpleasant it is best to sandwich it with something more pleasant. For that matter, How to Win Friends and Influence People has much to say about gracefully dealing criticism, and while I am not a psychologist, I can imagine that a piece of routinely given advice to bookworms who find social situations challenging might be, “Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie wrote the book!” None the less, I submit that this boilerplate advice does not apply in the case of profound giftedness, or at least does not scale appropriately. Advice about giving a graceful apology when you have stepped on someone’s toes is inadequate to the situation if you can only wear cleats.

More broadly, I would compare driving on wintry roads after a heavy snowfall in Illinois versus Georgia. In Illinois, a snowfall of several inches is relatively routine. It may never be as safe to drive on snow-packed roads as roads without water, snow, or ice, but if you are exaggerating defensive driving a bit, drive a good bit more slowly, and allow yourself ample stopping room, you stand a significant chance of reaching a goal without an accident. However, in the case that is rarer than a blue moon that Georgia gets an equally heavy snowfall, the rules outlined above leave you significantly more vulnerable, because while in Illinois you are sharing the road largely with drivers who have some sense of what defensive driving on snow looks like, while the situation is far removed from anything they have well-formed habits for. The general psychological advice, cut from the same cloth as How to Win Friends and Influence People, is defensive driving in Illinois snow on roads shared with Illinois drivers. For the profoundly gifted it is taking Illinois defensive driving on snowy roads and trying to make it work in Georgia. (And I’m not trying to take a dig at Georgia; a Georgian is welcome to respond “Georgians don’t know how to drive deep snow and Illinoisans don’t know how to brace for a hurricane, and that’s a bigger deal.”)

But let me mention two situations where I shut down harassment.

One was a gay rights activist and now Roman priest who was essentially a self-appointed guardian of my orthodoxy. For quite a long time, when I posted a new written work, he would post a reply that inevitably did three things: it delivered pain, took me quite a few notches down socially, and lifted him even more notches above me, establishing him squarely as my superior.

After one dressing-down that was particularly offensive, I tried multiple ways to reason with him, and nothing worked: the last email he responded to was one in which I requested “no further unsolicited criticisms on any topic.” He responded, “Ok, I won’t send any more unsolicited criticisms, but I will take emails from you as solicitations for response,” followed by a dose of even more criticism. I then sent a letter, Cc’ed to our email provider, saying, “It seems I have no way of asking you to stop criticizing me so you will respect my wishes. Therefore I tell you that the next unsolicited criticism I receive will be forwarded to the system administrators with a request for disciplinary action.” I haven’t heard from him since.

In another case, someone who I trusted as a friend decided on his own authority that I had Asperger’s and he was going to treat me for it. When I repeatedly failed to opt-in to his diagnosis and treatment, he apparently decided that was not allowed to say no, and that was that. I asked him to stop half dozen or a dozen times, and was answered only by his telling me I was “sending mixed messages”, and his continuing to administer amateur psychotherapy. I sent one “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, Cc’ed to abuse@gmail.com. That killed that conversation as thoroughly as I desired.

It is my experience that when people are responding in their own special way to profound giftedness, your saying “No” is treated as something awfully spongy. It’s almost as if they believe, “If he says ‘No’ when I want him to say ‘Yes,’ that qualifies as a real, genuine ‘Yes.'” However, they know that they are wrong, and a Cc to an authority asking that something stop can something do something that a dozen privately sent “No”s will ever effect. If you are a member of an organization, know and be ready to apply grievance procedures.

And one other point, to be clear: Human Resources won’t always get it. In the job with the meeting where I was told, “Your only two friends in the company are in this room,” I contacted HR about possible harassment. HR’s only available response was to interpret my words about harassment (or hazing, or whatever you want to call it) was to interpret me as complaining that as a consultant I did not have job security, which they answered by explaining to me (as to a child) that as someone on a consulting gig my lack of job security was part of the game. I tried and failed to convey any of the points I was concerned about. And in general I’ve had trouble getting HR to see problems.

So there is a caveat. However, if I am being harassed, I have found the best mileage by saying “No,” perhaps privately at first, but if the private “No” is being pushed past, a “No” that is Cc’ed to an authority can bring remarkable clarity. I’m also not shy about sending a “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, also Cc’ed to an authority.

“So, You’ve Hired a Genius”

Another hacker wrote the original hacker FAQ, and after asking and obtaining permission, I expanded it into So, You’ve Hired a Hacker (Revised and Expanded). The premeir wordsmith in the profoundly gifted community approached me about co-authoring a similar work, So, You’ve Hired a Genius, that would take aim at stereotypes facing profoundly gifted in the workplace.

My response was to reluctantly muddy the waters. (And let me briefly add that I was excited about the topic, and just as excited about the honor of co-authoring the work he did.) The way I muddied the waters was essentially to say, “What you are calling stereotypes are not stereotypes, at least as far as mechanism. They have effects similar to stereotypes, but trying to dismantle them as stereotypes won’t work.”

For one example, he mentioned a “fallacy of dilution,” essentially a stereotype that says that if profoundly gifted are jacks of all trades, they must be masters of none with quite a diluted kind of knowing, because you can’t have knowledge that is both broad and deep. And what I said is that within their frame of reference (and most people have never met the profoundly gifted range), there are limits to what a person can do. You can be a generalist or a specialist, but you can’t have specialist-level proficiency in a broad stretch of disciplines. And so we don’t have a case of two related classes of people with the profoundly gifted miscategorized as “Jack of all trades, therefore master of none” when “comprehensive knowledge in multiple areas” is thinkable. The truth is simply something that doesn’t exist given most people’s horizons, and people, perhaps, make sense as best they can. This may produce the same effects as a stereotype, but people are not stereotypically filing the profoundly gifted into the wrong pigeonhole when the right pigeonhole is in their reach. They are responding to something outside their frame of reference, and trying to make sense given what is conceptually available.

Furthermore, I now have a second reason for being glad the title was not written, or at least that I wasn’t involved if someone else wrote it. On one level, the book’s approach was to contradict certain stereotypes that seem to keep cropping up. On another, slightly deeper level, the approach was almost certainly to adjust people’s possibles et pensables, what is possible and what is even thinkable, and if you enter that game you have already lost. This rule does not apply to people who are sufficiently gifted or other sundry exceptions, but if you are approaching regular people’s possibles et pensables as the sort of thing you negotiate and change at will, you have already lost.

“What would someone average do?” I remember visiting with some Mensans–this is significant–and offering magnetic business cards. And one of them raised the question of whether they would harm credit cards or other cards that had a magnetic stripe. The question was one that I had to considered, but one that I did not need to consider, apart from the fact that a stack of a few of them had not damaged any of my cards with a magnetic stripe, and, as I was to learn later, it really takes some doing to wreck a magnetic stripe. But the question had not occurred to me on “What would someone average do?” grounds. The magnetic backings were explicitly sold as backings for business cards. If they were to destroy any common wallet contents, they would be dropped by stores and possibly there would be class-action lawsuits. The average person was apparently safe to buy and use the cards as advertised without easily wrecking magnetic stripes: therefore, as a rule of thumb, someone “smarter than the average bear” was probably safe as well. I wouldn’t take this argument to its logical conclusion; The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written on the premise that what an average person would do can have some very heavy price tags: in a word, millions of smokers CAN be wrong. However, even with that caveat, I would pose that “What would an average person do?” is a very important reference point, and possibly a default one should avoid deviating from if there is a reason. I believe that I personally need to know how to talk more like an average person, even if I manage talk about the weather and small talk a whole lot better than I did before.

And in negotiation it always helps to understand the other side. Of things you could wish, there are some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, and some things a particular person would not conceive in the first place. I remember some time, over a decade ago, wanting to start a consultancy business of creating custom home pages for people. I believed, and continue to believe, that creating such pages would have been both doable and useful, and my Mom at least was very grateful when I made a personal-use homepage for her, or to be more specific, was grateful after I had created it and she began using it. (And I don’ think she was JUST being polite, or motherly, in her appreciation.) However, the feedback I got on a high-IQ mailing list about my business idea was, “I don’t think most people would understand what you were offering.” Perhaps some people would “get it” once they’d played around with it a bit, but to people who were not yet customers, I was a bit like what you get when you cross the godfather with a lawyer: someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. This may be a huge competitive advantage: you may see good options that are invisible to any competition. However, it helps a great deal if you understand that there are thing you see that are invisible to others, and that explanation and negotiation do not, or at least do not always, change most people’s horizons of what is possible and what is even thinkable. Effective negotiation here does not mean changing someone else’s worldview; it means change from within from things that are already on their list of possibles et pensables.

One acquaintance I had said that when faced with a problem, he would ask, “What would a smart person do?” and try and reason from there. It is my suggestion that essentially in social areas, the question of “What would an average person do?” is fecund. It provides a basic anchor for social and other conduct, and if you don’t know how an average person talks in terms of length of speech, complexity, and whether they are speaking to inform or to communicate, you have a reasonable yardstick. This doesn’t mean that you limit your life to a tiny box, but it does mean that you should be communicating appropriately (including notcommunicating appropriately) with most others. Are you teaching? Give serious consideration to taking homework questions from the main area of the textbook’s problems, rather than look for an appropriate challenge as you understand “appropriate challenge.”

When I was in grad school, I taught “Finite Math”, which was a general education course. I was trying to create a mathematical paradise that would expose people to the poetic beauty of mathematics. I did other things that I’d heard of that sounded cool, like letting people choose weightings for their grades. I got reamed in end-of-course student reviews (one student said, “Now it’s payback time!” when I passed out reviews sheets), and this was entirely appropropriate.

In my attempt to create a mathematical paradise, I was trying to teach people a different way of thought. I would loosely describe my model as too close to a mathematical Zen master, or an ersatz mathematical Zen master, trying to break the mind of mindless symbol manipulation. I completely failed to consider, for instance, that mastering some form(s) of mindless symbol manipulation could be a basis to award a high grade. What I considered conveying the beauty of mathematics was sectarian, only appropriate to some students, and not proper for the diversity in a general education class for non-majors. (I’m undecided about how appropriate it would have been for people in a class where students opted-in to more mathematics than they had to take; possibly it could have been well-done in a weed-out class. However, I was not teaching anything meant to weed students out.)

If I could send a message back in time to myself as I was a young man preparing a class, I would have urged reading, Please Understand Me!, which deals with some of the basic diversities among people, and Please Understand Me! II, which applies something of a multiple intelligence theory (though if you want multiple intelligence theory done well, I’d look for Howard Gardner and keep in mind that there may be some good stuff, but the topic is a kook magnet). The benefit of these books is, besides what they document directly, the fact that they sensitize a perceptive reader to how humans can vary, and the fact that diversity does not begin with race. It begins well before race!

Simplicity beyond complexity

There is something that has always bothered me about the suggestion that if you are really a expert, if you are really at the top of your game, then you can explain the problem you are working on in a nutshell that average Joes can understand. That may be true, but I can see it only as indirectly true, by accident. Specialists with a doctorate in what have you have jumped through hoops and paid metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears to reach their understanding. And they are supposed to explain what they took a decade to learn so that the onus is on them to produce a statement that will make the average listener understand immediately? The proposition was for a long time repulsive to me, seeming to be anti-intelletual, or driven by envy, or both!

However, there is a way that it is true, but it’s not really through a measure of expertise, unless we are talking about a measure of expertise that only the profoundly gifted achieve. And that is because at least some of the profoundly gifted reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity–as you may have hear the saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Characteristic of this, to take an example with Richard Feynman, is from the Challenger disaster hearings. The question had been raised of whether O-rings became brittle in the cold, and people argued and discussed, discussed and argued, with no real progress either way. Then Feynman took a piece of O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went, snap! And the debate stopped cold.

There was also the story of a retiree’s publication where one senior wrote a letter saying that she calculated that she had heard ____ many thousands of sermons, but oddly enough she couldn’t remember any sermon she had heard, and she knew that pastors put a lot of time into sermons, and she wondered if the effort might be better spent elsewhere. That set off considerable debate; people argued and wrote letters one way and then another, until one gentleman wrote,

I met my wife ____ years ago and we have been happily married for ____ years. During this time, I estimate that my wife has prepared for me ____ thousand meals. I cannot remember any of the recipes she followed, but I am on the whole healthy and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook those meals.

The discussion was over. Period.

At a former parish, I, a layman, was allowed to preach a couple of homilies. I don’t think I understood the honor I was being given; in another jurisdiction, Deacons, who have entered major holy orders, do not preach.

The priest and subdeacons both spoke with me at some length. They didn’t warn of any consequence for anything, and they didn’t seem to doubt that I would deliver a homily that was correct and probably full of good points. They trusted me only to speak from Orthodoxy. However, the one point that they underscored at length was simplicity, and told me to address my homily to three parishioners who were the least bookworm-like members of the parish.

There are basically two thing that priest gave me:

  1. The honor and pleasure of delivering homilies.
  2. The ability to crystallize something simple out of something rich and complex.

And this last bit puts me at an open vista for new learning. I have learned to communicate well in complexity; now I am working on also being able to communicate simply.

This post, the one you are reading, may be seen as a professional bad example; I am communicating like someone who isn’t trying or succeeding at communicating simply. In other words, I do not have even the pretension here of modeling the communication style you should be using. But learning to extract a crystalline core to something conceptually large is something we can do, and something we need to do.

For a “before and after”, I would submit The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos and the homily Two Decisive Moments. There are other homilies I believe communicate well; A Pet Owner’s Rules is an example, but it was not intended to simplify anything longer or more complex. The Horn of Joy is a leisured meditation, a complex river with eddies and swirls, and I wanted to miniaturize it, but I saw no faithful way to miniaturize the whole, and after the fact I am glad I didn’t pull off a synopsis of the whole thing. So I instead took a nugget, a kairos decisive moment, and delivered a homily without using the Greek word, just speaking of “two decisive moments.” And the homily, incidentally, was intended to challenge possibles et pensables. I point this out because the rules I am giving should be seen as guidelines from experience more than exceptions. I believe that in this case it also worked because there was really nothing more trying to claim attention. I remember commenting on Karl Rahner’s grundkurs title that he was describing the familiar as something alien, and I do that too (witness Game Review: Meatspace), but when I do that, that is pretty much all that is going on. If I’m making that heavy cognitive demand, I will try to lighten other parts of the load. And in Rahner the mystery of figuring out what could be said much more directly, in a much more familiar way, is only one layer of what makes his texts difficult to read. (I studied at a school that was mostly in Rahner’s camp, and while professors rejected my claim that Rahner’s rhetoric was confusing, we were none the less encouraged to deploy Rahner’s theology to people who would be scared off from reading Rahner in his own intricate words.)

There is one final caveat I wish to mention on this point. The poem Doxology was written out of love of its subject matter and of its language. It does not have even the pretension of being written with any attempt at simplicity. For that matter, it does not have even the pretension of being written in English as the language is spoken today: it is written in Elizabethan English. And, at least as far as the impression goes, it has had substantially more Facebook reshares than all of my other works put together. Simplicity is a guideline, and it may be a survival necessity, but it is not a straightjacket. There is a time and place to pull out beautiful words and give the undiluted force of your thought.

When you should lie

One time, on LinkedIn, someone posted, “Just give me the time, don’t build me a friggin’ watch,” and asked why engineers went on and on. I regret the answer I gave because it was honest and truthful as an engineer would understand those merits. What it was not was short. The answer I thought of a bit later was, “If you want a marketing executive’s answer, ask a marketing executive. If you want an engineer’s answer, ask an engineer. Why are you asking an engineer for a marketing executive’s answer?” And that may have been a better response, but it was a really good way of saying something I no longer hold true.

One friend spent some time in Nigeria, and one cultural note in conversation came when Uncle Monday asked her how her cold was, and she said it was getting worse. He said, “You don’t say that,” and explained that the expect response was, “It’s getting better,” even if it isn’t, and if you give a different response like “It’s getting worse,” socially you are asking for that person’s help. She commented that that experience helped her make peace with the American “How are you?”–“I’m fine!” even if things are not fine. As someone said, “‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question. The other person does not want to hear about your indigestion.” This is a general rule with exceptions; some that I am aware of are when you are close to the other person, when the person asking is devout, when the person asking is gifted, and when the person asking is on the spectrum. Any of those three, and perhaps others, may want to hear “I’m having a really rough day,” should that be the case. However, the usual social role in the U.S., with its unwritten boundaries, is that you normally give a positive and upbeat answer to the question, “How are you?”

I am job hunting now, and one area I have done poorly, is to give a two-sentence answer unless someone interviewing you asks for more–and you want to be asked for more. For most questions that come up, I feel like lying to give much of any two-sentence answer, and I want more than 140 characters. However, the correct answer, made in an attempt to be honest and appropriate, is a simple two sentence response that would be a lie to tell your colleagues. You may enjoy some discretion as to how you lie; you do not have discretion as to whether you lie.

Certain things like this may seem like a social game before they become candid. But the words “Fake it until it’s real” may apply here. Living properly in a culture may seem a social game before it becomes a living stream; and there are exceptions. There was one time at UIUC where a friend said he was writing a story set in a Biblical milieu, and asked if I had guidance to make it better. I asked him if he knew what culture shock was, and when he said “No,” I stepped uncomfortably close to his face (he started backing away very quickly), and I said, “That’s culture shock! It’s being surprised and caught off guard in a way you didn’t know you can be caught off guard.” He thanked me, and went on to write his story.

That is, as best I can recall, the first and only time in my life where I believe it was right to invade another person’s personal space. For the rest of the situations I’ve met, there are rules (perhaps varying from culture to culture) about what it means to be at a particular distance, what is too close, and what is too distant. This kind of rule should usually be observed as much as possible, even if it feels like an artificial shell for a time, and trying to negotiate (in this instance) proxemics is an attempt to negotiate what is possible and what is thinkable.

“People don’t understand me!”

Mosts people have a desire to be understood, and I recall in particular one person who was disappointed when people would hear that he was a professor and ask, “What do you teach?” when he really considered himself to be so much more than a teaching machine. There were several responses; one highly upvoted answer said, “In many languages, ‘Professor’ means ‘Teacher’“, and said, supposing for the sake of argument that he was a fellow mathematician, that people would have a better understanding of mathematics if they read some of Theoni Pappas’s titles explaining mathematics for non-mathematicians remarkably well, but in the end it was better to have social conversations without homework or footnotes. Most professions are a bit different from how public stereotypes would have it; it’s not just (as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance points out) that a mechanic’s job description is not in the first instance, “Disassemble a car partway, replace a broken part, and reassemble everything you took out;” that may be the easiest part of a job, and a mechanic’s basic challenge lies in figuring out mentally, or sleuthing, what sort of root cause would be behind the problems and behavior observed. Meanwhile, my expectation is that if one were to shadow a police officer or detective for a day, the experience would be anticlimactic given how those jobs are portrayed on television. Besides the sheer amount of paperwork that sworn officers are responsible for, the figure I’ve heard is that outside the firing range officers draw their gun on the job once every four years, if even that much. (My offhand suspicion is that most professions look different from the inside than from the outside.)

But the professor who felt belittled by the question of what he taught stands as a sign of something to beware of. Seeking to be understood, trying to have an identity in the modern sense, seem very natural, but we are better to wean ourselves off of them. And that excludes next-level silliness, like deciding which three qualities on a list make up your personal brand. There may in the end be something like personal brand, but it is built on a tacit and internal basis.

Pulling from the Zeitgeist

When I was at Cambridge, I was interested in studying the holy kiss, on which point I was ridiculed even by my advisor for an earlier thesis. I wasn’t the first person to study it; a literature search found prior discussion easily enough, but Cambridge did not take the question seriously, nor did they find any sense in my desire for a doctrinal, as opposed to historical and cultural, study.

But five or ten years later, I was surprised by people coming to me with treatment of the topic. They asked if I knew something not covered in The Eighth Sacrament, which was a homily distilled from mounds of data. But my point, which had been ridiculed earlier, became a standard item of interest in five or ten years, and not so far as I can tell through my advocacy. I also took flak (but that might be expected from critiquing what one editor called a “hornet’s nest”) for, after sone truly nasty experiences with Fr. Seraphim’s crowd, writing The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. My suspicion is that in a few years people will say, “Whoa, something’s not right here,” and that my text may be called helpful, but I will be a bit player in the new consensus. The phenomenon played out in one mailing list and, right or wrong, intelligent design.

In mathematics at least, mathematicians are urged to have a sense of urgency in communicating results. It is a well-known phenomenon historically that a mathematical problem will remain open and unsolved for quite some time, and then simultaneously and independently be discovered by several people. And mathematics may have the least Zeitgeist of any academic discipline. There may be an increasingly tight standard of mathematical rigor, and mathematics may move from specialization to hyper-specialization, but mathematicians do not, like teenagers, say, “The fundamental theorem of calculus is ssoooooo last millennium!” In other disciplines you may (as one Nobel prize laureate said) get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment, but with quasi-exceptions like Abel, you do not establish your credentials by dismantling something that was previously proven. And if in mathematics, where I discern no credible causes for a powerful Zeitgeist, the Zeitgeist is powerful enough that a competent mathematician will work to get credit for a solution to an unknown problem quickly, that makes Zeitgeist considerations important, even if some of us regard the Zeitgeist as rather silly, or worse, most of the time.

But it seems to be a profoundly gifted trait to pull things out of the Zeitgeist several years before it goes mainstream. I’m not sure of too many other examples than above, although when I mention Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influentual but Disturbing Article to fellow Orthodox who disbelieve that Orthodoxy allows contraception, the response I’ve gotten is, “I read that some time back and I found it helpful.”

A cue from usability (UX)

Jakob Nielsen is one of the founding lights in usability, and one drum he kept beating was, “You are not a user.” He forcefully makes the point that whether a user interface makes sense to the programmer simply doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters if even the programmer can’t understand it, but knowing that user interface behavior makes sense to its creator gives essentially no useful information about whether the offering is yet fit for public consumption. This attitude is close to “theory of alien minds” proficiency.

In customer service, there is a saying, “The customer is always right,” and in psychology there is a saying, “The rat is always right,” but they mean two separate things. The customer service meaning is that the customer is king and customer service people should bend over backwards to please customers who are being jerks. The meaning in psychology is that no matter how much puzzlement and consternation a lab rat’s behavior may provoke in a researcher, a given lab rat under given experimental conditions always shows the correct behavior for a given lab rat under given experimental conditions, and if your theory can’t cope with that, it’s time to adjust your theory.

I have never heard this in UX literature, but there is good reason to say, “The user is always right.” If a user spends twenty minutes searching  and fails to identify a large graphic for a link, the user is right. The basic standard of accountability, another drum Nielsen beats, is frequent discount usability testing.

I’m not aware of an established way to do usability testing, but close attention to social signals comes to mind, and if I had the money to spare, I would invest in some of Paul Eckman’s tools for picking up on hair trigger emotional reaction.


Q: What did the person who had an IQ of 137 say to the person who had an IQ of 189?

A: “I’ll have the burger and fries, please.”

For a rough map of the gifted range, Hollingsworth suggested a range of “socially optimal intelligence,” from which most leaders and successful people come, and it is misunderstanding the point somewhat to point out how rare it is to be above that range. I have seen the bottom of the range estimated at 120 and the top at 145, 150, or 155, and it is essentially a range where you have an advantage, but don’t really have to pay for it.

Above that range people seem to have what might as well be magic powers, but there is a price tag. Children above an IQ of 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere; at the top of the gifted range people can develop enough of a theory of alien minds that they in fact do fit in pretty much of anywhere.

When I have taught and failed, it has usually been because I humbly though of others as my intellectual equals, and made demands that were entirely inappropriate. Part of this was asking students to call me by my first when they would have been more comfortable with “Mr. Hayward.” I failed to respect an intellectual and social distance, and shortchanged students in the process.

The gifted range is broader than the normal range, and to be really offensive, the number of points’ difference between the average profoundly gifted and the average gifted is pretty much the number of points’ difference between the average gifted and the average mentally retarded. I say this not to contribute to pride, but to contribute to an understanding of needing to build a bridge that the other party will not build alone.

Being a Renaissance man

I have heard the term “Renaissance man” used, and meant as a compliment, but did not see it as especially strong or specific. I was called a Renaissance man, I thought, because I had some accomplishment in the sciences and some accomplishment in the humanities: I appreciated the compliment but did not take it too seriously.

Then I read the Wikipedia entry; I quote paragraphs following an opening that refers to gifted people with some kind of skill:

“Renaissance man” was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century. It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”.

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century and that began in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy, and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a Master of a specific field.

  • “Speak several languages:” check. This is with varying degrees of proficiency, but I’ve lost count how many. My LinkedIn profile lists a dozen.
  • “Play a musical instrument:” years out of practice, but check.
  • “Write poetry:” check.
  • “And so on:” check. (See the skills list at skills.cjsh.name; besides theology, philosophy, and the sciences, there’s a lot that’s not listed here.)

But my response to seeing that I cover every skill fitting the original definition of “Renaissance man” was not, “Wow, I’m pretty cool;” it was much closer to saying that I stand in the company of heretics. Leonardo da Vinci stands as a man of toxic fascination (I was told in high school that when he was asked why he kept so many young boys as apprentices, he said, “They aren’t very good, but aah, the eyelashes!”; I don’t know if that’s true). What can probably be said is that Leonaro da Vinci does little to edify his admirers, even if the gain skill. A booklet like The Empty Self: Gnostic Foundation of Modern Identity is written by a former head of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and while he acknowledges that his messianic fantasy was less serious than those of his more disturbed patients, he was very clear that his admiration of da Vinci was unprofitable. He talked about medieval statues of people who had their chest open and inside their heart was Christ enthroned, and his own vision of sorts where he saw da Vinci’s chest opened and enthroned inside was… Leonardo da Vinci. This is a vision of Hell.

So I do place myself in the company of the original Renaissance men, but from an Orthodox perspective this is like placing myself in the company of Arius, Sabellius, and Nestorius, architects of heresy. I have climbed a ladder that is leaning against the wrong building.

I don’t believe I should turn my back on this; in fact, I believe I am doing the right thing to use my finely tuned language-learning aptitude to yet another language (Russian). But I do believe my position calls for a little bit of humility.

I am intentionally posting this on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, commemorating the controversy in which the Church weighed Renaissance humanism in the balance and found it, in some sense, lacking. Renaissance humanism sought elevation in mastery of many secular skills; the Orthodox Church’s sought a divine humanism in a Christ who is our entire reference for what it means to be God and our entire reference for what it means to be human. In more recent times an Orthodox theologian said that it is a real and true accomplishment that with loads of science, engineering, and an enormous budget, we can send people to the moon. However, it is a greater matter that the Orthodox Church has known for ages how, on a small loaf of bread per week, to lift a person up to God. And really there is something charming about a Renaissance collection of secular skills: but it is nothing next to the true treasures offered by the Church.

A bed of pain

Lastly, or at least in the course of winding down, it may be mentioned that the profoundly gifted experience, at least for a signficant number, is rough. A number I remember reading and tried but failed to trace down for a paper was that profoundly gifted had a 27% psychiatric hospitalization rate, which is higher than practically any meaningful demographic besides “people who have undergone psychiatric hospitalization.” It is higher, for instance, than either unipolar or bipolar depression. A study of Termites identified as profoundly gifted said they found no evidence to support the popular belief that profoundly gifted have a rough life, and also mentioned in passing that one of the twenty-nine subjects committed suicide. But this did not moderate their earlier position (compare 1 in 10,000 general public incidence at the time), when perhaps the small profoundly gifted sample size limits the effectiveness of statistics, the res ipsa loquitur facts should have come across as a “WTF?” in fifteen feet high blinking neon letters.

Complicating the matter is that one’s best chances are to psychotherapy and psychiatrically prescribed medicines, but not only is the field of mental health a minefield, but the field of mental help is a minefield, and rational risk management is impossible. You can ask about the potential consequences and side effects all you want, but you won’t be told of any serious consequences (and an antidepressant or a tranquilizer can have drastically more severe side effects than an antibiotic or pain medicine). Electro-convulsive therapy is described as maybe causing you to forget which drawer you put your socks in, where patients of electro-convulsive therapy have said in some wording I forget that the memory loss is onerous: the treatment is the right treatment for severe depression that nothing else budges, but the memory loss is obnoxious. In dealing with psychiatrists and psychotherapists, remember that a good practitioner will mention a role that involves a heavy dose of narcissism, and for most people you meet you will be the smartest person the person you are dealing with has ever met. With most psychiatrists and therapists, the question is not whether you are more than a sigma above your healthcare provider (as a rule, people work best together when they are within a sigma, give or take). The question is really more whether you and the second-brightest person that provider has ever met are within a sigma of each other. We are genuinely talking about The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab territory in a heavy dose here. And that puts intimidation on steroids.

I would heed warning signs and look elsewhere early on, rather than wait for things to get better, if your provider shows incompetence, including behavior motivated by being (or becoming) threatened by what you represent. Psychotherapy and psychiatry may be close to being the only game in town, or otherwise indispensable for many profoundly gifted, but my own opinion is that the land is a minefield and the first provider you find is probably not part of the minority that will treat you in a competent manner.

The longest journey

My relationship with my ex-fiancée was painful. I’m tempted to write a long list of things she did wrong and expect you to join my pity party, but I will resist that temptation. What I will say is that of my own list of numerous failings, almost everything was related to my trying to reason things out and not engaging things on any level other than the rational. And my contribution to the trouble was worse than the points where I tried to reason something out and was wrong; there is something fundamentally false about being in a romantic relationship and not handling the other with your heart. Some have said, “Handle yourself with your head and other with your heart,” but really we should handle ourselves with our hearts, too.

One priest I know insists, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” Now he has a good deal of knowledge: he became a pain management physician to learn the art and science of relieving pain and suffering, and once practicing he realized he knew how to treat pain (by a prescription for a strong enough pain reliever, perhaps), but he did not consider himself prepared to really address suffering, and that point led him into the priesthood. And if you ever meet him, you will most likely find that he deals with you out of his heart.

Learned man that he may be, his homilies are simple.

Socrates and God the Spiritual Father

One of my works, God the Spiritual Father, is one of the works that I consider the most helpful today, and especially today, as having reference to hard times. It is, incidentally, the one work most pulled together as a collection of quotes (as “plagiarism” is respected and endorsed in many past and present cultures; the intent is not to claim credit for something original, a concept which may not exist among plagiarists, but to honor pat excellence, setting it as a jewel in a bezel). Now I follow Western, if not precisely academic, conventions to mark quotations.            and attribute them to the authors and works I lean on, and I don’t expect to be accused of plagiarism, even if some people find the heavy level of quotation unusual. But the spirit is close to ancient plagiarism that sought to include jewels from prior excellence.

The core point I drive, above divine purpose for suffering, is to drop another shoe. Voltaire gives a devastating critique of the popular-before-Lisbonne-earthquake optimism saying that we live in the best of all possible worlds. And we do not; that much is beyond serious dispute unless one delves into the kind of philosophical exploration that can, for instance, doubt that there is an external world. Even Christian Science acknowledges, if not exactly that there is evil in the world, that our perceptions have a problem. But saying that we live in the best of all worlds doesn’t really have a following in the West today.

However, there is another shoe to drop: while we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes a world of difference. It’s even better.

Some Orthodox are chary of adopting the non-canonical Anselm of Canterbury’s arguments, of which I will write a deliberate tangent in a minute, but such existed among the Fathers before Anselm. Perhaps Anselm’s best-known argument is that God, if such exits, is greater than anything else than can be thought. Now if we compare a God who is greater than anything else that can exist, for such a God to exist in thought and in reality is greater than for such a God to be greater than anything else that can exist but exists only as a thought in people’s minds. Therefore God must exist in reality; anything less would be a contradiction.

This argument (I’ll omit discussion of Gaunilo’s “In Defense of the Fool” which keeps getting reincarnated by atheists trying to give a fresh, new objection to Anselm, and also Anselm’s response) has been called the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, and most people on hearing it feel like they’ve been slipped something even if they usually can’t put their finger on why. I would suggest, perhaps in an ersatz repetition of Kant, that two levels are conflated, like the rhetorical practice of writing an ambiguity where people can’t dispute one reading of the ambiguity, but it ends up being taken as support of another ambiguity. I cite Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business in a fallacy I don’t know how to name (documenting at least one such fallacy was my diploma thesis in theology),

 A third example of the influence of media on our epistemological can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’s defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers didn’t regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech–most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophistsof fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communication truth.

I was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important hand philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemopraries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be discovered and articulated. To disdian rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.

Postman’s book was formative to me and I still agree with much, but here he misses the boat. If I wished to reincarnate Postman’s error, I could say that the philosopher was not only found guilty, but on trial in the first place, because Socrates lived, acted, spoke, and taught in a way that caused culture shock and could not but draw negative attribution. The threshold for capital punishment (if it is allowed) varies somewhat between cultures, but usually you don’t end up a defendant on trial for a capital crime in your culture unless you have some enemies. Socrates was a teacher who influenced youth in a presumably distinctive way; if he was on trial for “corrupting the youth,” I regard it as charitable to read the allegation, right or wrong, as entirely sincere. And on those grounds his defense may be seen as a last unwelcome surprise to Athenians. It might perhaps have hurt him (or things may have been beyond that point), but it did not cause Socrates to lose skyhigh approval because he walked in to his trial with little approval in the first place. Postman presents things in such way that it appears that Socrates’s defense was a major contributor to his 280 guilty votes. I’m not so sure about that.

But I would pause to address a question that some might raise. If Socrates had heeded what I imply may be a wiser, or at least a more survivable course, would he have been as interesting or important? Would he really have been Socrates? And I don’t know; I am very wary about saying that Socrates could, with slightly better social skills, made every accomplishment the Socrates of history and philosophy made and not really ruffled Athenian feathers. However, I would recall a linguistics professor’s answer to a question from a missionary-in-training: “Do I have to do all the homework?” The professor restrained her first impulse, thought for a moment, and said, “No, you don’t have to. But be prepared to take the consequences.” And on those grounds, causing things like culture shock are usually a liability. Sometimes they’re necessarily tied to something good. However, I don’t thonk I would enjoy the company of someone profoundly gifted who caused culture shock out of simply never making serious efforts to learn to communicate effectively with others. Choose your battles.

And back to Anselm after a tangent that should perhaps be the conclusion.

We do, in fact, live not in the best of all possible worlds, but a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that really does make all the difference.


This piece has rambled; someone very charitable might say it has rambled in a manner worthy of Socrates. However, I wish to end this work the way an academic program is ended: with a ceremony deliberately named, “Commencement.” The choice of term says in essence, “This is not where your endeavor ends. This is where it truly begins.”

This work is a piece of wisdom literature,  standing in a tradition of excellent and mediocre works about how to live well. Several books of the Old Testament fall under its rubric, and a great many books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also qualify as wisdom literature, and as best I recall the introduction talked about a relatively recent historical shift in wisdom literature from a “character ethic” to a “personality ethic”, the latter of which would presumably include picking three adjectives from a list and deciding they make up your personal brand.

This piece is narrow and specialized in its audience, but the whole stream of wisdom literature is a good place to pan for gold. And wisdom literature that make no effort to focus on giftedness can be richly valuable. The repeated references to How to Win Friends and Influence People above are references to it as wisdom literature.

Go forth!

You might also like…

Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh: A Look at Profound Giftedness Through Orthodox Anthropology

God the Spiritual Father

Profoundly Gifted Magazine interviews Charles Wallace Murry of A Wind in the Door

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

The Hayward Nonstandard Test: An Interesting Failure


Read it on Kindle for $3!

In recent years, I published what I then (and now) consider an interesting test. It was meant to look for indirect signs of profound giftedness. I wrote it with the hope that it would circumvent the ceiling of standard model tests, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it showed a floor above some other tests’ ceilings. Let me cite the questions before continuing:

  1. Describe who you are, how you see the world, and what your inner world is like.
  2. Describe your most impressive and distinctive achievements.
  3. Describe your most impressive and distinctive failures.
  4. Describe what you hope/wish/want/intend to accomplish with your life. What do you believe you will accomplish?
  5. What is your educational background? Include out of classroom learning you consider appropriate.
  6. What is (are) your domain(s) of desired excellence? What is your work there? What have you achieved? What failures have you experienced?
  7. Have you ever had management problems or been fired? If so, describe each time.
  8. Describe any unusual or distinctive characteristics of your childhood physiology and physique.
  9. What mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses have been considered for you (that you are comfortable divulging)? Elaborate if desired; if there is information you’d prefer to omit, please say so.
  10. What are your interests?
  11. On a scale of -1.0 to 1.0, rate yourself on the dimensions of the Myers-Briggs test: E(-1) to I(1), S(-1) to N(1), T(-1) to F(1), P(-1) to J(1). Elaborate if desired.There are a few ways to take the Myers-Briggs test, one of the cheapest of which is to check out e.g. Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II from the library; the Kiersey web site has assorted information online.
  12. What is one of your favorite books? Why? Elaborate.
  13. Provide a sample of your best writing.
  14. What is one of your most cherished of your creations? Explain. If feasible, include a copy; if not, describe.
  15. As a child or youth, what was one inconsistency you observed in the adult world that was painful?
  16. Describe, with examples, your sense of humor.
  17. Do you fit in (yes/no/question does not admit a yes or no answer for you)? Explain.
  18. Provide, and answer, one question that you believe will provide me with deep insight into your intelligence.
  19. Write your own short intelligence test.
  20. What else can you say to provide me with evidence of your intelligence?

Richard Feynmann’s Cargo Cult Science address talks about the need to publicize failed experiments as well as successes. I am publishing results, not to claim a new success, but because in its failure it may be interesting. Someone else may find a refinement of the idea that works, or other lessons may be taken from its failure. This seems to be an interesting failure.

I received responses from four men, whom I will call Adam, Brandon, Charles, and David. I opened and read them at the same time to limit bias. Adam seemed gifted, around the top of the range of “optimum intelligence” where you have a definite advantage over others but aren’t so different that it starts to really hurt. Brandon seemed just over the edge; I hesitated in comparing them and finally placed Brandon slightly above Adam. Charles showed signs of real giftedness; earlier in life he had effectively solved a problem that it originally took Euler to solve. Charles struck me as profoundly gifted. Finally, if Charles showed brilliant complexity, David showed a simplicity on the other side of complexity. (“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”) In my notes, I compared his communication to how Richard Feynman closed the O-ring debate: “Feynmann, after people enquiring into the Challenger disaster had spent days arguing whether it was too cold for the O-rings, took an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and pinched it, snapping it.” David struck me as not only profoundly gifted but at a higher plateau than Charles’s dazzling performance. Trying to describe the spread, I said that if the lowest score were a 1 and the highest were an 8, then I would give Adam 1, Brandon 2, Charles 6, and David 8. (I guessed numbers at 150, 155, 165, and 185; I intentionally did not reconcile these two sets of numbers.) Then I opened their prior test scores.

Charles had scores of 140-151, which I regarded as ceiling scores which did not provide useful information beyond being ceiling scores. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest prior scores of 168, 172, and 174 respectively. (I am inclined to lend more credence to the higher scores as it is more plausible to say that someone properly rated around 170 hit his head on the ceiling and scored around 130 than someone properly rated at 130 accidently obtained a score around 170. I acknowledge that this could inflate my estimates.) After an hour or so of trying to convince myself I could interpret their scores so that they would say my test worked, I realised that my test found a significant difference where none was independently verified. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest scores well within measurement error of each other. Furthermore, Adam had consistently high scores: his lowest score was 156, while no one else had two scores above 155. Comparing with previous data, there was no positive correlation to prior test scores, and the person who looked best from previous scores was the person I’d ranked the lowest.

This does not necessarily mean my test is invalid. Four responses, three of which were within measurement error of each other, do not a norming make. Given that responses had appeared at a rate of about one per year, it’s not clear how long it would take to obtain a basis for a solid anchor norming, and if I would still be alive when enough responses had been completed. I opened the responses more on an intuition than anything else, and what I have is not a norming but an understanding of why it might not have been helpful to wait for enough responses for a norming. Furthermore, the fact that previous test data does not distinguish between them does not mean that they are at the same level. All four normees are bright enough to get ceiling scores on standardized tests. That leaves open the possibility of significant differences between them, including the possibility that Charles and David are appreciably brighter than Adam and Brandon. However, I am speaking about what is possible and not about claims that my results support. My results do not say anything positive about my ability to discriminate between responses. If there is anything interesting obtained from my test, it is not between responses but the fact that people responded at all. My website, C.J.S. Hayward , averages between 500 and 1000 unique visitors per day, with an average of two people reading the test per day. Only four people responded in three years, with all of the normees being brilliant. That seems significant, and I’m not sure what all it means. Apart from that, no ability to discriminate usefully between scores has been established in the usual fashion.

Summary of Responses

I would like to briefly describe the responses I received, both to provide an overall picture and to describe what I would single out in my evaluation. Here and elsewhere in the evaluation, I am intentionally using vague and generic descriptions rather than ones that are detailed and specific. This impoverishes the writing and gives a less valuable analysis, but I want to be cautious about confidence, and I expect that some of the people reading this will be quite good at connecting dots.


Adam’s response was three pages long, seemed candid (as did the others), and included achievements at state level. His responses answered the questions, but did not have the florid, ornate, wheels within wheels quality I associate with someone brilliant who is speaking on a topic he finds interesting. The content of his responses strikes me as reflecting more intelligence than the writing style: it was well-written, but did not reflect the “mental overflow” I was looking for. His list of interests was relatively short (twelve), and included a few items that do not specifically reflect intelligence. Several of his choices suggest noteworthy social maturity; this, combined with my losing track of how he opened his responses, led me to assume that he was more gifted than profoundly gifted.


Brandon’s response was also three pages long, and showed the pain of the social disconnect which many profoundly gifted experience. His list of interests was also short, but the activities themselves more distinctively suggest high intelligence. His general approach, in particular to society and authority, shows many of the signature traits David Kiersey (Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1998) describes in profiling the NT “rational” temperament. (Three out of the four normees were NTs, and all of them were strongly intuitive.) He also has an uncanny knack for guessing certain kinds of information—which is an anomaly that I’m not sure what to do with. The examples, however, did not leave me wanting attack the anomaly by pointing him to Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So (New York: Free Press reprint, 1993). He showed a desire to use his mind to transform society that seems to be common among very bright people.


Charles’s response was twenty-seven pages of wheels within wheels. From the first page I was met with nuance that let me know I hadn’t taken everything in on the first reading, despite it being well-written. He claimed not to have any distinctive achievements. This modest remark was followed by no fewer than eight pages of dense summaries of some of his theories. These theories were subtle. They had a logical and scientific character and a spark of something interesting that stretches outside the bounds of science. He used a nonstandard format that made their logical structure clearer—successfully modifying a familiar format to make an unfamiliar format that works better, which is difficult. In the pages of his response I met an edifice of thought which impressed me and which I knew I didn’t understand. (I say this as someone who has put a lot of effort into understanding other people’s belief systems.) His response to that question reminds me of a passage in my current novel:

The woman looked at me briefly. “What languages do you know?”

If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. “I… Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of ‘common’ conversation. You know how—”

The man said, “Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children’s talk. Go on.”

“And—I created a special purpose language,” I said, “to try to help a child who couldn’t speak. I did my best, but it didn’t work. I still don’t understand why not. And I—” I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.

I looked down and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good with languages.”

Charles listed approximately fifty different interests—which is less significant than it sounds, as he broke his interests down in more detail than the other normees, but the detailed breakdown strikes me as significant independent of its content. He was the one normee who answered the Myers-Briggs question in the mathematical format requested—which does not mean that he is the only normee who could do that task, but may suggest that he was the one person who didn’t take a shortcut by “just using adjectives”. I wrote the test to listen for a certain accent in how people respond, and his sense of humor showed that accent loud and strong.

He wrote a complete test which seemed to have a low ceiling, but was polished enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see something similar on the web, and he showed self-criticism in writing the test, acknowledging that it was culture-biased. The completeness and level of polish for that answer caught me off guard.

I was looking to be surprised in a certain way, and for reasons discussed above Charles gave me the kind of surprises I was looking for.


David’s response was twenty pages. He provided an extended writing sample, and (to my surprise) a complete transcript of grades from childhood. His answers were by far the most polished; they give the impression of finding, out of a large space of things that could be said, a microcosmic gem that encapsulates the whole space. Most of his responses were short; the twenty pages stem from the length of his answers to a small number of questions.

Question 11, requesting Myers-Briggs personality type, contained a hidden question. I was interested in Myers-Briggs type, but most interested in whether the normee would question the test or talk about not fitting in the frame the Myers-Briggs test provides. David told his type en route to making a dismissive remark about the test. In other words, he was the one respondent who questioned the test. The most cherished creation he gave was one that showed a certain kind of mental fireworks, reminiscent of the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1999).

David also surprised me, and I heard an accent of brilliance.

Interesting Features

What are the distinctive features of my test? I would like to describe them below.

Emphasis on Tacit Knowing

The way Western culture is shaped means that psychology tries to know its subject-matter with the same kind of knowing as physics has of its subject-matter, in other words I-It rather than I-Thou knowing that is depersonalised and banishes tacit knowing as far as possible. (Banishing anthropomorphism is appropriate when you’re studying rocks. It’s more debatable in trying to understand people.) When I was thinking about how to write up the experiment, before I looked at prior scores, one of the things I intended to compare was writing samples. Brandon offered a clever placeholder in place of a “real” composition. Adam provided some poetry that reminded me of fifth grade English reading; I objectively recognized quality but felt no subjective emotional response. Charles provided poetry that I wasn’t sure I understood but none the less felt like something powerful was washing over me, and I was sorry when it ended. David sent a fiction excerpt that filled me with despair. The tone of the writing was not despairing; I felt the despair of being shown writing so perfect that I despaired of ever attaining that standard.

Why am I talking about my subjective emotional reactions instead of objective assessment? That is why I chose this specific example, instead of examples of thought that would have more to justify them from the framework that understands knowledge in depersonalized and objective terms. I choose it because I paid attention to subjective emotional reactions. I believe that they are tied to tacit and personal ways of knowing: I experienced subjective emotional reactions because I was responding to different pieces of writing that were not of the same quality. Subjective emotional response is one of several things that can be a cue worth listening to.

(I am intentionally keeping the philosophy brief; the philosophical dimension involved in this topic is one that admits very long discussion.)

Listening for an Accent

In most tests, there is a suite of questions meant to map out where a person’s intelligence breaks down, and scoring is how many points total are earned. In this test, the questions do not represent a direct attempt to present difficulty in answering. The intent is rather to obtain a composite picture, and shed indirect light on how bright a person is. The assumption is that different levels of giftedness will leave a definite mark on a person, and that that definite mark is discernible through understanding the person. For one example, above a certain level, a person is so different from the majority of people that there is a social disconnect; children above IQ 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. That kind of social disconnect was clearly discernible in all but one of the responses; Brandon clearly articulated it.

To some extent, that is corroborated by the data. I identified all of the normees as significantly gifted—which I had no reason to anticipate. The first norming of the Mega test had fewer than 10% of normees successfully answer any of the questions. (People who are emotionally insecure often attempt difficult tests to get an answer that may feel special; as the number of emotionally insecure people vastly outweighs the number of people at that level of giftedness, they “should” have been a small minority.) So I was able to recognize giftedness in all of the normees when I was not expecting it. That stated, the evidence does not warrant the conclusion that my test usefully discriminates among the normees.

Problems with the Norming and Test

As this test, or at least this norming, has been a failure, it’s worth paying attention to what went wrong.

Pool of Normees

I have not done any real statistical analysis because there is no basis for analysis, and the statistics would only give a more precise quantification to the statement, “The measurement error exceeds the difference measured.” Even if the four normees represented an optimal 120-140-160-180 spread, four points would be questionable. As is, the only conclusion I can confidently claim from prior test data is that all of the normees are at or above standardized test ceilings. In other words, data from previous tests do not provide a basis to claim that my test discriminates (and what correlation exists is negative).

Two Dimensions Flattened Into One

Giftedness affects personality, but it is inadequate to simply say, “Giftedness is personality.” There is diversity at each stratum of giftedness, and the normee pool did not permit the kind of two-dimensional analysis that would be needed to properly interpret responses (if there is a proper interpretation to be had).

An Invasive Test

This test is invasive. It’s painful and offensive. There is probably a way to attempt a similar operation much more gently and delicately. My guess is that this, more than anything else, is why I only had four responses in three years. If this principle were put to serious use, it would have to be rethought so that it went about its aims with a far defter touch. (Or perhaps just remove certain questions.)

One question which I wonder is whether this offensiveness, which is partly an unedited form of giftedness, was the main reason why only brilliant men responded. The test’s form may have been a powerful selector. So it would have put most people off. But that is not the whole story. Keep in mind that “reading” on a conscious or unconscious level is a two-way street, and the test reveals something significant about me as well as requesting revelation of the normee. A few very bright people, however, might be bothered by the invasiveness, but they recognize and respond to a voice that feels like home. It connects. That, at least, is speculation which seems plausible, but which I don’t see how to support without writing a gentler test.

Not Personal Enough

In one sense, this test was personal, too personal—it probed bluntly into things that are not polite to ask. In another sense, though, it related to the normees as objects to be studied, trying to dissect them as people but still dissecting them. It moves partway from I-It to I-Thou, but I believe it is possible to have a fuller I-Thou knowing, although I don’t know what a fully I-Thou approach would be like. It could be argued that the questions are offensive because the test was not personal enough. In other words, the test reflected an attempt to understand people but not in a personal way. Furthermore, some of the philosophical merits to a personal approach may bear fruit if there were a more genuinely personal approach.

Lack of Checks

The attempt to be objective tries to strip out everything subjective as a means to strip out subjective bias. Ideally one would want to allow subjective strengths while using another form of rigor to mitigate subjective bias, but I am not sure what that other and more difficult rigor would be; I have not solved that problem.

I requested responses to questions and personal information separately, so I wouldn’t know whose material I was working with until after I had ranked the results. There was one normee for whom this attempted anonymization failed—David, whom I know and I hold in awe. I’d like to say that I didn’t let this influence my estimation, but that’s not true. As it is now, Adam’s responses struck me as simple because it seemed what he was saying wasn’t very big, and David’s responses struck me as simplicity on the other side of complexity—something big in an elegant nutshell. Charles’s responses struck me as complex, in other words as simply being big. I’d like to say that I was unbiased, and I didn’t think “David answered, and I’m terribly impressed with him, so I’ll put him highest,” but I simply followed the argument where it led. I’d like to say that, but I can’t. Maybe I should have ranked Charles highest. I’m vulnerable to accusation of bias at least here. And this kind of bias may be present in the attempt to understand another person—recognition is a risk.

Book Knowledge that Didn’t Pan Out

There’s a reason why I asked about people’s worst failures, and it’s not because I like making people squirm.

Howard Gardner’s Extraordinary Minds (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1998) is a multiple intelligence treatment of genius. One of the points that he talked about was failure—experiencing failures and being spurred on by them (120-123). Because of this, I was hoping to see discussion of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing—like Edison’s numerous failures en route to inventing a working light bulb. I believed that genius and those approaching genius not only are not immune to failure, but fail more often and more significantly than the vast majority of human beings.

This is a nice theory, and it may well be true, but the question based on it did not obtain informative answers for this purpose. I was expecting for normees at this level to see different degrees of failing in courageous projects (and in less glorious matters); I would not want to divulge what the normees shared, but if they did experience this pattern of life, I did not discern it in the replies. (This question should probably be removed in derivative work; the offensive questions seem less informative than I had expected.)

Another question was related to Leta Hollingworth’s Children Above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet Origin and Development (New York: Arno Press, 1975), in which Hollingworth claims that the children she studied were significantly above average size and weight for their age. I thought that the brighter respondents would share this distinctive physique. Only Brandon mentioned something along these lines, which means it might be useful as one piece of a large puzzle, but it was not the predictor I’d hoped. (There were other questions motivated by similar concerns.)

A Successful Failure?

This test is a failure, or at very least my attempt to norm this test is a failure. Out of an estimated two thousand people that were aware of the test, only four responded, and the result is a statistically insignificant and negative correlation. I underestimated Adam in particular; if there is a lesson to be drawn from him, it is that it is possible to be brilliant while showing relatively few of the indirect traits this test sought to identify.

I was not looking forward to the prospect of writing delicate responses to a majority of normees who were insecure and of normal intelligence, and would approach difficult tests to have a big number that will make them feel OK about being human. That this did not happen touches on two reasons why I consider this an interesting failure:

  1. Only brilliant normees responded. Therefore, while demonstrated ability to discriminate between answers is nonexistant, the fact of responding to the test is highly significant. There is an implicit hidden question: not, “What traits will distinguish your response?” but “Will you respond at all?”
  2. I correctly identified all the respondents as significantly gifted. The lowest estimate I gave was a three sigma score. In other words, I correctly identified all respondents as being at or above the 99.9th percentile, even though this was contrary to my expectations.

This is also an interesting failure in that it attempts an inquiry that is based on a different principle. If it were not for confidence issues, I would likely publish the responses so that specific questions could be analyzed. It may be possible to make a hybrid test that combines traditional high-ceiling tests with this basic approach. The two approaches could be complementary.

Given that this is a first try, it may be better to label this approach as “Hasn’t succeeded yet” than “Has failed.” It would be surprising if this kind of distinctive approach succeeded on the first try. Furthermore, the way this norming failed suggests there’s something in the approach.

There are several philosophical questions which admit interesting discussion. One of the more interesting questions is what alternatives to dealing with subjective bias exist besides trying to exclude all subjective elements (officially, at least: I suspect that good “objective” judgment has drawn on subjective strengths all along). Most of the philosophical aspects mentioned merit further inquiry.

I believe that Charlie and David are at a higher plateau than Adam and Brandon; data from other tests does not discriminate from them, but I have priveleged external information that would place David above Adam. If they were to contact a third party who could corroborate that Adam and Brandon are at one high plateau and Charlie and David at a higher plateau, that would be reason to take a second look at the results.

I believe that the responses give a much richer picture of the person than a standard test. Someone, instead of asking, “Does this compete with traditional tests?” might ask, “What interesting data does this give that traditional tests don’t?”

So this test is a failure, but an interesting failure, and perhaps even a successful failure.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion

Gifted? Let me harass you!

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Within the Steel Orb

Within the Steel Orb

Surgeon General’s Warning

Part of the books behind the title had a reviewer say, “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise,” and possibly the same could be said of this dialogue, but it is laced with the spiritual poison of escape.

This title has its merits, enough so not to delete. However, I would warn that its spice is spiritual MSG.


Read it on Kindle for $3!

The car pulled up on the dark cobblestones and stopped by the darker castle. The vehicle was silver-grey, low to the ground, and sleek. A—let us call him a man—opened the driver’s door on the right, and stood up, tall, dark, clad in a robe the color of the sky at midnight. Around the car he went, opened the door for his passenger, and once the passenger stepped out, made one swift motion and had two bags on his shoulder. The bags were large, but he moved as if he were accustomed to carrying far heavier fare. It was starlight out, and the moon was visible as moonlight rippled across a pool.

The guest reached for the bags. “Those are heavy. Let me—”

The host smiled darkly. “Do not worry about the weight of your bags.”

The host opened a solid greyblack door, of unearthly smoothness, and walked swiftly down a granite hallway, allowing his guest to follow. “You’ve had a long day. Let me get you something to drink.” He turned a door, poured something into two iridescent titanium mugs, and turned through another corridor and opened a door on its side. Inside the room were two deep armchairs and a low table.

“This is my first time traveling between worlds—how am I to address you?”

The host smiled. “Why do you wish to know more of my name? It is enough for you to call me Oinos. Please enjoy our welcome.”

The guest sipped his drink. “Cider?”

The host said, “You may call it that; it is a juice, which has not had artificial things done to make it taste like it just came out of its fruit regardless of how much it should have aged by the time you taste it. It is juice where time has been allowed to do its work.” He was holding a steel orb. “You are welcome here, Art.” Then—he barely seemed to move—there was a spark, and Oinos pulled a candle from the wall and set it on the table.

Art said, “Why not a fluorescent light to really light the room up?”

The host said, “For the same reason that you either do not offer your guests mocha at all, or else give them real mocha and not a mix of hot water, instant coffee, and hot cocoa powder. In our world, we can turn the room bright as day any time, but we do not often do so.”

“Aah. We have a lot to learn from you about getting back to nature.”

“Really? What do you mean by ‘getting back to nature’? What do you do to try to ‘get back to nature’?”

“Um, I don’t know what to really do. Maybe try to be in touch with the trees, not being cooped up inside all the time, if I were doing a better job of it…”

“If that is getting back in touch with nature, then we pay little attention to getting in touch with nature. And nature, as we understand it, is about something fundamentally beyond dancing on hills or sitting and watching waves. I don’t criticize you if you do them, but there is really something more. And I can talk with you about drinking juice without touching the natural processes that make cider or what have you, and I can talk with you about natural cycles and why we don’t have imitation daylight any time it would seem convenient. But I would like you to walk away with something more, and more interesting, than how we keep technology from being too disruptive to natural processes. That isn’t really the point. It’s almost what you might call a side effect.”

“But you do an awfully impressive job of putting technology in its place and not getting too involved with it.”

Oinos said, “Have you had enough chance to stretch out and rest and quench your thirst? Would you like to see something?”


Oinos stood, and led the way down some stairs to a room that seemed to be filled with odd devices. He pushed some things aside, then walked up to a device with a square in the center, and pushed one side. Chains and gears moved, and another square replaced it.

“This is my workshop, with various items that I have worked on. You can come over here and play with this little labyrinth; it’s not completely working, but you can explore it if you take the time to figure it out. Come on over. It’s what I’ve been working on most recently.”

Art looked around, somewhat amazed, and walked over to the ‘labyrinth.’

Oinos said, “In your world, in classical Greek, the same word, ‘techne,’ means both ‘art’ and ‘technology.’ You misunderstand my kindred if you think we aren’t especially interested in technology; we have a great interest in technology, as with other kinds of art. But just as you can travel a long distance to see the Mona Lisa without needing a mass-produced Mona Lisa to hang in your bathroom, we enjoy and appreciate technologies without making them conveniences we need to have available every single day.”

Art pressed a square and the labyrinth shifted. “Have I come here to see technologies?”

Oinos paused. “I would not advise it. You see our technologies, or how we use them, because that is what you are most ready to see. Visitors from some other worlds hardly notice them, even if they are astonished when they are pointed out.”

Art said, “Then why don’t we go back to the other room?”

Oinos turned. “Excellent.” They went back, and Art sat down in his chair.

Art, after a long pause, said, “I still find it puzzling why, if you appreciate technology, you don’t want to have more of it.”

Oinos said, “Why do you find it so puzzling?”

“Technology does seem to add a lot to the body.”

“That is a very misleading way to put it. The effect of most technologies that you think of as adding to the body is in fact to undercut the body. The technologies that you call ‘space-conquering’ might be appropriately called ‘body-conquering.'”

“So the telephone is a body-conquering device? Does it make my body less real?”

“Once upon a time, long ago from your perspective, news and information could not really travel faster than a person could travel. If you were talking with a person, that person had to be pretty close, and it was awkward and inconvenient to communicate with those who were far away. That meant that the people you talked with were probably people from your local community.”

“So you were deprived of easy access to people far away?”

“Let me put it this way. It mattered where you were, meaning where your body was. Now, on the telephone, or instant messages, or the web, nothing and no one is really anywhere, and that means profound things for what communities are. And are not. You may have read about ‘close-knit rural communities’ which have become something exotic and esoteric to most of your world’s city dwellers… but when space conquering technologies had not come in, and another space-conquering technology, modern roads allowing easy moving so that people would have to say goodbye to face-to-face friendships every few years… It’s a very different way of relating. A close-knit rural community is exotic to you because it is a body-based community in ways that tend not to happen when people make heavy use of body-conquering, or space-conquering, or whatever you want to call them, technologies.”

“But isn’t there more than a lack of technologies to close-knit communities?”

“Yes, indeed… but… spiritual discipline is about much more than the body, but a lot of spiritual discipline can only shape people when people are running into the body’s limitations. The disciplines—worship, prayer, fasting, silence, almsgiving, and so on—only mean something if there are bodily limits you are bumping into. If you can take a pill that takes away your body’s discomfort in fasting, or standing through worship, then the body-conquering technology of that pill has cut you off from the spiritual benefit of that practice.”

“Aren’t spiritual practices about more than the body?”

“Yes indeed, but you won’t get there if you have something less than the body.”

Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”

Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”

Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”

Art hesitated, and began to sit up.

Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”

Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.

Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”

Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”

Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”

“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”

“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.

“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the minute difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”

“Um, I don’t know…”

“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”

“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”

“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”

“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”

“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”

“Would you explain relativity to me so that I can discuss its implications?”

“I really think there might be more productive ways to use your visit.”

“But you have a scientist’s understanding of relativity.”

“I am not sure I’d say that.”

“Why? You seem to understand relativity a lot more like a scientist than I do.”

“Let’s talk about biology for a moment. Do you remember the theory of spontaneous generation? You know, the theory that life just emerges from appropriate material?”

“I think so.”

“But your world’s scientists haven’t believed in spontaneous generation since over a century before you were born. Why would you be taught that theory—I’m assuming you learned this in a science class and not digging into history?”

“My science course explained the theory in covering historical background, even though scientists no longer believe that bread spontaneously generates mold.”

“Let me ask what may seem like a non-sequitur. I assume you’re familiar with people who are working to get even more of religion taken out of public schools?”


“They are very concerned about official prayers at school events, right? About having schools endorse even the occasional religious practice?”


“Ok. Let me ask what may seem like a strange question. Have these ‘separation of Church and state’ advocates also advocated that geometry be taken out of the classroom?”

Art closed his eyes, and then looked at Oinos as if he had two heads. “It seems you don’t know everything about my world.”

“I don’t. But please understand that geometry did not originate as a secular technical practice. You migth have heard this mentioned. Geometry began its life as a ‘sacred science,’ or a religious practice, and to its founders the idea that geometry does not have religious content would have struck them as worse than saying that prayer does not have religious content.”

“Ok, I think I remember that being mentioned. So to speak, my math teacher taught about geometry the ‘sacred science’ the way that my biology teacher taught about the past theory of spontaneous generation.”

Oinos focused his eyes on Art. “In our schools, and in our training, physics, biology, and chemistry are ‘taught’ as ‘secular sciences’ the same way, in your school, spontaneous generation is taught as ‘past science’, or even better, the ‘sacred science’ of geometry is ‘taught’ in the course of getting on to a modern understanding of geometry.”

Art said, “So the idea that the terrain we call ‘biology’ is to you—”

Oinos continued: “As much something peered at through a glass bell as the idea that the terrain of regular polygons belongs to a secularized mathematics.”

“What is a sacred science?”

Oinos sat back. “If a science is about understanding something as self-contained whose explanations do not involve God, and it is an attempt to understand as physics understand, and the scientist understands as a detached observer, looking in through a window, then you have a secular science—the kind that reeks of the occult to us. Or that may sound strange, because in your world people proclaiming sacred sciences are proclaiming the occult. But let me deal with that later. A sacred science does not try to understand objects as something that can be explained without reference to God. A sacred science is first and foremost about God, not about objects. When it understands objects, it understands them out of God, and tries to see God shining through them. A sacred science has its home base in the understanding of God, not of inanimate matter, and its understanding of things bears the imprint of God. If you want the nature of its knowing in an image, do not think of someone looking in and observing, detached, through a window, but someone drinking something in.”

“Is everything a sacred science to you? And what is a sacred science? Astrology?”

“Something like that, except that I use the term ‘sacred science’ by way of accommodation. Our own term is one that has no good translation in your language. But let us turn to the stars.”

“Astrology is right in this: a star is more than a ball of plasma. Even in the Bible there is not always such a distinction between the ranks of angels and the stars as someone raised on materialist science might think.” He rose, and began to walk, gesturing for Art to follow him. In the passage, they turned and entered a door. Oinos lit a lamp next to an icon on the wall.

The icon looked like starlight. It showed angels praying at the left, and then the studded sapphiric canopy of the night sky behind a land with herbs shooting from the earth, and on the right an immense Man—if he was a Man—standing, his hand raised in benediction. All around the sapphire dome were some majestic figures, soaring aloft in two of their six wings. Art paused to drink it in.

“What are those symbols?”

“They are Greek letters. You are looking at an icon of the creation of the stars, but the text is not the text for that day; it is from another book, telling of the angels thunderously shouting for joy when the stars were created. So the stars are connected with the angels.”

“Is this astrology?”

“No, because the stars and angels both point to God. The influences in astrology point beyond matter to something else, but they do not point far enough beyond themselves. If you can use something to make a forecast that way, it doesn’t point far enough beyond itself.”

“Why not?”

“One definition to distinguish religion from magic—one used by anthropologists—is that religion is trying to come into contact with the divine, and magic is trying to control the divine. God cannot be controlled, and there is something of control in trying to foretell a future that God holds in mystery. A real God cannot be pried into by a skill. Astrology departs from a science that can only see stars as so much plasma, but it doesn’t go far enough to lead people to look into the stars and see a shadow of their Creator. To be a sacred science, it is not enough to point to something more than matter as secular science understands it; as the term is used in our language, one can only be a sacred science by pointing to God.”

“Then what is a sacred science? Which branches of learning as you break them up? Can they even be translated into my language?”

“You seem to think that if astrology is not a sacred science then sacred sciences must be something much more hidden. Not so. Farming is a sacred science, as is hunting, or inventing, or writing. When a monk makes incense, it is not about how much incense he can make per unit of time; his making incense is the active part of living contemplatively, and his prayer shows itself in physical labor. His act is more than material production; it is a sacred science, or sacred art or sacred endeavor, and what goes into and what comes out of the activity is prayer. Nor is it simply a matter that he is praying while he acts; his prayers matter for the incense. There are many lands from your world’s Desert Fathers to Mexico in your own day where people have a sense that it matters what state people cook in, and that cooking with love puts something into a dish that no money can buy. Perhaps you will not look at me askance when I say that not only monks in their monasteries exotically making incense for worship are performing a sacred science, but cooking, for people who may be low on the totem pole and who are not considered exotic, as much as for anyone else, can and should be a sacred science. Like the great work that will stay up with a sick child all night.”

“Hmm…” Art said, and then finished his tankard. “Have you traveled much?”

“I have not reached one in five of the galaxies with inhabited worlds. I can introduce you to people who have some traveling experience, but I am not an experienced traveler. Still, I have met sites worth visiting. I have met, learned, worshiped. Traveling in this castle I have drunk the blood of gems. There are worlds where there is nothing to see, for all is music, and song does everything that words do for you. I have beheld a star as it formed, and I have been part of an invention that moves forward as a thousand races in their laboratories add their devices. I have read books, and what is more I have spoken with members of different worlds and races. There seems to be no shortage of wonders, and I have even been to your own world, with people who write fantasy that continues to astonish us—”

“My son-in-law is big into fantasy—he got me to see a Lord of the whatever-it-was movie—but I don’t fancy them much myself.”

“We know about Tolkein, but he is not considered a source of astonishing fantasy to us.”

“Um…” Art took a long time to recall a name, and Oinos waited patiently. “Lewis?”

“If you’re looking for names you would have heard of, Voltaire and Jung are two of the fantasy authors we consider essential. Tolkein and Lewis are merely imaginative. It is Voltaire and Jung who are truly fantasy authors. But there are innumerable others in your world.”

Art said, “Um… what do you mean by ‘fantasy author’?”

Oinos turned. “I’m sorry; there is a discrepancy between how your language uses ‘fantasy author’ and ours. We have two separate words that your ‘fantasy’ translates, and the words stand for very different concepts. One refers to works of imagination that are set in another world that is not confused with reality. The other refers to a fundamental confusion that can cost a terrible price. Our world does not produce fiction; we do appreciate the fiction of other worlds, but we do not draw a particularly strong line between fiction where only the characters and events are imagined, and fiction where the whole world is imagined. But we do pay considerable attention to the second kind of fantasy, and our study of fantasy authors is not a study of imagination but a study of works that lead people into unreality. ‘Fantasy author’ is one of the more important terms in understanding your world and its history.”

Art failed to conceal his reaction.

“Or perhaps I was being too blunt. But, unfashionable as it may be, there is such a thing as evil in your world, and the ways in which people live, including what they believe, has something to do with it. Not everything, but something.”

Oinos waited for a time. Then, when Art remained silent, he said, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” He opened a door on the other side of the room, and went into the next room. The room was lit by diffuse moonlight, and there was a ledge around the room and water which Oinos stirred with his hand to light a phosphorescent glow. When Art had stepped in, Oinos stepped up, balancing on a steel cable, and stood silent for a while. “Is there anything here that you can focus on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Step up on this cable and take my hand.”

“What if I fall into the water?”

Art tried to balance, but it seemed even more difficult in the dark. For a while, he tried to keep his balance with Oinos’s help, but he seemed barely up. He overcompensated twice in opposite directions, began flying into the water, and was stopped at last by Oinos’s grip, strong as steel, on his arm.

“I can’t do this,” Art said.

“Very well.” Oinos opened a door on the other side of the room, and slowly led him out. As they walked, Oinos started up a spiral staircase and sat down to rest after Art reached the top. Then Art looked up at the sky, and down to see what looked like a telescope.

“What is it?”

“A telescope, not too different from those of your world.”

Oinos stood up, looked at it, and began some adjustments. Then he called Art over, and said, “Do you see that body?”

“What is it?”

“A small moon.”

Oinos said, “I want you to look at it as closely as you can,” and then pulled something on the telescope.

“It’s moving out of sight.”

“That’s right; I just deactivated the tracking feature. You should be able to feel handles; you can move the telescope with them.”

“Why do I need to move the telescope? Is the moon moving?”

“This planet is rotating: what the telescope sees will change as it rotates with the planet, and on a telescope you can see the rotation.”

Art moved the handles and found that it seemed either not to move at all or else move a lot when he put pressure on it.

Art said, “This is a hard telescope to control.”

Oinos said, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

“Can you turn the tracking back on?”

Oinos merely repeated, “The telescope is worth controlling.”

The celestial body had moved out of view. Art made several movements, barely passed over the moon, and then found it. He tried to see what he could, then give a relatively violent shove when the moon reached the edge of his field of view, and see if he could observe the body that way. After several tries, he began to get the object consistently in view… and found that he was seeing the same things about it, not being settled enough between jolts to really focus on what was there.

Art tried to make a smooth, slow movement with his body, and found that a much taller order than it sounded. His movement, which he could have sworn was gentle and smooth, produced what seemed like erratic movement, and it was only with greatest difficulty that he held the moon in view.

“Is this badly lubricated? Or do you have lubrication in this world?”

“We do, on some of our less precise machines. This telescope is massive, but it’s not something that moves roughly when it is pushed smoothly; the joints move so smoothly that putting oil or other lubricants that are familiar to you would make them move much more roughly.”

“Then why is it moving roughly every time I push it smoothly?”

“Maybe you aren’t pushing it as smoothly as you think you are?”

Art pushed back his irritation, and then found the moon again. And found, to his dismay, that when the telescope jerked, he had moved the slightest amount unevenly.

Art pushed observation of the moon to the back of his mind. He wanted to move the telescope smoothly enough that he wouldn’t have to keep finding the moon again. After a while, he found that this was less difficult than he thought, and tried for something harder: keeping the moon in the center of what he could see in the telescope.

He found, after a while, that he could keep the moon in the center if he tried, and for periods was able to manage something even harder: keeping the moon from moving, or perhaps just moving slowly. And then, after a time, he found himself concentrating through the telescope on taking in the beauty of the moon.

It was breathtaking, and Art later could never remember a time he had looked on something with quite that fascination.

Then Art realized he was exhausted, and began to sit down; Oinos pulled him to a bench.

After closing his eyes for a while, Art said, “This was a magnificent break from your teaching.”

“A break from teaching? What would you mean?”

Art sat, opened his mouth, and then closed it. After a while, he said, “I was thinking about what you said about fantasy authors… do you think there is anything that can help?”

Oinos said, “Let me show you.” He led Art into a long corridor with smooth walls and a round arch at top. A faint blue glow followed them, vanishing at the edges. Art said, “Do you think it will be long before our world has full artificial intelligence?”

Oinos said, “Hmm… Programming artificial intelligence on a computer is not that much more complex than getting a stone to lay an egg.”

Art said, “But our scientists are making progress. Your advanced world has artificial intelligence, right?”

Oinos said, “Why on earth would we be able to do that? Why would that even be a goal?”

“You have computers, right?”

“Yes, indeed; the table that I used to call up a scientific calculator works on the same principle as your world’s computers. I could almost say that inventing a new kind of computer is a rite of passage among serious inventors, or at least that’s the closest term your world would have.”

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

“I know that computers don’t have emotions yet, but they seem to have rationality down cold.”

“Do they?”

“Are you actually going to tell me that computers, with their math and logic, aren’t rational?”

“Let me ask you a question. Would you say that the thing you can hold, a thing that you call a book, can make an argument?”

“Yes; I’ve seen some pretty good ones.”

“Really? How do paper and ink think out their position?”

Art hesitated, and said, “Um, if you’re going to nitpick…”

“I’m not nitpicking. A book is a tool of intelligent communication, and they are part of how people read author’s stories, or explanation of how to do things, or poetry, or ideas. But the physical thing is not thereby intelligent. However much you think of a book as making an argument, the book is incapable of knowing what an argument is, and for that matter the paper and ink have no idea of whether they contain the world’s best classic, or something mediocre, or incoherent accusations that world leaders are secretly planning to turn your world to dog drool, or randomly generated material that is absolute gibberish. The book may be meaningful to you, but the paper with ink on it is not the sort of thing that can understand what you recognize through the book.

“This might ordinarily be nitpicking, but it says something important about computers. One of the most difficult things for computer science instructors in your world to pound through people’s heads is that a computer does not get the gist of what you are asking it to do and overlook minor mistakes, because the computer has no sense of what you are doing and no way to discern what were trying to get it to do from a mistake where you wrote in a bug by telling it to do something slightly different from what you meant. The computer has no sense that a programmer meant anything. A computer follows instructions, one after another, whether or not they make sense, and indeed without being able to wonder whether they make sense. To you, a program may be a tool that acts as an electronic shopping cart to let you order things through the web, but the web server no more understands that it is being used as a web server than a humor book understands that it is meant to make people laugh. Now most or all of the books you see are meant to say something—there’s not much market for a paperback volume filled with random gibberish—but a computer can’t understand that it is running a program written for a purpose any more than a book can understand that the ink on its pages is intended for people to read.”

Art said, “You don’t think artificial intelligence is making real progress? They seem to keep making new achievements.”

Oinos said, “The rhetoric of ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now; we’re on the verge of full artificial intelligence, and with what we’re achieving, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner’ is not new: people have been saying that full artificial intelligence is just around the corner since before you were born. But breeding a better and better kind of apple tree is not progress towards growing oranges. Computer science, and not just artificial intelligence, has gotten good at getting computers to function better as computers. But human intelligence is something else… and it is profoundly missing the point to only realize that the computer is missing a crucial ingredient of the most computer-like activity of human rational analysis. Even if asking a computer to recognize a program’s purpose reflects a fundamental error—you’re barking up the wrong telephone pole. Some people from your world say that when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The most interesting thing about the mind is not that it can do something more complete when it pounds in computer-style nails. It’s something else entirely.”

“But what?”

“When things are going well, the ‘computer’ that performs calculating analysis is like your moon: a satellite, that reflects light from something greater. Its light is useful, but there is something more to be had. The sun, as it were, is that the mind is like an altar, or even something better. It takes long struggles and work, but you need to understand that the heart of the mind is at once practical and spiritual, and that its greatest fruit comes not in speech but in silence.”

Art was silent for a long time.

Oinos stopped, tapped a wall once, and waited as an opening appeared in the black stone. Inside an alcove was a small piece of rough hewn obsidian; Oinos reached in, took it, and turned it to reveal another side, finely machined, with a series of concentric ridged grooves centered around a tiny niche. “You asked what a kairometer was, and this is a kairometer, although it would take you some time to understand exactly what it is.”

“Is it one of the other types of computers in your world?”

“Yes. I would call it information technology, although not like the information technology you know. It is something people come back to, something by which people get something more than they had, but it does this not so much according to its current state as to our state in the moment we are using it. It does not change.” Oinos placed the object in Art’s hands.

Art slowly turned it. “Will our world have anything like this?”

Oinos took the kairometer back and returned it to its niche; when he withdrew his hand, the opening closed with a faint whine. “I will leave you to find that yourself.”

Oinos began walking, and they soon reached the end of the corridor. Art followed Oinos through the doorway at the end and gasped.

Through the doorway was something that left Art trying to figure out whether or not it was a room. It was a massive place, lit by a crystalline blue light. As Art looked around, he began to make sense of his surroundings: there were some bright things, lower down, in an immense room with rounded arches and a dome at the top, made of pure glass. Starlight streamed in. Art stepped through the doorway and sunk down a couple of inches.

Oinos stooped for a moment, and then said, “Take off your shoes. They are not needed here.” Art did so, and found that he was walking on a floor of velveteen softness. In the far heart of the room a thin plume of smoke arose. Art could not tell whether he smelled a fragrance, but he realized there was a piercing chant. Art asked, “What is the chant saying?”

Oinos did not answer.

What was the occasion? Art continued to look, to listen, and began trying to drink it in. It almost sounded as if they were preparing to receive a person of considerable importance. There was majesty in the air.

Oinos seemed to have slipped away.

Art turned and saw an icon behind him, hanging on the glass. There was something about it he couldn’t describe. The icon was dark, and the colors were bright, almost luminous. A man lay dreaming at the bottom, and something reached up to a light hidden in the clouds—was it a ladder? Art told himself the artistic effect was impressive, but there was something that seemed amiss in that way of looking at it.

What bothered him about saying the icon had good artistic effect? Was the artistry bad? That didn’t seem to be it. He looked at a couple of areas of artistic technique, but it was difficult to do so; such analysis felt like a foreign intrusion. He thought about his mood, but that seemed to be the wrong place to look, and almost the same kind of intrusion. There seemed to be something shining through the icon; looking at it was like other things he had done in this world, only moreso. He was looking through the icon and not around it, but… Art had some sense of what it was, but it was not something he could fit into words.

After being absorbed in the icon, Art looked around. There must have been hundreds of icons around, and lights, and people; he saw what seemed like a sparse number of people—of Oinos’s kind—spread out through the vast space. There was a chant of some kind that changed from time to time, but seemed to somehow be part of the same flow. Things seemed to move very slowly—or move in a different time, as if clock time were turned on its side, or perhaps as if he had known clock time as it was turned on its side and now it was right side up—but Art never had the sense of nothing going on. There seemed to always be something more going on than he could grasp.

Art shifted about, having stood for what seemed like too long, sat down for a time, and stood up. The place seemed chaotic, in a way cluttered, yet when he looked at the “clutter,” there was something shining through, clean as ice, majestic as starlight, resonant as silence, full of life as the power beneath the surface of a river, and ordered with an order that no rectangular grid could match. He did not understand any of the details of the brilliant dazzling darkness… but they spoke to him none the less.

After long hours of listening to the chant, Art realized with a start that the fingers of dawn had stolen all around him, and he saw stone and verdant forest about the glass walls until the sunlight began to blaze. He thought, he though he could understand the song even as its words remained beyond his reach, and he wished the light would grow stronger so he could see more. There was a crescendo all about him, and—

Oinos was before him. Perhaps for some time.

“I almost understand it,” Art said. “I have started to taste this world.”

Oinos bowed deeply. “It is time for you to leave.”

A periodic table: elements that have shaped me, and elements that I have shaped

The Steel Orb

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Privilege, Painful Privilege—Extreme Privilege

Read it on Kindle for $3!

One book on what parents willingly forget about adolescence talked about one junior high where there was a murmur among the teachers about what appeared to be some student’s extraordinarily beautiful mother. Then they found out the truth: she was not a student’s mother, but a sixth grade girl who had full-fledged and exquisite adult beauty.

And there was a problem here. Because she was so beautiful, the only place she could enter the social arena was at the top, and the girls already at the top of the social arena had no intent to step aside and make room for her.

She died a drug addict at 16.

This is really a quite different picture than a quote from C.S. Lewis I cite below. And I’ll comment that although I consider myself moderately attractive (and would be moreso if I spent less time eating and more time at the gym), I am quite grateful not to be a celebrity hounded by paparazzi. I’m glad I do not have such looks as Brad Pitt.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we read:

Then she came to a page which was such a blaze of pictures that one hardly notices the writing. Hardly—but she did notice the first words. They were, An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Lucy peered at the pictures with her face close to the page, and though they had seemed crowded and muddlesome before, she now foung she could see them quite clearly. The first was a picture of a girl standing at a reading-desk reading in a huge book. And the girl was dressed exactly like Lucy. In the next picture Lucy (for the girl in the picture was Lucy herself) was standing with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face, chanting or reciting something. In the third picture the beauty beyond the lot of mortals had come to her. It was strange, considering how small the pictures had looked at first, that the Lucy in the picture now seemed quite as big as the real Lucy; and they looked into each other’s eyes and the real Lucy looked away after a few minutes because she was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy; though she could still see a sort of likeness to herself in that beautiful face. And now the pictures came crowding on her thick and fast. She saw herself throned on high at a great tournament in Calormen and all the Kings of the world fought because of her beauty. After that it turned from tournaments to real wars and all Narnia and Archenland, Telmar and Calormen, Galma and Terebinthis, were laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes and great lords who fought for her favor. Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked like the real Susan only plainer with a nasty expression. And Susan was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now.

There is something of a spiritual seduction in this picture as Lucy is enthralled with the notion of kingdoms being laid waste because of her beauty. But, none the less, this is a romanticized image, not the same as dying of a drug overdose at the age of 16. Lewis becomes more literal about the privilege of being a king in The Horse and his Boy:

“And that’s truer than thy brother knows, Cor,” said King Lune. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desparate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

Lewis didn’t mention paparazzi, or what privilege cost Princess Diana.

Not that I have never had publicity:

My picture on the zipper

I may have had my likeness on the Zipper, but I am grateful not to have received any such attention consistently. I made front-page news in the local newspaper when I ranked 7th in the nation in one contest, but I have never had media attention that long exceeded its welcome. I have been called a “famous author” (though it is not entirely clear to me that this is true), but I have had an autograph requested once that I remember, and not gotten to the point that dealing with autograph requests is a test of my social graces and a chore. I am famous, maybe, but famous à la carte and up to a point, possibly famous enough to have some niceties, but not famous enough that it starts to really, really hurt, like fame does for the people classified as celebrities in tabloids: it seems that only the Dalai Lama (whom one would expect to possess a greater degree of spiritual strength) enters the vortex of tabloid celebrity status without getting sucked into narcotics, weddings that invite the gift of paper plates, or other destructive forces. My experiences with fame have been much lighter—even if I have walked into an area and met a response of, “That’s C.J.S. Hayward!”—I cannot meaningfully say to people with real, industrial strength fame, “I know just how you feel.” I do not know just how they feel, end of discussion.

However, despite that I never had such physical beauty that people envied my face like many do Brad Pitt’s appearance, I have faced unpleasant consequences from people envious of something not too far from my face—not that far behind my face. My face need not inspire envy, but things are not the same for what I do with my brain. And dazzling brilliance inspires the same kind of envy as dazzlingly breathtaking looks: it just (perhaps) takes a little longer for envy’s gears to get rolling than (immediately visible) drop-dead gorgeous looks.

My favorite children’s book was, A Wind in the Door. Charles Wallace, in that book, is described as having an IQ so high it’s untestable by normal means. And such phenomena do exist, in the real world. Our concepts of IQ are rooted in tests originally designed to weed out the stupid, not detect high intelligence, and today if test designers realize that only a profoundly gifted child will answer a specific question correctly, that question will be removed from the test. The group of people having an IQ so high as to be untestable by normal means is a category that encompasses millions, and odds are you’ve met some such person at least once in your life.

(I am also interested in another character, the Teacher Blajeny, whom I will mention but not discuss here beyond providing this link.)

But Madeleine l’Engle, who may have been a heretic but whom I cannot omit from my story because of her being wrong on certain points (“Let he who is without error cast the first stone”), meant the immediate impact of what she said, a child, a six-year-old boy, whose bedtime reading is taken from refereed scientific journals, and who, to help him fit in better in society, reads Darwin. And he is being beat up at school: not because he is trying to be provocative, or for that matter because he is arrogant, but because he talks with people the way he did with family. The schoolteacher asks students what they’re interested in; one mentioned collecting eggs from a farm, another student said their bodies had “skinses” and muscles, and Charles Wallace said he was interested in mitochondria.

For those not up on “the mighty what?”, as his schoolmarm put it, mitochondria are organelles within most of our cells—a microscopic organ of cellular anatomy instead of large-scale organ of whole-body anatomy—and they come to have a place of profound importance in the makeup and even poetic conceits in the story. Madeleine l’Engle wrote in a later work that she had most of the characters in the story, the three Mr. Jenkinses and so on, but they were not moving forward as a story. Someone of her acquaintaince sent her a scientific article on mitochondria, and then things started to really get rolling and fell into place.

But that book was perhaps a fortunate book for me to have as a childhood favorite, errors and all, because Charles Wallace faced a kind of difficulty that has been foundational to my life. There are many more subtle traps than the danger of discussing scientific journal findings in gradeschool. One major challenge surrounds employment. There are some kinds of work that I have learned I am not a good fit for; and I try to avoid them. (One staple of job interview advice is that you aren’t just being interviewed by the company; you are interviewing the company. And you have interest in understanding the company as much as the company does for you.) But there’s another concern of, “What’s going to happen when your boss learns that you are smarter than him?” And one thing I have done in the past is to look through their website, HTML source and all, and write a report suggesting improvements. And that is done because of a double agenda. To a humble boss, this could be less pleasant than some other reports, but it also shows initiative, active research about the company, and a “value added” mentality, all of which are cardinally valuable in an employee. (One of the other staples of job interview preparation is researching and making it clear that you’ve done you’re homework—read the annual shareholder report of a publicly traded company—something usually available just by calling and asking the front desk, or quite possibly off the press section of their website.) To a boss with more narcissism, it is taken as an insult even if it is worded professionally and diplomatically, and the boss who hurls it across the table to a subordinate to address has tipped his hand. Usually my possible future boss’s immediate reaction answers my questions. The guess can be wrong, but the two basic things I try to figure out in an interview are whether the work will be a good fit for me, and how much the boss may need to be the smartest person I’m around when I’m outside the range of talent they have ever worked with.

The tale of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab tells of essentially every social arena, and the basic difficulties arise well before the end of the bell curve, in every area of privilege. The tale of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab is (among others) the tale of the millions of people who, strictly speaking, have an IQ high enough to be untestable by normal means, and my suspicion is that the phenomenon does not start with them either.

But there is a difference of orders of magnitude. Let me paint two pictures of deeply snowy roads. There has been and is heavy snowfall; no salt trucks have been out to the road you are on; the roads are treacherous. But the difference is between this situation is that in one case it happens at least once every year, in Illinois, and the other is as happens once a decade or perhaps less in Georgia. Both are situations where you will get in an accident if you drive carelessly or drive as if you had perfect control of your car and the road. But in Illinois, most drivers have seen heavy snow before, and if you are driving slowly and more conservatively, keeping your distance from other drivers, and in general following what defensive driving prescribes for the conditions, you stand reasonable odds of getting to your destination without a scratch. But in Georgia, if you can’t stay off the road, even if you have practical defensive driving reflexes, the other drivers don’t. You are there negotiating a road with people who don’t have even rusty reflexes for driving on much of any snow at all. And defensive driving shouldn’t create you trouble, but it is also no insurance policy for getting to your destination without an accident. (And as a side note, I mean no slight to our neighbors in Georgia; they might well report that we in the North have muffed some things they do well, like having black and white people play together and work together from childhood; Illinois’s status is of course a much more serious shortfalling than having trouble handling rare weather conditions that hit your locale once in a decade or less.)

And the difference between the phenomenon portrayed in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab may be a bugbear to quite a lot of people, and it is more of a bugbear the further out you go, the difference being the difference between treacherously snowy roads in Illinois and treacherously snowy roads in Georgia. I am sure it is more of a bugbear for the smartest man I’ve met, who besides being considered to have the highest IQ in the ultra-high-IQ community, was (last I checked) working on a cosmology, his Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe (quite different from my own “physics”), while getting his income working as a bouncer at a bar. He may happen to be built like a tank, but I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get at least some money working with computers and stand less in harm’s way than a bouncer is.

The character of Merlin is a wizard, but all things reach their fulfillment in Christ—even Merlin in the longest homily in The Sign of the Grail.

Merlin is thought to be based on the fascinating Desert Fathers, and Merlin’s master was said to be St. Blaise, the heiromartyr of Sebaste, to whom wild beasts came to be blessed and healed of their ailments. And in this respect, St. Blaise is a remarkable figure, but a saint who has quite a lot of company. In the Arthurian legends, hermits play a major role and are often former nobles (Orthodox monastic saints include many nobles), but really all that is truly interesting in Merlin is as a shadow of Christ’s Desert Fathers, of Christ’s saints, and of Christ.

I should also parenthetically comment that my literary identification with Merlin as a character has little to do with being ascribed the role of “Unix wizard.” I grew up playing UltraRogue, spent my time exploring a Unix filesystem when Ultrarogue was not available, and eventually wrote my own Roguelike as a way of cutting my teeth programming. And what relevance being a Unix wizard may have is less through learning the science of computer science, software engineering, and the like, than having one Unix, namely DEC Ultrix, as my home town, forest, and maze to explore.

I have spent the past chunk of time trying to convince myself that an article comparing myself to Merlin is something to avoid. And there are quite obvious reasons: Merlin is not an Orthodox role model, and comparing oneself to someone great… I remember one fellow student at Fordham telling about how she had been in a class where the teacher mentioned a great poet and said, “And I think I can tell because we are both poets…”, and she read over the shoulder of one of her classmates writing in her notebook, “Compares self to [the great poet] on the dubious ground of their both being poets,” and doing her best to hide her smile and laughter. And the obvious Orthodox rebuttal to this work is to say that the Orthodox Church has an incredible treasure of saints, icons, and the saints’ lives, and these are the gold mine from which an Orthodox Christian is to take inspiration, models, and aspirations. And years back, when I was received into the Orthodox Church, I received a diplomatic warning of “I don’t think you’ve fallen into prelest, but you are in danger to,” on my comparing myself to Merlin. And there is more to be said—but this has the sense of more ways for the rational mind to dodge what is in the conscience. And this does have a sense of, “Here is what is in my heart to do, and here are all the reasons I am inventing with my head to dodge it.” And still I am trying to dodge it even as I write.

When I was a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, one of the senior awards given was, “Most likely to be on [the computer and social hub] Imsasun in 2020,” and the senior was, Jonathan “Merlin” Hayward. I had taken that nickname because Merlin was the most attractive figure I knew in literature, more interesting than anyone else from King Arthur and his court, and while other characters would be held in my heart (Charles Wallace and Blajeny from A Wind in the Door), he was the most riveting fictional character I knew before I read A Wind in the Door. I did not enter the occult, but I did study illusionism, and he stood as a symbol of power.

And it was my senior year that someone asked me if I was the local Unix wizard, and when I hesitated, Scott Swanson said, “Yes.”

Now as I look back, I read the medievalist C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength:

What exactly he [Merlin] had done there [in Bragdon wood, where he was believed to be in suspended animation under a university campus] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far to either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their forbidden books, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this was doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.

At my grandparents’ house, I saw a pillow, possibly made, that said, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I am my mother, after all.” And some time after reading it I realized that I am Merlin after all. I have built a castle in the air: the website at CJSHayward.com. I write: parenthetically speaking, Madeleine l’Engle was asked on a college exam how Chaucer chose a particular literary device, and she wrote in a white heat of fury that Chaucer did not choose a particular literary device at all; that was not how authors worked. And the things I write, and the way of writing, is not of rules, techniques, and methods, but an art and not science of coaxing the pieces I write into being, and of trying, struggling, to get myself out of the way to give them room to speak. To return to That Hideous Strength:

“But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were more like physical actions.”…

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”

And this point describes Orthodoxy. It describes Orthodoxy, and others much more than me; but insofar as I have demonstrated that “every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” this offers me no particular distinction in Orthodoxy. It’s like saying that I go to church or say my prayers: of course I do, but this makes me no giant in the community, just a regular member who participates in the community. It has happened, for instance, that I have been given the other end of a leash from a dog who was uncomfortable and afraid of men, and twenty or thirty minutes later I had snuggled with the dog and he was eagerly coming up to other men and smelling their hands. But this coaxing is not just for inanimate nature: it is for all of the creations on my website, creative open source software projects as well as theology and literature. And still this is nothing special about me; not everyone is a writer, but everyone has some area in which it is possible to do such things. The idea of “a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if doesn’t work the way he pleases,” is how Western modernity may view many things, but Orthodoxy holds a different way of relating, a way that is sensationalized and treated as Merlin’s monopoly by Lewis, but it is one aspect of a common Orthodox treasure, exotic in the West perhaps, but historically speaking a meat-and-potatoes set of ways of relating to oneself and nature, domineering when it needs to be (and much more to oneself than to my horse), but a basis for relating to the world that is other than the scientific way to unlearn.

The development of science, their influence today to the point that one can argue today that the problem with theology and science is not that theology is not sufficiently scientific, but that from science, theology in the academy has imbibed things that are toxic to it. Mary Midgley wrote,

It may be easier to see if we notice the way in which the pioneers of [scientific mechanist views] went about reshaping the concept of Nature. Very properly, they wanted to try the experiment of depersonalizing it. With that in view, the first step they surely needed to take was to stop using the feminine pronoun [that had previously seen use, and still sees use when we speak today of “Mother Nature”], or indeed any personal pronoun for ‘Nature’ altogether. But this was not done. We come to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’ and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).

This vile image is part of how Western science cut away what is retained in Orthodoxy, a relation to nature that is to some degree personal, even though creation that is ‘logikos’, exists on the level of knowledge, should not be confused with creations that exist, but not to that degree. When monks and nuns approach wild animals and the animals sometimes do their bidding, the animals are never taken to be human: but there is still a relation as to something more personal than cold matter (a word that etymologically signifies ‘mother’ but I digress). I am a bit nervous about some of the things associated with Fr. Seraphim (Rose), but one thing unimpeachable about him is that (as I have heard from a fellow-parishioner whom I respect) when he and another monk, knowing the services, performed the services in their wilderness abode, some deer came by, and when the parts of the service came when the humans at the service would stand or sit down, the deer who came by would stand or sit down. Setting aside all questions about Fr. Seraphim and the “Blessed Seraphim Rose” movement, this is no distinctive feature about Fr. Seraphim or his fellow-monk; it is something woven into the cloth of Orthodoxy and also found on Mount Athos. For Orthodox monastics animals start to behave like kin, and not just in ancient saints’ lives such as that of Fr. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. And the report above about deer is not something surprising to someone who knows the greatest Orthodox saints across the ages, but only monasticism here and now: monks and nuns here and now, who count themselves nothing (but whose prayers I would greatly appreciate), would find no great surprise, no shock or culture shock, at how the greatest monastic saints have been served by or otherwise connected with monastics living here and now. Maybe there is a difference between great monastic saints and monks living here and now: none the less, monks living here and now have shown an Adamic closeness to wild easts.

Unlearning science

One sees in social disciplines the claim, “___________ are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” The sciences are prestige disciplines, enough so that people in psychology and sociology claim a bit of prestige by showing their embarrassing physics envy, and especially as regards the science-as-worldview approach, sciences represent a step away from Orthodoxy. A large step, big enough that people have a hard time asking, “How else could it be?” Now sciences offer a best guess as to how exactly certain processes happen, and I do not have what a physicist would see as an improvement on current theories in physics. None the less I outline a general bent of natural philosophy that is an answer to the question, “How else could it be?” and in particular “What besides science could it mean to understand the natural world?” This work of philosophy, meaning natural philosophy as the older understanding science once came from, is outlined in “Physics”. There are scare quotes because “Physics” is not physics in the modern sense of the term; it is if anything physics in a sense as old as Aristotle that lies forgotten in the modern world. But the book lies open to us.

Strengths not forged by Orthodoxy

The stories of Merlin have him entering the human race with powers beyond those of the human race; in Orthodoxy, there is a phenomenon of converts coming in with strengths that Orthodoxy itself rarely forged. I got a warning about prelest for thinking of myself as some singular figure in this way, which I am not, but Orthodoxy does not much forge writers, nor aptitude to work with technology. How Shall We Live This Instant? suggests that changing technologies work much more like something liberals can easily deal with than what conservatives can deal with, and suggests that a conservative who can deal with the corcuscating flow of technologies is a “virtual liberal”: there is no loss of credentials as a proper conservative, but a technologically astute conservative can function in a way that comes much more naturally to liberals.

I was quite wrong to think of myself as a singularity in this regard; across the ages, well-functioning Orthodoxy does not produce some strengths. I’m told that all of the saints who bore impressive education were educated outside the Orthodox Church. St. John Chrysostom, for instance, was trained in pagan rhetoric and used his training as a heirarch in the Church; he did not receive an Orthodox rhetorical training and might not have been able to receive such training. And there are other examples among the saints, and among the rest of us. I was sinning to think of myself as a singularity who came in with certain abilities, but I did come in with certain abilities the Orthodox Church does not create itself. Usually when I succumb to pride, it is pride about something that is ultimately a piece of Hell. This time I was proud of something that has a place, although a lesser place than I had thought.


Merlin, in the medieval versions of Arthurian legends, is not called a “magician” or a “wizard;” he is called a “prophet.” The first book that popularized Arthurian legend outside Celtic circles, the 12th century Brut, includes a spectacular set of apocalyptic prophecies that were taken to be legitimate prophecies for centuries after they were written; the Brut, a sort of 12th century “da Vinci Code lite”, is categorized by the Wikipedia as pseudohistory but although doubts were raised about the truth of its stories almost while the ink was wet, it was centuries before almost everyone recognized that it was not history. But as pseudohistory it was not presented as fiction, nor received as fiction, and as a “da Vinci Code lite,” it represented history as people would like it to be. For while a modern text may demonstrate its disconnect from being a proper work of history, no scholar I’ve read has challenged its credentials in storytelling.

I was starting to say that I have, as far as Merlin the prophet goes, any such train of miracles, but then I thought back. It has hardly been my prayer alone, but my prayer with others has brought about healing above a best medical prognosis, and not just once. And it was by faith that I attended Cambridge University when everything was going against me. Student loans, after half of a year’s worth of effort, fell into place one business day before I left to study. And God’s fingerprints have been all around.

Furthermore, prophecy is more than prediction. It is the testimony of Jesus. I asked my Antiochian priest’s blessing to preach a homily, or rather he saw that I was chomping at the bit, and before I preached a stronger version of Do We Have Rights?, he said that spiritual gifts had not ceased, and what I was going to say was, in the strict sense of the term, prophecy. (My homily was responded to by clapping, and the priest, who did not slight me in the least, explained that you do not respond to a homily by clapping.) Now I am under the ROCOR jurisdiction, and in ROCOR even deacons do not preach homilies; it was a special grace to me that I as a layman was permitted to preach as a homily. And the core and goal of C.J.S. Hayward is prophecy: not necessarily that it be heeded and accoladed as prophecy, but that even if it bears few special labels or accreditation, its beating heart is prophecy. And its words about virtue and vice have a stronger claim to prophecy than sensational predictions about the future. Even if some if its words apply to the future, its essential claim to prophecy is to be the testimony of Jesus.

So where does this leave me now? Show me a child’s childhood heroes, and I will show you the man’s heart. Orthodoxy has something much better in the lives of the Saints and other such readings, and I have shown my poverty that I have not got my bearings there. My status even as “Unix wizard” is a little bit tenuous as a claim to be Merlin: I relate to computers and my creations in programming, which are electronic machines and not organic life, as one coaxing a child or stroking a horse. “Unix wizard” may not be a singularity, but I am not a singularity in any obvious sense except that every man is a singularity. (After each, God breaks the mould, even for twins.)

Merlin is said to know “philosophy,” meaning “natural philosophy” or study of the natural world. Part of my critical reception of science (you may call it apostasy if you wish) is to look at what may be natural philosophy without being science. The “Physics” referenced above may be seen as an example of natural philosophy that is not science nor scientific. I have wished to spend more time out of doors, rather than be a “dweller in tents” like Jacob. But the colors on my website of ivy and stone are not a mistake. This website offers, if you will, prophecies in Merlin’s vein. They include:

But these are not the apocalyptic “prophecies of Merlin,” claimed prophecies taken as genuine by some medievals, prophecies like those found in II Esdras, with blood dripping from trees. (Any apocalypse is implied.)

Blaise Pascal said,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all time, all ages, and all conditions.

A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts…. What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remains to him only; the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

And if I am comfortable talking to myself in relation to Merlin, perhaps it is because The figure of Merlin, if deepened enough, becomes Christ, by whom every Orthodox is measured. Perhaps I have long struggled to overcome escapism and the passion that is behind all related temptation, but I serve a God who seeks not the eradication of passions, but their transfiguration, and a position of power can be given its place in Orthodoxy.

And I will close the door here before things really get interesting: when I am offered the saints’ lives, who eclipse all the literary characters I loved as a child and who are steady forces for God to re-orient my outlook. In the lives of the saints, I find the beauty that I loved in good fairy tales—or rather, good fairy tales reflect a little bit of the beauty that the saint’s lives are shot through with. The saints’ lives are alike baby food for beginners and strong meat for spiritual athletes.

Someone said, in reference to statements like, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of clear and proper grammar,” that they are quite false: one can overemphasize the importance of grammar by saying that improper or sloppy grammar is a leading cause of cancer, or that exposure to improper grammar substantially increases risk of crack addiction in 16 to 19 year old males. And in that sense it is possible to overemphasize the value of the saints’ lives, and in fact some have unintentionally done so by saying that at some point in time in Russia, peasants learned about Christ and his life, not from the Gospel, but from the saints’ lives. And that is a false exaggeration of how important the saints’ lives are, but provided the Gospel is front and center, there is much that is valuable and important in the saints’ lives.

So this is where I’ve been. I invite you to join me as I move on from here.

Christos Jonathan Seth “Charles Wallace” “Merlin” “Blajeny” Hayward

An author’s musing memoirs about his work: retrospective reflections, retracings, and retractions

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: science and magic, spirit and matter, and the figure of Merlin

Gifted? Let me harass you!

“Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution

The Steel Orb


The Steel Orb
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, The Steel Orb

I awoke, seared by pain. The images dispersed. What were they?

a flat rectangular courtyard, where brick pillars enshrined a walkway, and in the center was a great pool, filled not with water but with silt impressed with intricate patterns—a place that was silent and still, cool in the shade, with robed men moving slowly and conversing without breaking the stillness

alleys and courtyards and tunnels and passageways that made for a labyrinth, with a byzantine structure only exceeded by turgid forms beneath its surface—I was moving through it before I had grasped its rhythm

a vortex, draining life and beauty, draining the life out of—

there was also a single grain of incense, its fragrance filling—

there had been a storm, with wind and water and lightning moving faster than I could keep pace with, a storm, a storm—

then I awoke.

I had washed up on a beach, barely conscious, torn by thirst. I did not see the city in the distance; I saw only a man, clad in a deep blue robe. I tried to call out to him, but I was torn by violent coughs.

Then the scene blurred, and I passed out of consciousness.

When I regained consciousness, I was in a room. There was a man whose hand was on my heart; he looked familiar, I thought. A woman handed him a cup, which he placed to my lips.

Time passed. I could feel warmth and coolness moving through me. My thoughts slowly quickened. He reverenced me, making on himself the great sign, bowing, and kissing me. I went to stand, but he held me down. “Take a time of rest now. In a day I will introduce you to the city.”

I looked at him. The blue robe looked familiar. A question did not arise in my mind; I only wondered later that I did not ask if he had been expecting me, or if he knew I wanted to be a Teacher. Something in his repose kept the question from arising.

The woman looked at me briefly. “My name is Pool. What languages do you know?”

If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. “I… Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all languages that are spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of ‘common’ conversation. You know how—”

The man said, “Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children’s talk. Go on.”

“And—I created a special purpose language,” I said, “to try to help a child who couldn’t speak. I did my best, but it didn’t work. I still don’t understand why not. And I—” I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.

I looked down and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good with languages.”

The woman spoke, and when I looked up I noticed her green veil and the beautiful wrinkles about her eyes. “You novices think you know nothing and need to know everything. When I was near your point in life, I knew only six tongues, and I’m still only fluent in four.” She reverenced me, then stepped out the window. Her husband followed, although their spirits still seemed to blow in the wind through the window.

I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, and I awoke with a start. The man was just stepping into the window, and I could hear a clink of silver. “Will you come to the marketplace? I want you to find the Galleria.”

He still had not told me his name, nor I mine, but as we walked, I told him about the great storm; it was wild on land but wilder at sea. He wondered that I survived the storm, let alone that I washed up; he quoted the proverb, “Where the wind blows, no one knows.” We came to a merchant with dried fruits; he looked at some oranges. “Have you seen Book since you came back?”

“Yes, but I didn’t get to talk with him long.”

“What did he say?”

“He only said two things. The first was, ‘Put my little daughter down!’ Then the second was… let me see if I can remember. He began to say, ‘No, don’t throw her in the—’ But I couldn’t hear the rest of what he hoped to say, because he threw a bucket of salt water at me. Which reminds me, I don’t have salted fish today, but I have some of the finest oranges from the four corners of the world. This orange grew in an orchard where it is said that the trees once bore jewels. I could sell you this fine assortment for two silver pieces each.”

My host sounded astonished. “Two silver pieces each? You are a dear friend, of much more value than the wares you sell. I doubt if you paid two silver pieces for this whole lot of fruit—look at this one! It must have rotted before it was dried. I can talk a bit, but I’m only buying wheat today.” He turned away.

The merchant grabbed his arm. “Don’t go yet. I’ll give you a friend’s price.” I think he said something else impressive, but their haggling could not hold my interest. The market was pungent with strange smells. I recognised the smell of spices, but what else was there? Something strange. I could hear a tantalizing sound of gears, but that was not it. There was a soft sound of wind. What was evading my mind?

I realised my host was walking, holding a bag with some dried oranges. I hastened to follow him.

“My name is Fortress,” he said.

“I am Unspoken.”

“Unspoken… That’s an ambiguous name. You seem to be shrouded in mystery. Have you seen the Galleria?”

We stopped in the Temple, drinking the flow of chant and incense, and reverencing the holy icons. Then we walked out. Fortress showed me a hedge maze in a public park, with a great statue in the centre. I looked at the pedestal, and something caught my eye. “There’s a passage down hidden in the pedestal to the statue. Where does it go?”

He laughed. “You’re subtle.”

I waited for him to continue.

He remained silent.

I asked him, “Will it help me find the Galleria?”

He said, “It helps me find the Galleria. It will only distract you from it. The far wall of the pedestal opens to a passage down, but it only reaches a network of caves where boys play. There is nothing in there that will interest you.”

“Then what,” I asked, “am I to do to find the Galleria?”

“Why don’t you search? The Galleria is not outside the boundaries of this little labyrinth. Only beware of the first solution you want to latch onto. That is often a distraction, and if you are to find a solution you are looking for, you need to be able to grasp something slippery in a place you are not looking.”

I knocked on earth with my ear to the ground; I looked at the cracks between stones; I even scraped a piece of chalk someone had left on the stones, trying to see if its trace would show me a different stone. I found a few loose items; someone had forgotten a brush, and I pushed a lot of earth aside. I searched and searched, but I found no sign of a passage, no sign of anything unusual save the echoes of a hollow shaft in the stone beneath the statue. It was easy for me to find the mechanism to open the pedestal; indeed, I saw a boy emerge from it. I looked around near the statue: could I be missing a second passage nearby? Yet here the search was even more frustrating.

Fortress gave me a slice of orange, and I searched, hot, parched, the whole day through. I was near the point of tears; nothing in the ground offered the faintest trace of a way down.

I sat back in desolation. I rested my back against a hedge; I could see the sleepy sun’s long golden fingers sliding across the hedge. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to rest; I opened my eyes, and could see that the sun’s fingers had shifted. My bleak eyes rested on a funny bulge in the hedge. That was odd; it looked almost as if—I stared. Standing out from the hedge, illuminated in stark relief, was a bas-relief sculpture.

Someone in a robe—what color robe?—swam in the ocean. He swam down, down, down, down, deeper than a whale can dive, and still deeper. Something about the picture filled me with cool, and I began to see through it, began to see the web that it was—I felt a touch on my head. “You’ve found the Galleria. Would you like to go home now?”

I looked. Past Fortress I saw another picture of a swordsman wielding the great Sword, slicing through darkness and error. The Sword swung around him, slicing through monsters around him, and then with no less force slicing through the monsters inside him. I could see—what? It hurt him to cut at errors inside him, but he wielded the Sword against the darkness without and within. I looked entranced.

“Stand up.” Fortress was looking at me. “You’ve seen enough for now; I normally only look into one picture, and you have looked into two after finding the entrance into the Galleria. We will see more of the city later; now, you are tired.”

It wasn’t until I began walking home that I realized how exhausted I was. I ate my meal in silence, lay in my bed, and sunk into sleep. I awoke, still tired, and was relieved when Fortress told me that he had one proper lesson for me but he would need several days’ mundane work for me after that, and it would be a while before anything else exciting happened.

There was one workroom, one that had a forge, an unstable stack of cups with gears and levers, and a box of silt for drawing. There were several mechanical devices in various states of disassembly; Fortress picked up one of them, and turned a crank. I could see gears turning, but the white bird on top moved very erratically.

Fortress looked at me. “Does it work?”

“Not very well.”

“What part is causing the problem?”

I turned the device over in my hands, pushed and pulled at one axle, and turned the crank. After some time, I said, “This gear here isn’t connecting. It’s worn and small.”

“So if I replace that gear, it will work better?”

I hesitated and said, “No.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“The entire device is loose. The teeth aren’t really close enough anywhere; there’s room for slipping.”

“Then is that one gear the problem?”

“No. It is only the easiest thing to blame.”

“Then you did not help yourself or me by telling me that it was that one gear.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up his hand and said, “People will often ask you treacherous questions like that, and they usually won’t know what it is that they’re doing. A Teacher, such as you seem to want to be—”

“How did you know I wanted to be a Teacher?”

“How could I not know you wanted to be a Teacher? A Teacher, such as you seem to want to be—” he continued, “gives an answer that will help the other person, even if that answer is not expected, even if the other person doesn’t want to hear it.”

Fortress shook the clockwork and said, “What would make it work?”

I said, “You could replace all the gear heads with something larger?”

He said, “What if you couldn’t do that? What if the gear heads were made of delicately crafted gold?”

I hesitated, and said, “I can’t think of anything that would help.”

“Anything at all?”

I hesitated again, and said, “If you made the casing smaller, it would work. But how would you—”

He reached down and pulled two metal plates, plus some other hardware and tools, setting them before me. I took the tools, disassembled the original device, and reassembled the new device with a slightly smaller frame.

It worked perfectly.

He asked, “Is there any way for the bird to bob up and down, as well as turn?”

I tried to think of how to answer him, but this time I really could think of nothing. My sense of mental balance, my sense that my understanding was big enough to encompass his Lesson, was wavery. I was unsure.

He took a metal rule, and smoothed the surface of the silt inside the box. He then began drawing with a stylus.

“What if the rod were not solid, but had a cam and inner workings like this? Wouldn’t that work?”

I looked at him, slightly dazed. “You must be a great metalworker. Can you do that?”

He paused a moment and said, “I might be a great metalworker, and I might be able to do that, but that is not why I am asking. Would it work?”


“Could you make it roll?”

“Yes. Put it in a hollow round casing and then it would roll as part of the casing.”

He laughed and said, “Could you have the front move forward and the back stay in place—without it breaking?”

I cleared the silt’s surface, and began to work diagrams—rejecting several as they failed, working one almost to completion—and then saying, “But that would require a shell that is both strong and elastic, and I have not heard of any who can make a shell like that.”

He seemed unconcerned. “But would it work?”

“If I had such a shell, yes, it would work.”

“Then you have created it. Could you make one that gives birth to another like itself?”

I sketched a descending abyss of machines within machines, each one smaller than its parent.

“Could you make one that gives birth to another machine, just like itself?”

“Yes, if they were all constantly expanding. By the time a child gave birth, it would be the size of its parent when the child gave birth.”

He seemed impressed, not only at what I said, but at how quickly. He closed his eyes, and said, “I will only ask you one more question. How would you design a machine that could design machines like itself?”

I looked at him, at the disassembled machines, at the silt, and then to a place inside myself. “I can’t, and I can’t learn now.”

He looked at me, opened his mouth, and closed it. He said, “We can move to another Lesson. For now, I want you to look at the gears, separating the worn ones from the ones that are new, so that I can melt down the worn ones. You’ve got a meticulous day ahead of you.”

He left, and I began to work through the gears. The work began to grow monotonous. He returned with a leather sack over his shoulder. “I just acquired a number of broken clockwork devices which I want you to disassemble and separate into parts that are usable and parts that need to be melted down. I’ll be back shortly with some metal to melt down and forge new gears out of.” He set down the sack, and I looked in disbelief at the intricate machines with innumerable small parts. I had a bleak sense of how long a stretch of dullness was ahead of me. I started to lay them out so I could disassemble them.

He returned, holding a pike in his hands. “You seem strong, and you’ve had some time to recover. Come with me. Thunder has spotted a bear.”

Fortress stood, armed with a sword, a crossbow, and several quarrels. He had given the pike to me; we followed several other men and spread out into the woods. Fortress told me, “I want you just to search, and cry out if you see the bear—we’ll come. Don’t attack the bear; just set the pike if it charges, and run once it’s hit. I think you have a good chance of noticing the bear. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

We spread out, and I moved along, my feet slipping noiselessly on the forest soil. It was more of an effort than it should have been; my body seemed to move with all the fluidity of sludge. The forest looked more rugged than usual; the storm which almost killed me had torn through the forest, and the storm’s mark was far heavier on the forest than the city. I thought of the saying that a storm is liquid fire.

I looked at a tree that had fallen. The dead tree had broken a branch on another tree, and left an unpleasant wound. I cut the hanging branch with my pike, to leave better wound. Then I placed my hand on the tree to bless it, and left it to heal.

I thought of how the hunt would go. Someone would see it, then the men would gather. Those the bear faced away from would fire a volley of arrows. Those it chased would run while others taunted it. When the hunters left the city, there was an edge of excitement; I don’t think it would be the same if it were not risky.

I continued to move along noiselessly, and looked for a creek. I was thirsty. I blessed another tree, hoping it would heal: the storm had left some rather impressive wreckage. It was dead silent, and when I cut a damaged branch from a third tree, two things happened. First, I heard a babbling brook, and realized how parched I was. Second, part of my pike caught on the tree, and I couldn’t wrest it free.

Leaving the pike for a moment, I stole away from the tree and refreshed myself at the brook. I sat for a moment and rested, breathing in simple joy. Then I heard a stick snap on the other side of a rocky outcropping. I realised I could hear some very loud pawprints.

I slithered up the rock, and looked around. I saw nothing.

Then I looked down, and saw the biggest bear of my life.

It looked around.

It smelled.

I held tight against the rock.

Something under my right hand moved noiselessly. My fingers wrapped around a large stone, the size of a man’s skull.

Fear flowed through me. And excitement. I lifted the rock, slowly, noiselessly, and brought my legs in. I lifted the rock.

I felt with my left hand, and found a rock the thickness of my wrist. A flick of my wrist, and it crashed thirty cubits away.

The bear turned its head, and began to run.

As it ran, I jumped.

I began to fall.

I could see the forest moving as if it had almost stopped.

Between every beat of my heart, a thousand things happened.

I landed on the bear’s back, astride it as if I were riding it.

Immediately the bear tensed, and began to turn.

The rock, still in my hand, crushed the bear’s skull.

I could hear a crunch, and the bear’s body suddenly went limp.

My hand released the stone.

The stone began to fall, about to roll over on my leg and crush me.

My hand caught a thin branch from a tree.

I pulled my legs up and pulled the branch as hard as I could.

I tore it off.

The bear’s body turned.

Something slapped my other palm.

I pulled with all my strength, and my body lifted from the bear.

The bear hit the ground.

I looked around.

Most hunting parties killed a bear every few years.

I had heard of a warrior who had killed a bear alone.

I had never heard of someone kill a bear with only the weapons the forest provided.

I lowered myself to the ground.

I watched the bear breathe its last.

I shouted with a roar like a storm’s fury.

Other men began to arrive. Their jaws dropped when they saw me standing over the bear’s carcass—empty-handed.

Fortress walked up to me.

I smiled, with a smile of exhilaration such as I had never smiled before.

He looked into me, looked at all the other men, then curled up his hand and slapped me.

The slap resounded.

I touched my face in disbelief. I could feel hot blood where his nails had struck me.

“You disobeyed,” he said.

He looked into me.

“Next time you do that,” he continued, “it will be a bear’s claw that slaps you. I don’t know what the bear will look like, but it certainly will be a bear’s claw that slaps you.”

I feigned happiness as I walked back. I tried not to stomp. It seemed an age before I came back to the house; I climbed up the wall and into my room and sat on my bed, furious. The sounds of jubilation around me did not help.

He came up, and said, “We’ve been invited to visit someone while people are building a fire.”

A man was at the entryway; I followed him, and my hosts, through some streets into a room. There was something odd, it seemed; I could not have thought of this at the time, but while the other people paid no heed to my anger, but all of the people with me subdued their joy. Suddenly we walked in a door, and I saw a beautiful girl, holding a clay tablet and a stylus. The whole world seemed brighter.

Fortress said, “How is our lovely ventriloquist?”

She looked at him as if her face were melting. I looked at Fortress, and he raised his hand slightly. He would tell me the story later.

The man exchanged reverences with me and said, “Welcome, bear slayer. My name is Vessel. My daughter is Silver, and my wife is Shadow. Find a place to sit. Will you have a glass of wine?” His wife unstopped a bottle.

The girl said, “Father Dear, will you tell us a story? You tell us the best stories.”

I said, “Please. I miss listening to a good storyteller.”

Vessel said, “In another world, there was a big forest on an enormous mountain. There were plants that grew gems as their flowers, only they were so rare it would be easier to take the gems from a mine—and people didn’t harvest them, because the plants were so beautiful. It would have been a sacrilege.

“There was a dark stone hut, round as a leaf, and in it a Teacher as old as the mountains, with wisdom deep as its mines. He had a gravelly voice, like a dull and rusty iron dagger slowly scraped across granite. He—”

Silver interrupted. “Bear slayer, some time you must listen to my father sing.”

The man continued as if nothing had been said. “The forest was rich and verdant, and every morning it was watered by a soft rain.”

At the sound of the word “rain,” I suddenly felt homesick. It rained frequently on my island, but here—I had not seen rain at all.

Silver said, “Rain is a natural wonder that happens when a great ball of grey wool, lined with cotton of the purest white, sails in the Abyss and drops packets of water. Apparently this wonder has been seen in this city, though not within the time it would take a mountain to be ground to dust. This did not stop my father from making a tub on the top of our roof, putting sealed pipes down, so that he could pour water from a pipe in our room if Wind were ever silly enough to blow some of that grey wool over this city.”

Vessel placed a hand over his daughter’s mouth and continued. “He was a many-sided sage, learned in arts and wisdom. Among the things he crafted were a ferret, so lifelike you could believe it was real. If you forcefully squeezed both sides, it would walk along in its own beautiful motion.”

Silver pulled her Father’s hand down and said, “I think I saw one of those wonders from a travelling street vendor. I looked at some of the craftsmanship and heard some of the gears turning. It must have been made by someone very competent, probably not someone from this city. That didn’t stop Father Dear from—”

The man stood up swiftly, flipping his daughter over his shoulder, and walked into the hallway. Shadow said, “That story didn’t last long, even for our family. May I serve you some more wine?”

Vessel walked out, holding a key. “Please excuse the disturbance. I have locked Silver in her room. As I was—”

Silver slid through the doorway, stretching like a cat waking from its sleep, and ostentatiously slid two metal tools into a pouch in her sleeve. “I’m disappointed, Father Dear. Normally when we have guests, you at least put something heavy in front of the door.”

Some time later, I saw Vessel and Silver sitting together. Pool, Silver, and Shadow had left, and I could hear the warm rhythm of women’s talk and laughter from a nearby room. Fortress said, “We were waiting for you. The other hunters have pulled the bear in. Come to the roast!”

I wanted to ask them something, but there were more footfalls outside. I could already hear the drummers beginning to beat out a dance, the singers with their lyres, the priests with their merry blessings, the game players, and the orators with their fascinating lectures. It was not long before we were at the city center.

A young man pulled me off to the side; I saw, on a cloth on the ground, what looked like several pieces of a puzzle. “And now,” another man said, “you push the pellet in, and fit the pieces together.” He moved his fingers deftly, and I could see what looked like an ordinary crossbow bolt.

“What is that?” I said.

“Let me show you,” he said, handing me a cocked crossbow. “Do you see that bag of sand on the roof?”


“Shoot it.”

I slowed down, took aim, waited for the target to come to the right place, then fired the crossbow. There was an explosion, and I felt something sting my face. When I realized what was happening, I could feel sand falling in my hair.

I looked at him, confused, and he said, “It’s an explosive quarrel. The head contains a strong explosive.”

“Why was the shaft made of puzzle pieces? I don’t see what that added to the explosion.”

He laughed. “The pieces fly out to the sides, instead of straight back at you. It’s quite a powerful explosion—you might find it a safer way to kill a bear.”

I made a face at him, but I was glowing. So these people knew already that I had killed the bear.

I spoke to one person, then another, then heard people clapping their hearts and calling out, “Speech! We want a speech from the bear-slayer!”

I stood, at a loss for words, then listened for the Wind blowing—but I heard only my name. I listened more, but heard nothing. Then I said, “I am Unspoken,” and then the Wind blew through me.

“I am Unspoken,” I continued, “and I love to peer into unspoken knowledge and make it known, give it form, or rather make its form concretely visible. Each concrete being, each person, each tree, each divine messenger, is the visible expression of an idea the Light holds in his heart, and which the Light wants to make more real. And his presence operates in us; he is making us more real, more like him, giving us a more concrete form. You know how a creator, making art or tool or book, listens to what a creation wants to see, wrestles with it and at the same time bows low before it, sees how to make it real; that is how the Light shines in us. And when we listen to the Unspoken and give it voice, we are doing what a craftsman does, what the Light does with us. How do we give voice to an unspoken idea, an unspoken expression? We can’t completely do so; what we can say is always a small token of what we cannot say. But if the Wind is blowing through us, we may make things more visible.” I continued at length, turning over in my spirit the ideas of tacit knowledge and invisible realities, visible, and the divine act of creation reproduced in miniature in us. I traced an outline, then explored one part in great detail, then tied things together. When my words ended, I realised that the Wind had been blowing through me, and I felt a pleasant exhaustion. The festivities continued until we greeted the dawn, and I slept through most of the next day.

All this excitement made my chores in the workshop an almost welcome relief. It began to wear thin, though, after perhaps the third or fourth consecutive day of dismantling tiny devices and then staring at tiny gear teeth to see if they were too worn to use. I began to grow tired of being called ‘bear-slayer’—was there nothing else to know about me?—and there was an uneasy silence between Fortress and me about what I had done. He did not mention it; why not? I was afraid to ask.

I worked through each day, and had an hour to my own leisure after the songs at vespers. Mostly I walked around the city, exploring its twists and passageways. It was on one of these visits that I heard a whisper from the shadows, beckoning. It sounded familiar.

“Who is it?” I said.

The voice said, “You know me. Come closer.”

I waited for the voice to speak. It, or rather she, was alluring.

I stepped forward, and sensed another body close to my own. A hand rested lightly on my shoulder.

“Meet me here tomorrow. But now, go home.”

As I walked home, I realized whose voice it was, and why I didn’t recognize it. It was someone memorable, but she had changed somehow, and something made me wary of the change. Yet I wondered. There was something alluring about her, and not just about her.

The following morning, Fortress looked into me and said, “No.”

Then he left me in the workshop, and I was torn as I sifted through the day’s parts. I was trying to understand my intuitions—or at least that’s what I told myself. What I didn’t tell myself was that I understood my intuitions better than I wanted to, and I was trying to find some way of making what I understood go away. I touched my cheek, and felt the healing wounds. Then I made up my mind to stay in the building that night.

Evening came, and I realised how long I’d been sitting one place. So I got out, and began walking the other way—just a short distance, to stretch my legs. Then I remembered a beautiful building in the other direction, and I walked and walked. Then I remembered something I had overheard—Fortress’s first rebuke had not been everything it seemed. And I found myself in the same place, and felt a soft hand around my wrist. As we walked, and as I could feel my heart beating harder, the ground itself seemed to be more intense. I followed her through twisted passageways, then climbed down several rungs to a place barely lit by candlelight. A strange scent hung around the air. There was something odd, but I could not analyse what. I saw a man in a midnight blue robe bow deeply before me.

“Welcome, Bear Slayer. You did right to kill the bear.”

“How did you know—” I began.

“Never mind that. You did the right thing. Fortress is a fine man and a pillar of the community, and we all need him picking apart devices, day after day—or has he asked you to take that task so he can do something interesting? Never mind. Fortress is a fine man, but you are called to something higher. Something deeper.”

My heart pounded. I looked. He looked at me with a gesture of profound respect, a respect that—something about that respect was different, but whenever I tried to grasp what the difference was, it slipped out of my fingers.

“Your name is indeed Unspoken, and it is truer than even he knows. You were touching an unspoken truth when you left your pike and attacked the bear.”

I couldn’t remember any unspoken Wind, or any sense of good, when I disobeyed, and I was excited to learn that what I wanted to remember was true.

“And I have many things to teach you, many lessons. You were not meant to be staring at gear after gear, but—”

It seemed too good to be true, and I asked him, “When will I be able to begin lessons?”

He said, “You misunderstand me. I will teach you. But go back to him; you have learned enough for tonight. My lessons will find you, and show you something far greater than sorting gear after gear, a power that—but I say too much. Go. I will send for you later.”

My stomach was tight. I was fascinated, and trying not to realise that something wanted to make me retch. “But please,” I said. My voice cracked.

The man shook his head.

I said, “At least tell me your name.”

“Why do you ask my name?”

I heard a sound of a blade being drawn, and a crowd parted to reveal a man holding an unsheathed sword. “Clamp! Do not send him out yet!”

The man who had spoken to me drew a dagger, his face burning red. “Poison! How dare you!”

“How dare I? You should not have held the place of glory to begin with. You—”

“Do you challenge me?”

“I do.”

What happened next I am not completely sure of. Part of it I could not even see. But what I did see was that Poison was great enough a swordsman to make a mighty swing in a tight room.

I saw him swing.

Then I saw Clamp raise his dagger to parry.

Then I heard a high pitched shattering sound.

Then there was a flurry of motion, and Clamp fell over, dead.

In his hand was a sword hilt, and nothing more.

Clamp turned to me, and said with surprising sweetness, “Do come back, my child. Fortress is a fine man, and no doubt he will teach you many important things. We will see each other later.”

I was almost dumbfounded. I stammered, “How did you— What kind of power lets you—”

He bowed again, very deeply. “Farewell to you. We will meet again.”


“You need sleep. You have a long day ahead of you.”

I stood in place, then slowly walked out. I was elated when I heard his voice call after me, “If you really must know something… Everything you have been told, everything you believe, is wrong. Illusion. You just began to cut through the Illusion when you killed the bear. ‘Wisdom is justified by her children.’ But don’t try to understand the Illusion—it is a slippery thing, profoundly unspoken, and we will see each other soon enough. I’ll find you; my classroom is everywhere. Do sleep well. Fortress is a fine man, worthy of respect and worthy to teach you, and I do not doubt he will teach you many exciting and important things.”

I walked back, my heart full of recent happenings. I got into bed, and pretended to sleep.

That morning, I felt like my body was made of frosty sludge. I got up, and when Fortress looked at me, I forced myself to bow to him.

That was the last time I bowed to him in a long while, or indeed showed him reverence of any sort. I resented it even then.

I resented the day’s sweeping and cleaning, but some of my thoughts congealed. Some of my unspoken thoughts began to take solid form. The respect I had been shown—it was different from the respect I was used to. It meant something different, something fundamentally different. It said, “From one noble soul to another.” And the place of meeting was devoid of any adornment, any outer beauty. It had the sense of a place of worship, but as a place it was empty, almost as if it were irrelevant to—there was another thought in the back of my mind, but I could not grasp it.

That night, I thought I heard the sound of Fortress crying. I smiled and slept soundly.

The next morning, Fortress said, “Unspoken, you’ve seen a lot of gears, but I don’t think I’ve shown you how to make a cam. Cams are terrifically interesting, both in terms of making them and what you can make with them. I’d like to show you how to make cams, then some intriguing devices that use cams. Thank you for the sorting you’ve done; we should be able to pull exactly the parts we need. Let me heat up the fire, and then we can both work together.” He looked at me, and seemed surprised at the boredom in my face. We did exactly what he said, and I made several new types of cam, one of which he really liked. There was wind blowing in my ear, but I couldn’t open up and listen to it—I merely wondered that this new activity was even duller than sorting broken parts.

At the end of the day, I said, “When are we going to have a Lesson? I mean a real one?”

He looked at me, held his breath, and said, “I can only think of one Lesson for now. It is not one that you would like.”

I said, “Please?”

He said, “Humility is the hinge to joy and the portal to wonder. Humility is looking at other things and appreciating them, instead of trying to lift yourself up by pushing them down. If you push things down, that is the road to misery. Pride pushes things down, and it cuts it off the one thing that could bring joy.

“You are seeking joy where joy is not to be found. Seek it elsewhere, and it will find you.”

I hastened out to the street.

Once on the street, I went where I had gone before, but no one reached out to me. I explored, and found several people talking, gardens, statues, and a bookstore I’d not seen before, but there was nothing that interested me. Where was Clamp?

I went back home, and Fortress said, “Have you heard of the Book of Questions?”

I feigned interest. “I’ve heard about it, and it sounded fascinating,” I said, truthfully. “I’d like to hear what you can tell me,” I lied.

“I was just thinking about one of the questions, ‘What is reverence?’

“There are three things that we do when we reverence each other. We make on ourselves the great sign, and we bow before each other, and we kiss each other.

“The Sign of the Cross is the frame that sets the display of reverence in place. We embrace each other in the Cross’s mighty shadow.

“Bowing is the foundation of all civilized discourse. When we bow, we lower ourselves before another; we acknowledge another’s greatness. That is the beating heart of politeness; that is the one reason why politeness is immeasurably more than a list of social rules.

“A kiss is everything that a bow is and more. A kiss is a display of reverence, and of love. Do you know why we kiss on the mouth?”

I looked at him, not seeing his point. “What do you mean? Where else would one kiss?”

“I have travelled among the barbarian lands, and there are tribes where a kiss on the mouth is the sort of thing that should be saved for one’s wife, or at most one’s family.” He must have seen the look on my face; he continued, “No, they are not distant from each other, and yes, they live together in genuine community. It is altogether fitting and proper, and our embrace would be out of place in that land. Just because you or I would find it strange to pull back from our brethren this way, as if we were talking to someone through a wall, does not change the fact that it is woven into a beautiful tapestry in their community.

“But let us return to our lands. Kissing on the mouth is significant because it is by our mouth that we drink from the Fountain of Immortality. We reverence the Temple when we enter it, kissing the door and entrance; we ourselves are the Temple, and our mouths are the very door and entrance by which the King of Glory enters when we Commune. Our mouths are honored in a very special way, and it is this very place that we show our reverence.

“But there is another reason. It is by our mouths that we breathe the wind, that we spirit; it is the very spirit that is present in the mouth, and our spirits are knitted together. So the kiss is everything the bow is, and more, and it is the fitting conclusion when we reverence each other. It is communion.”

I listened with interest. His words almost pulled me out of my misery.

He closed his eyes, and then said, “Do you know how long it is since you have kissed me?”

I began to approach him.

He pushed me away. “Stop. Go and learn to bow, truly bow. When you have learned to bow, then you may kiss me.”

I walked out of the room, pretending to conceal my fury.

Dull, empty day passed after dull, empty day. Fortress tried to teach me things, and I really had no doubts that he was a fine man, but… whatever the great Illusion was, he not only believed it; he couldn’t think to question it. I found Silver from time to time, and had comfort by her, but… I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t take me in to the group. And the rest of the world grew bleaker and bleaker.

Then it happened.

I snuck behind her one day, never giving a hint of my presence, until I found myself led into the chamber, the meeting place. They were chanting; there was something elusive about the chant, and I remained hidden in the shadows. Then Clamp himself saw me in the dark, and said, “Welcome. You have made it.” There was a wicked grin on his face.

“Why did you not call me back? Why did Silver not lead me here? Was I not worthy?”

“You were not. Or, I should say, you were not worthy then. We were testing you, to see when you would make your own way in—then you were worthy. That you have come is proof that you are worthy—or at least might be. It does not speak well of you that you took so long. Look at me. Your very face tells me you have been drained by things unworthy of you—dull people, trivial lessons, a warhorse being taught the work of a mule.

“Or at least that’s what I could say being generous. I think you are still enmeshed in the Illusion—it is still quite strong in you. So strong that it can probably affect what you see, make what is before your eyes appear to be what it is not.

“There is another test before you. Take this dagger.”

He placed in my hand a stone dagger with a serpentine curve to it. It was cold; a coldness seemed to seep through my body and my heart began to pump the icy chaos of a sea at storm. I felt sick.

“There is a clay dummy in the next room, exquisitely fashioned. Place this dagger where its heart would be. You will cut through the illusion, and be ready to drink of the Well of Secrets.”

I walked. Aeons passed each footstep; each footfall seemed like a mountain falling and beginning to crumble. And yet it seemed only an instant before I was in the next room.

My stomach tightened. I could not say what, but something was wrong. There was something like a body that was deathly still.

I could see the feet only; the face was covered. Some Wind blew in the recesses of my heart, and I tried to close it out.

I walked over, my stomach tighter. The Wind inside me was blowing louder, leaking, beginning to roar. And then I smelled a familiar smell. How could they make clay smell like—

I twisted the dagger and tore the cloth off the dummy’s face. It looked like Fortress. Then Wind tearing through me met with the breath of his nostrils.

I gasped.

I threw up.

There was a sound of laughter around me—or laughing; I could never call it mirth. It was cruel and joyless, and tore into me. And still I retched.

“Do you need help? Or are you really so weak as that?

“Maybe you didn’t belong here; not all who merely force their way in are truly worthy.”

I looked around on the ground, and saw Fortress’s staff.

In a moment I snatched the staff, and cast away the dagger.

I stood, reeling.

“I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be here, still less to be with Fortress. And I’d like to take a heroic last stand, and say that if you’re going to kill him—if whatever black poison you’ve used won’t already do so—you’ll have to kill me first, but I would be surprised if I could achieve any such thing against you. I cannot call myself Fortress’s disciple; that illusion is broken to me. But if I may choose between reigning with you and being slaughtered with Fortress, I can only consider being slaughtered with Fortress an honor that is above my worth and reigning with you to be unspeakable disgrace!”

Clamp looked at me with a sneer. “I don’t know why I ever let you in, disciple of Fortress.” He grabbed a sword, and made one quick slice.

I felt hot blood trickling down my chest.

“Go on, to your fascinating gears and your deep, deep lessons. Carry your Teacher. We’ll meet again. Now I don’t think you’re worth killing. I don’t know what I’ll think then.”

The blood flowing down my chest, I picked up my unconscious Teacher and his staff.

“The path out is that way. Never mind the drops of blood; you won’t reach us this way again.”

As I carried his heavy body towards the marketplace and then his home, I panted and sweated. Fortress seemed to be regaining consciousness. I staggered across the threshold and then laid him on the bed.

Pool looked ashen. “Are you all right, Salt?”

Fortress looked at her. “Never mind me; the poison they used is short-lived. I’ll simply need more sleep for a few days, and life will go on. Look at Unspoken. I have not been that stunned by a man’s behavior in many years.”

I collapsed on the floor, then rose to my knees. “Fortress. I have sinned against Heaven and before you. If you have any mercy, show one more mercy that I do not deserve. Give me money that I may return to my island, and no more inquire into things too wonderful for me.”

Fortress turned to Pool. “Get one gold sovereign, a needle, and thread.”

I looked at him. “One gold sovereign? But that would buy more than—”

“Bite this,” he said. “I’ll try to make the stitches small.”

“I still do not understand,” I said.

“Never mind. Tell me what our robes mean.”

“Your robe is blue, the color of starry Heaven. Your gift is the one thing needful, to be focused on the Light himself. My robe is green, the color of earth. My gift is to attend to many things on earth. I have wanted to gain the higher—”

“The green robe, and all that it symbolises, is needed, and I do not think you appreciate your gift. And not only because both of us look to the Light and attend to the Creation it illuminates. Place the two colors on the Cross.”

“That is a child’s exercise.”

“Place the two colors on the Cross.”

“The blue robe is the color of the vertical arm of the cross, the great tree whose roots delve fathoms down into earth and whose top reaches to Heaven. It is our connection with the Light. The green robe is the color of the cross’s horizontal arm, connecting us with other creations. Is there a reason you ask me this?”

He placed his finger at the top of my chest, at the very center—at the top of my wound.

Then he ran his finger down the freshly stitched skin.

I winced in pain.

“It seems you are not a stranger to the blue robe.”

My jaw dropped when his words unfolded in my mind. “Fortress, I cannot believe you. Before, you were being generous. Now you are being silly. This wound is not the arm of the cross reaching from Heaven down to earth. I earned this by my own wickedness, and you would destroy me if you knew what evil I had done.”

“Are you sure?”

“Fortress, this evil is far worse than lust. It lures you with excitement, then drains the wonder out of every living thing. What are you doing?” I stared in horror as he removed his robe.

“Look at me.”

I closed my eyes.

“Trust me.”

I opened my eyes, and looked upon his body. Then I looked again. There was a great, ugly, white scar across the top of his chest. He made the sign of the cross on himself, and when his fingers traced out the horizontal arm of the cross, the green arm, I saw his fingers run over the scar.

“I know that pain better than you think.”

I was unable to speak.

“Pool is getting you something to eat. You’ve had quite a difficult time, and your pain will continue. Let’s spend tomorrow at the Temple, and then we can get to tinkering.”

I was weak, and my wound pained me, but there was a different quality to the pain.

I felt weak. Still, as I entered the Temple, it didn’t matter. Once inside the doors, I was in Heaven, and Heaven shone through earth more clearly than it had for long. I smelled the fragrant incense, the incense that ascends before the divine Throne day and night and will ascend for ever.

I walked into the middle part of the Temple, and lay down on the cool, unhewn stone floor, drinking in the glory. I looked through the ceiling at the Heavens: the ceiling was beautiful because it was painted with the blood of sapphires, and more beautiful because it was not sealed. It had chinks and holes, through which the Heaven’s light shone, through which the incense continued to rise, and through which Wind blew. I could hear it howl and whisper, and I looked at the Constellations, all seven of which blazed with glory.

I saw the Starburst, a constellation in which one single Glory shot out many rays, and then these many rays coalesced into the one Glory. I let it resonate. I thought of the Creator, from whom all things come and to whom all things return. I thought of learning one thing, then learning many things, then finding the one interconnected whole behind them all.

I looked at the Window of Heaven: a saint shining through a picture. What was it of symbol that was captured so well? In the Constellation one could see the present connection between the saint and the Icon he shone through, indeed itself a window into how the divine Glory shines in a man.

I saw the threefold Tower: on the ground level was body, and then the lower of the upper floors was that which reasons and assembles thinking together, and the higher of the upper level was that which sees in a flash of insight precisely because it is connected, indeed the place one meets the Glory. What were some of the other nuances of these levels?

Then I looked at the Sword, the Great Sword in the War that has been fought since before ever star shone on dew-bejewelled field and will be fought until stars themselves are thrown down, trampled under those who laughed as children among the dew. It sweeps wherever there is Wind, larger than a mountain, smaller than a gem-collecting aphid, stronger than the roaring thunder, so sharp that it sunders bone and marrow. Why, indeed, was it given to men?

The Chalice, the great and Sacred Chalice itself, that held the fluid more precious than ichor, the fount of incorruptibility, a fount that will never be quenched though the mountains should turn to dust and dust turn to mountains. The Chalice from which we drink, the Chalice we kiss when we kiss the—why again should men be so highly exalted?

The Rod and Staff, as ever, were crossed against each other. “Your Rod and Staff comfort me,” rise in the chant. The Staff’s curves offered comfort to a straying sheep, I knew. And the Rod that went with it—a club with metal spikes, ready to greet predators. A shepherd was a hardened man, an armed guard ready to fight with his life when wolves came to destroy his sheep.

And last, the Steel Orb—a ball, rolling all around an animal hide as the hands at its edge moved up and down, making a slope now here, now there, now a valley, now a shifting plain. The Steel Orb indeed moved throughout the two levels—or was it really one?—of the threefold Tower, now here, now there, now met by complex construction, now silence, now a flash of inspiration. The Steel Orb is the inner motion that is inseparably connected with the world of invisible truths. It is the ear that listens when the Wind blows. It is the placid pool that reflects all that is around it.

I closed my eyes. Then I looked at the Eighth Constellation, the whole starry roof. The Greatest Feast, when death itself began to move backwards, must have come early that year, about as early as possible; the Constellations stood fixed as they had appeared the year the Temple had begun, just after the day began, and the great Vigil began. There couldn’t really be a more representative night to represent the year, nor a better time of that day to stand in.

My breath was still; I stood up, reverenced Fortress and the other Icons, then found the waiting priest and cast off my sins in penitent confession. I do not even remember feeling relieved from that, which is strange: I stood in the stillness as it became song, as voices rose in chant, and the morning was greeted and the divine liturgy began.

I do not remember the liturgy; I do not remember even when the liturgy ended and the priest held a healing service and anointed me with the oil of restoration. What I remember was when it ended, and there were people all around me, their faces alight. It was like waking from a dream, a dream of which one remembers nothing save that there was an inexpressible beauty one cannot remember.

I walked home in Fortress’s shadow, and only then remembered something that didn’t fit. I remembered—or thought I remembered—the priest’s strange advice after my confession: “Be careful. You have a difficult journey ahead of you.”

Fortress sat down in front of the work bench. He picked up one gear, then set it down, then rooted through some axles, and sat back.

“Unspoken, I’ve asked you to sort gears, take machines apart, put machines together, melt gears down, and forge new gears from the molten metal. I’ve asked you to repair machines, and tell me when gears were made of too soft of a metal. What I haven’t asked you to do is tinker. So we’ll have a race. Today you can think, and I’ll make a mechanical cart. Then you can make a mechanical cart tomorrow. And we’ll see, not whose cart can go fastest, but whose cart can go farthest in the smooth part cloister. This will be part ideas and part choosing the best parts. Why don’t you go up to your room? You’ll have the range of this workshop tomorrow.”

I paced up and down my room. I thought. There were several coiled springs in the workshop; having seen some of his previous designs, I was almost sure he would make something spring-powered that would go the distance the spring kept. And how was I to outdo that? He would probably know what spring was best, and he would almost certainly know how to choose parts that moved with each other.

A faint whisper of Wind blew in my mind. I turned over different designs of springs—could I make something more powerful with two springs? The Wind grew, slightly more forceful, and I tried to make it tell me how to best use springs. It became more and more forceful, but I was afraid to drop everything and listen. I began to see, not springs at all, but a burning—

Then I sensed something.

There was something that radiated beauty and fascination. I could not see it. But I sensed it.

“Who are you?” I said.

“I am your Guardian,” came the answer. “I was sent to you.”

I looked. I still could not see anything, but the beauty is overwhelming.

“What is the idea that is slipping? It has fire, and I hot steam, and—”

“Pay no mind to that. It is nothing.”

“How can I build a better spring?”

“Don’t. Build a simple, spring-driven cart out of good parts. Then take a knife, and nick the axle on your Teacher’s wagon. That is all. It will bind slightly, and your cart will go further. Or it should.”

“But—is that fair?”

“Is that fair? He took the first choice of everything, and you know you lack his year’s practice. Come. He wants you to surprise him. He wants you to show ingenuity. This is something he wouldn’t expect of you.”

I thought I could see colors glowing, shifting, sparkling. Somewhere, in the recesses of my being, it was as if a man jumping up and down and shouting. It was almost enough to draw me away.

“But how can I find his cart? Surely he will hide it, so it will not be a temptation to me.”

“Never mind that. I will show you. Just watch me. I was sent here to draw you into Heaven’s beauty.”

Entranced, I watched the colors shift. It tasted—I tasted the same excitement, the icy brilliance of lightning and the tantalizing heat of lust. I never knew that Heaven could be so much like my former craft.

The next day I built a craft, but no pleasure came from it. It was drained of pleasure, but I was looking for that enticing presence. It seemed to have gone.

Where was Fortress’s cart? I couldn’t see it. I looked in nooks and crannies. Something seemed wrong. Then… I was aware of the bad intuition first. But I heard a shimmer. “Look right in front of you.”

Ahead of me, on top of a pile of disassembled devices, was a cart.

I took a blade, and nicked one of the axles.

The shimmer spoke. “One more thing.

“Look at me.”

I looked, and the beauty seemed at once more intense and hollow—and I could not look away.

“Sing an incantation over it.”


It seemed as if a dark hand was pushing me forward.

I chanted, and watched in horrid fascination. Something seemed to shimmer about my cart. Whenever I looked at it, it seemed the same, but whenever I turned away, it seemed as if there was some beautiful incense rising from it.

The next day, it easily won.

Fortress looked at his cart crossly, with consternation and puzzlement. He seemed to be looking through it.

The next thing I remember was retching, on the workbench. Fortress and a priest were standing over me, although I did not notice them at the time. All I could notice for the time being was an overpowering stench. I wanted to keep retching forever. My spirit was sapped.

“That was not a Guardian,” the priest said. “You have listened to a Destroyer.”

“If you meet that presence again, make the Sign of the Cross and say, ‘Lord, have mercy.'”

I looked at him weakly. “What can I do? I thought I had repented.”

“You have repented, and you need to repent again. Pray and fast this week, then make your confession, and come to the Table. Don’t go anywhere near that shimmer, no matter how attractive it is. Run, and invoke the Holy Name. And talk with Fortress and me. And if you fall again, repent again. The saints are all praying for you.”

I tried to take it in. His words stung me—not because of what he said, but because of why it would be appropriate to say them.

He reverenced me, bowing low. I felt something in his reverence.

With Fortress’s leave and the priest’s, I went to the monastery to spend my time in prayer and fasting. I took a lump of dry bread each day, and some water.

As the hours and prayers passed, my head seemed to clear. Foul desires raged, but I just resisted them.

The third day after I was at the temple, I ate nothing, and sang songs, and my body seemed lighter. I remembered the secret learnings I’d made, and they seemed vile, paltry. As the sun set, I suddenly thought of Silver. I was off here, selfishly caring for myself, while she was in the vile grip that squeezed me! I stole out of the monastery, and found her almost immediately.

She placed an arm around my waist. I pulled back, but she held me and said, “I’m just placing an arm around your waist. What is it?” I spoke with urgency and concern, and she ‘just’… I do not wish to recall the full shame, but when it was over, Clamp stood over me and threw a hemp belt. “Bind his hands.”

As I was walking, captive, I thought of the advice the priest had given me. But how was I to make the sign of the cross? I could try. I tried to move my hands, hoping something miraculous might happen.

Clamp struck my face, and said, “Don’t try to wriggle out.”

My face stung. I held my tongue, and then let out a rebel yell: “LORD, HAVE MERCY!”

The world seemed to move like melting ice.




I watched every detail of rage flare in Clamp’s face.

I heard a shift of cloth and bodies moving.

I saw his hand raised, to strike a crushing blow to my face…

…and descend…

…and caught in the talons of an iron grip.

I did not turn my head. I was too bewildered to look and see why my face was not stinging.

I had somewhere heard that voice before. It seemed familiar. And it was speaking quietly.

I had heard this voice speak quietly in contentment. I had heard it speak quietly to tell a secret. I had heard this voice speaking quietly in banter. What I had not heard was this voice speaking quietly because it was beyond rage, a rage that had gone beyond burning fire to be cold enough to shatter ice.

“Let him go,” the voice hissed.

I recognized the voice of my Teacher.

“Let him go,” Fortress glared.

Clamp laughed, and let go of me. “Fortress! How wonderful to see you! May I get you a glass of wine?”

Fortress began working on my bands. He said nothing.

Clamp said, “A great Teacher like you has much to offer, could probe much secret wisdom. You seemed to have a knack for—”

I felt my stomach quiver.

A crowd was beginning to form around us: no one was right by us, but many were looking.

Fortress said, “No.”

My stomach knotted. I had an overwhelming sense that I should move.

I obeyed it.

Clamp looked at Fortress.

Fortress looked at Clamp.

The anger in Fortress’s face began to vanish.

Clamp seemed to be leaving fear and entering terror.

I backed off further.

I saw a faint ripple of muscles across Clamp’s body.

I began to scream.

Metal sang as a sword jumped from its sheath.

I saw, moment after horrid moment, the greatsword swing into the side of Fortress’s head.

Then I heard a shattering sound, and when I realised what was happening, Clamp had been thrown up against the far wall, while Fortress was in the same place.

The sherds of a sword hilt dropped from Clamp’s hand.

The anger vanished from Fortress’s face. He looked, and said, “Come back, Clamp. We need you.”

I could hear the sadness in his voice.

Clamp ran away in abject terror.

I had been fasting. Even if I had not been fasting, I would have…

I fainted.

My head slowly began to clear—much more slowly because Fortress was carrying me again.

“I’ll sleep at your doorway at the monastery,” Fortress said, “and fast with you.”

I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t deserve to—”

“Not as punishment, Unspoken. You’ve endured punishment enough; harsh fasting and vigils are a much lighter load than—but you are weak and vulnerable now. You need the support. And I would like to share this with you.”

The fasting passed quickly. Or more properly, it moved very slowly, and it was hard, but there was cleansing pain. The Wind moved through me, and gave me respite from my burdensome toil of evil.

When it was the eighth day, Fortress and I returned to the Temple. A mighty wind was blowing all around, and its song and its breath moved inside. Wind blew through every jewel of the liturgy. And there was—I couldn’t say.

After the end of the liturgy, when I was anointed for healing, Fortress said, “Let’s go home and get to work. Pool has some money to buy a chicken, and—why are you hesitating?”

“Could I return to the monastery and fast for another week?”

“Why? You have done what the priest asked. You needn’t do more. There is no need to engage in warfare above your strength. Remember, the Destroyers always fast.”

“That’s not why.”

“Why, then?”

“That’s what I am trying to find out.”

I prayed and fasted, and my head seemed to clear. I succeeded that week from returning to my vomit; I think it was because Fortress spent the week with me, and he was generous to spend that long without seeing Pool. He prayed with me, and at the end, my mind took on a new keenness. I still did not know what it was the Wind was trying to tell me.

But I no longer resisted it. Fortress gently said, “You have fasted further, and I will trust you that it was the right thing to do. But why not let this fast meet its summit in a feast? I can buy a chicken, and we can sit down at table.”

“But the—”

“Do not worry about that. If the Wind holds a message for you, the Wind will make that clear enough. Let’s return.”

Once home, I asked him a simple question. I think the question was, “Why are you so concerned for me?” Or it might have been, “What is your experience with the poison I tasted?” Or something else. And he gave a long and interesting answer to me.

I don’t remember a word he said.

My stomach was full of roast chicken, dried lemon, and all the bread I wanted. Pool was generous with wine. Fortress’s voice was humming with the answer to whatever question I asked, and I could hear the chatter and laughter of small children in the background. It concentrated my thoughts tremendously.

What was your error?, the Wind whistled in my ear.

In a moment, I searched through the evils I committed and drew in a breath. Pride, I said in my heart. The primeval poison that turned the Light-Bearer into the Great Dragon. The one evil that is beyond petty sins like lust.

You embraced that evil, but what was your error?

I drew in another breadth. Everything. Lust. Magic. Scorning the beauty of the Light. Seeking to order the world around myself. As I think over the great evils that exist, I do not see that I am innocent of any one of them, nor free of their disease.

Those wrongs have been obliterated forever. They are no more. You are innocent of them. You are being healed. The vilest of these, your pride itself, is a smouldering coal thrown into the infinite Ocean. What was your error?

I do not understand. I have hardly made errors greater than these—if ‘error’ is even the word. Do you mean something small by ‘error’?

No, something great and terrible. What was your error?

I do not understand.

What was your error?

With my inner eye, I saw the pelt and the Steel Orb, only frozen. The Steel Orb needed to move, but it was locked in place. Those words haunted me, chased me, yelled at me. I long lie awake that night, searching to see what was being asked. At last, as the pale light of the dawn began its approach, I drifted into sleep.

I saw, in vivid detail, the moments of my descent. Only it was different in my dream. When I had actually lived it, I saw things through a veil, through an Illusion. I suffered empty pain, and thought I was gaining wholeness. Now the illusion was stripped away, and I saw every moment how I had thrown away gold to fill my hands with excrement. And every time, the Glorious Man looked at me and asked what the Wind had asked, “What was your error?”

I saw a time when I listened eagerly. I was being told secrets, hidden truths beyond the ken of the ordinary faithful. I was, I had thought, being drawn into the uppermost room and tasting with delight its forbidden fruit. The Glorious Man looked into me, looked through me, and asked, “What was your error?”

I was awake, bolt upright in my bed. My body was rigid. In the window I saw that the dawn had almost come. “Fortress!” I called.

In an instant, Fortress was by my side. “What is it?”

“You have felt the pain I felt.”

“Every evil by which you have poisoned yourself, I have done, and worse.”

“What was your error?”

He paused a moment, and said, “Pride.”

“No. What was your error?”

“More evil than I can remember.”

“When you descended into that living Hell, did you embrace evil alone, or did you embrace evil and error?”

He drew in a breath. “Climb up to the roof with me.”

The dawn was breaking; stream after stream of golden, many-hued light poured over the edge of the city. We both sat in silence.

Fortress seemed completely relaxed.

I was not.

“Fortress, I did not win our race.”

Fortress’s eyes greeted the sun.

“I know.”

He drank in more of the light, and said, “Would you like to have another race?”

Time passed.

“You can choose who makes his wagon first.”

“You make your wagon first.”

I drew a breath.

“It must be painful for a Teacher to watch his pupil descend into filth and have to rescue him and carry him back.”

“To me, that is a very good day.”

I looked at his face, trying to find sarcasm or irony.

I found none.


“Clamp was my pupil.”

I didn’t know what to say. I fumbled for words. I tried to meet his pain.

“You seem very happy for a man with no children.”

I saw tears welling up in his eyes.

I began to stammer.

He said, “Let’s go and build our cars. If you want, you can take the silt board so you can design your wagon while I’m building mine. A fair match would be balm to my soul.”

I looked at the board. Something was ticking in the back of my mind—fire on the spring, was it? But why? I set to work on the board, trying to reconcile something burning with a spring and gear box. Something was knocking in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t listen to it. In the end I told myself I’d make a spring driven wagon with a lamp on top: a large one, that would burn brightly.

The next day, I set about smithing the lamp. I enjoyed it, and it was a thing of beauty. Almost at the end of the day my eye fell on something, and I saw that Fortress had left the best spring for me.

The next day we raced, and I lit my lamp. It burned brightly. It finished two laps, while Fortress’s cart made fully twenty laps round the cloister, but he liked the lamp; its flame was a point of beauty. “Keep trying,” he said, “although I’m not going to ask why you put a lamp on. I’ll be in the workshop sorting gears; could you care for customers?”

At the evening meal Fortress seemed preoccupied; it looked as if he was listening.

We sat in silence.

He moved, as with a jolt. “Unspoken, what were you saying to me when we greeted the coming of the dawn?”

My face turned red.

“No, sorry. I mean, before then.”

“I don’t know. My sense was that it was something important, but I doubt if—”

Fortress dropped his bread and moved to give Pool a deep kiss. “Come with me, Unspoken.”

As we walked, he turned to me and said, “The Great Fast is approaching, and we all need to purify ourselves. You especially.”

“But I am working on—”

“That is why you especially need to be purified. Forget that completely.”

I recognized the route to the monastery.

“There are some things I can give you, but you need to be at the monastery. As much as you are able, submit discipline as if you were a monk. Draw on their strength. Afflict yourself. Gaze on the glory of the Light.”


“Trust me.”

Not long after, we arrived at the monastery. He spoke briefly with the head monk, Father Mirror, and reverenced me. “The Mother who held the Glory in her arms now holds you in her heart and in her prayers.” Then he left.

The rhythm of the calendar, of the week, of the day, became clearer. My head itself became clearer. With the discipline I became hazier and the Glory became clearer.

I was praying in my cell, and suddenly it was illuminated with beauty and light, so that the flame of my lamp could not be seen. I was dazzled, and at the same time uneasy.

I looked, and I saw the form of the Glorious Man. He looked at me and said, “You have done well.”

I felt as if there was something jumping up and down, shouting for attention, inside me.

“I will tell you what you are to write about your error.”

I was fascinated. Or almost fascinated. I turned my ear to the man jumping up and down. And wrenched myself away.

I bowed my head, and said, “Glorious One, I am not worthy.”

Immediately I reeled. A stench, that felt as if I was touching fetid—I do not want to say what it smelled like. I fell backwards, reeling and gasping for breath.

I heard a shuffle of cloth, and then footprints. The chief monk stepped in. He looked displeased, although I wasn’t sure he was displeased at me. He bid the other monks leave, and said to me, “My son, tell me everything.”

I hesitated. “You need to sleep so you can greet the morning in chant.”

“My son, another of my brother monks can lead that greeting even if you are still talking when it comes.”

I opened my mouth, and talked, and talked, and talked. He seemed surprised at times, but looked on me with kindness. At the end he said, “I will take the cell next to you and pray with you. The whole monastery will pray over you.”

“I am not worthy—”

“And I am not worthy to serve you and give you what strength I can. If it were a question of being worthy—” he shuddered. “Sleep, and rise for the morning chant if you can.”

That night I was riven by my dreams.

Evils in me that I thought were dead rose up with new life. I interrupted Father Mirror often, and he told me to pray, “Heavenly Glory, if you want me to fight these impulses, that I will do.” And I did. Gradually the fight became easier. I began to count the days, and contemplate the Glory.

As time passed, I lived to join the monks, the stars and the rocks, beings of light, in contemplation above everything else. I looked into the Glorious Light when—

I felt a hand shaking me. I opened my eyes, and collected my presence. Then I closed my eyes and looked away.

“What is it?”

His face was radiant. “I was looking on the Glorious Light, and—”


“I am not worthy to look on you. That light is shining through your face. Leave me alone.”

“My brother.”

I said nothing.

“Look at me.”

I turned to face him, keeping my eyes down.

“You would not see this light coming from my face unless it were coming from your face as well.”

“You mock me. My face? I am not a monk, nor have I gone through years of discipline. And I have—”

“The Wind blows where it will. You could not see this light at all unless your face were radiant.”

I said nothing.

“I have come to call you. It is time for the Great Vigil.”

“Time for the Great Vigil? The Great Feast tonight? But it is scarcely a day that has passed since—”

“I know. I am not ready either. But the Feast is here. And those prepared and unprepared are alike compelled by the joy.”

I went through the Great Vigil at the monastery, reverenced each of the monks. Then Father Mirror accompanied me home, the dark streets lit by the brilliance of his face. I joined Fortress and Pool in the revelry; I danced with Pool. Then Fortress walked home, one arm over Pool’s shoulder and one arm around mine. When we stepped across the threshold, Fortress said, “It is time for a race.”

I let Fortress build his wagon first, and insisted that he take the best spring. Then I sat down with the silt tablet.

My intuition had been to mix fire and water. Or something like that. Or burn water. Or—I sketched one design after another, trying to see how they would help a spring, or gears for that matter. Towards the end of the day, I sat down, perplexed, and wiped the slate clean. I had given up.

That night, I prayed my giving up. Then—it took me a long time to get to sleep.

In the morning, I left the springs alone entirely. I pulled out the metal lamp and made a nearly-sealed water tank to go above it. I put the water tank above the flame, and fitted something special to its mouth. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, and my fingers were sore.

The next day, Fortress wound the spring, and I took a tinderbox and lit the flame. He looked at me slightly oddly, and when he turned his cart around at the end of the first lap, looked at me gently.

My cart hadn’t moved.

At the end of the second lap, he asked me, “Did your cart move?”

I said nothing.

At the end of the fourth map, he said, “Your cart is moving.”

And it was. Steam from the heated tank was moving one part, which turned gears, to the effect that it was moving very slowly. And it continued moving slowly for the rest of the day, finally stopping after it had run a full seventy-two laps.

Fortress walked away from me with a look of amazement. “Unspoken, I’ve got to tell my friends about you.”

As I was drifting off to sleep, the Wind whistled in my ear: What was your error?

The Steel Orb broke free from one spot, and began to roll, first one way, then another. It seemed to be exploring its strength, moving just a little this way, just a little that way.

I wrestled in my thoughts, like a man trying to lift a greased boulder. I was not trying to lift it yet; my fingers slid over the surface, seeking purchase.

Thoughts flowed through my mind, wordless thoughts that slid away whenever I tried to capture them in worded form. I grasped after them with patient, eager expectation.

I did not notice when I descended into the depths of slumber.

I was staring into a dark, deep, colorless, shapeless pool, and trying to see its color and shape. There was light behind me, but for the longest time I did not look into it. Then I looked into the light, and turned, and—

A voice said, “Awaken!” and I was shaken awake.

Fortress and Father Mirror were both crouching over me. I sat up, nervously.

“What is it?” I said, flinching against a rebuke.

“Last night, I was speaking with the bishop,” Father Mirror said, “when a messenger arrived, limping. He had been severely delayed. A Holy Council has been summoned, and the bishop requests that Fortress, you, and I join him on his travels.”

“Me? I would just be a burden.”

“Never mind that. He did not tell me his reasons, but he specifically requested that you join him immediately.”

“What about—”

“No ‘what about’. Will you obey?”

I turned to Fortress. “May I use your crossbow?”

“A crossbow has been packed on your horse.”

“On the way out, may I visit a friend?”


Still in a daze, I reverenced Pool and bade her farewell. Then Fortress gave his farewell, and we found the horses.

I knocked on a door—I thought it was the right door—and said, “I’ve been summoned on a journey by the bishop, and I do not understand why. But may I buy all of your explosive quarrels? I have some money I could offer.”

“Bear slayer, you may have them. Without money. Just let me get them.” He stepped in, and seemed to be taking a long time. I heard more and more rummaging, and Father Mirror sounded impatient. Then he came out, looking sheepish. “I’m sorry. I can’t find them. I’ve looked all around. I wish I—”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just remember me.”

Before the sun was above the mountains, we were on the Road.

We rode along at a cantor. The horses were sleek and strong, and I placed myself opposite the bishop.

He placed himself next to me.

“My son, I offer my apologies, but I wish to talk with you.”


“Tell me about what you did wrong. And what you’ve done since.”

I told him, and he said, “There is something more. What more is there?”

“I don’t know how to say. It’s just that… something about it seems different from struggling with sin. Like there’s something different involved, that is error.”

“All sin is error. Pride especially is illusion.”

“But… Would you say we believe the same things? Perhaps you understand them better than I, but would you say we believe the same things?”

“Yes, certainly. But they do not believe the same thing. It is not a single mistaken belief.”

“What would you say if I said it wasn’t just an error in the specific thing one believes, but an error so deep that… an error whose wake said, ‘What you believe is private?'”

The bishop turned towards me.

His eyes narrowed.

“The highest part of the inner person is mind, but it is not private. In an immeasurably greater way than the five senses, it connects with and wrestles with and apprehends and conquers and contemplates the spiritual realities themselves. Those who choose error grapple with these realities in the wrong way like—like a man trying to climb a mountain upside down. The mountain is there, and the hands and feet are there, but they’re not connected the right way.”

The bishop was silent.

“But… When I stepped into that vortex, I had something of a sense that I was breaking away from the mountain, like it was an illusion, and creating my own private hill, and forging the limbs of my body that I could use to connect with it. I—”

The bishop remained silent.

I fumbled. A flash of insight struck. “I was stepping into a secret, hidden reality, rejecting ordinary people’s reality. That is pride. But normally when we say ‘pride’, we mean an evil of which one part is illusion. Here there it is more like the Illusion is the spiritual reality, and bitter pride is its handmaiden. No; that’s not quite right. The relationship is—”

He looked at me. “That’s enough for now. Let us chant psalms together. I want to hear more, but please, my son, don’t believe I’m only concerned with getting that out of you.” He paused a moment, long enough for me to realize how tense my body was. “Now Fortress told me you’re quite a tinker?”

“He glared,” the bishop said, “and said, ‘and I will not speak with anyone lower than a bishop!'”

“What did you say,” I asked.

“I looked at him wearily, and said, ‘Believe and trust me, good man, when I say that no one here is lower than a bishop.”

He paused a moment and continued, “Unspoken—”

A flood of memories came back. It was not what he said, but how he said it. He had spoken in my island’s dialect. His accent was flawless.

“How do you know my island’s dialect?” I asked. “I come from an insignificant and faroff island. Nothing important has ever come from that island, and nothing ever will.”

“That’s easy enough,” he said, “I was born there.

“Unspoken, I am a man like you.” He paused, and continued, “There is a place I was born. I have a father and mother, and brothers and sisters. I remember the first time I skipped a stone, the thrill when I reinvented the pipe organ. I contemplate and pray, hunger and—”

“Your Grace, how did your father introduce you to the art of memory?”

“When I was a boy, I loved to swim. I swam as much as I was allowed, and some that I wasn’t. There was a lagoon, with a network of underwater caves, and some of them I was allowed to explore. My uncle chipped and ground a mica disc enclosed in a ring of copper, and showed me how to close my eye around it. I could see under the water, and I watched the play of light inside the one largest cave. My uncle also gave me a bent spear, with the head pointing sideways, and I speared many meals with it.

“One day my father looked at me and said, ‘Fire, if you could decorate the cavern in the big pool, what would you put there?

“I thought and said, ‘Blankets along the wall so I could feel something soft.’

“He said, ‘What else?’

“I said, ‘Nothing else.’

“‘What might you imagine?’

“‘There’s nothing else that would work.’

“‘And things that wouldn’t work?’

“I hesitated, and said, ‘A candle to see by, and something to write with.’

“‘What else?’

“‘Come. You are wilder than that.’

“‘Color, as when the leaves of the forest go green.’

“‘And what if there were passageways branching off? What would you like to see there?’

“He led me to imagine this vast network of rooms and passageways, each one different, each one holding something different, each one different to be in. It was a wonderful game, and swimming was almost as enjoyable as this activity.

“One day, my father added another dimension. He walked up to me with a rope and said, ‘Do you see this rope?’

“‘Yes,’ I said.

“‘What is the strangest thing that could happen to it in the antechamber to your labyrinth?’

“‘If it were not soaked, for it to fall down to the floor.’

“My father was silent.

“‘Or it would be peculiar for it to fall, not up or down, but to the side.’

“I expected a smile. My father looked and me and said, ‘Surely you have imagined things stranger than that.’

“I said, ‘It could coil and uncoil, slithering around the walls before coming together to a bundle—and then coming together and vanishing.’

“My father smiled and said, ‘And what of that plate there? What could happen to it in the room under?’

“I laughed at the things I imagined; such strange things happened to the things in my rooms, and I invented things on my own. Then I began to be bored, and my father saw my boredom. ‘This game bores you. Let’s move on to something else.

“‘Look up. Note what position the stars are in. After ten nights’ span, I will open the cover of a box and you will behold forty things you’ve not seen before. Then I will leave you with the box and eat a large loaf of bread. When I have returned, I will return and we will climb that peak, and when we reach the top, you will tell me everything you saw in the box.’

“I jumped slightly, and waited for him to explain himself.

“When no explanation came, I said, ‘I can’t carry a wax tablet when I’m climbing the peak.’

“He said, ‘Nor would I allow it if you could.’

“I said, ‘Then how will I do it?’

“He said, ‘I’ve already told you.’

“I was angry. Never had he been so irrational as this. For seven days I searched my heart in wrath, searching. On the eighth day I rested from my wrath and said, ‘He will say what he will say. I renounce anger at his request.’

“He had begun his odd request by releasing me from my labyrinth; I delved into it. I imagined the first room, but I couldn’t banish the rope coiling and uncoiling. I swam to another room, only to have something else greet me. I swam around, frustrated again and again when—

“My face filled with shame.

“I spent the next two days playing, resting, swimming. I moved through the imaginary labyrinth. When my father pulled the cover off the box, I placed everything in my imaginary labyrinth, one in each room, exactly as he had taught me. It took him a while to eat the bread, so I stared at the box’s rough leather lining. We walked, and talked, and the conversation was… different. I enjoyed it.

“He asked me, ‘What was in the box?’

“I said, ‘A key, a stylus, a pebble, a glazed bead, a potsherd, a gear, an axle, a knife, a pouch, a circle cord, some strange weed, a stone glistening smooth by the river’s soft hands, a statuette, a crystalline phial, a coil of leather cord, a card, a chisel, a mirror, a pinch of silt, a candle, a firecord, a badly broken forceps, a saltball, a leaf of thyme, an iron coin, some lead dregs, a bite of cured fish, a small loaf of spiced bread, some sponge of wine, a needle, a many-colored strand of parchment, an engraved pendant—hmm, I’m having trouble remembering this one—a piece of tin wire, a copper sheet, a pumice, a razor, a wooden shim, a pliers, and a measuring ribbon.’

“‘I count thirty-nine,’ he said. ‘Where’s the fortieth?’

“I ran through my rooms and hesitated. ‘I memorized thirty-nine things, then stared at the rough leather inside the box. I didn’t see another; I don’t even have the trace of memory like when there’s another one that I can’t quite spring and catch.’

“When I said, ‘rough leather inside the box,’ he seemed pleasantly surprised. I didn’t catch it at the time, but I understood later.

“And that was how my father let me taste the art of memory. How did your father teach you the art of memory?”

“I don’t have as good a story to tell. He introduced me to the more abstract side—searching for isomorphisms, making multiple connections, encapsulating subtle things in a crystalline symbol.”

“Oh, so you’ve worked with the abstract side from a young age. Then I have something to ask of you.”


“I want to speak with you further. I’d like if you could inscribe in your heart the things you tell me. When we return—pardon, if we return, if we are shown mercy—I may send you to the monastery and ask you to transcribe it so it can be copied.”

My heart jumped.

His Grace Fire asked me, “If you were to crystallize your dark journey in one act you did, what would it be?”

I slid my mind through my sins. I watched with a strange mixture of loathing, shame, and haunting desire as I—

“Stop,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked that. I tempted you.”

I looked at him and blinked. “None of the actions I did encapsulates the journey.”

He cocked one eyebrow.

“Or rather, all of them did, but the entire dark path is captured by one action he didn’t do. I neither gave nor received reverence.”

“That doesn’t seem surprising,” he nodded. “Pride is—”

“That’s also true,” I said.

He looked at me.

“In our reverence, we greet one another with a holy kiss. That is hard to appreciate until you have tried to step outside of it. We try to be spiritual people, but however hard we try, matter is always included. Every one of the Mysteries includes matter. We worship with our bodies. Fasting does us good because we are creatures of body—all of the Destroyers fast, all of the time, and never does any of them profit by it. Our great hope is that we will be raised in transformed, glorified and indestructible bodies to gaze on the Light bodily for ever.

“More to the point, the holy kiss is the one act in the entire Sacred Scriptures that is ever called holy.”

He blinked. “I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you are right.”

“And… there was licentiousness; we could do wrong with our bodies, but this is only for the reason that the holy kiss was not possible. The spiritual embrace draws and works through body, because body is part of spirit. Their asceticism and libertinism alike exist because of a wedge between spirit and body.”

“How can they do that? That is like driving a wedge between fire and heat.”

“Of course you can’t,” I said, “but they think they can.”

“My son,” he said, “you are placing things upside down. We fast to subdue our bodies, which have become unruly; spirit and matter are not equal partners, nor is matter the center of things. In this world or the next.”

“You’re wrong,” I said. “You only say that because your approach to spirit has always assumed matter. If you had genuinely lived the life and practice of believing that matter was evil, was not our true selves, not illusion, you would understand and not say that.”

I winced when I realized what he’d just said. I waited for his rebuke. Or a slap.

“Go on,” he said. “I’m listening.”

“Or maybe that was too bold. Spirit is supreme; the Glory is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. But… struggling to subdue matter, and impregnate it with spirit, does not let you realize what place matter has. Returning from despairing in matter as evil is very different.”


“Despair…” I thought. “Matter is evil, probably the evil creation of an evil god. If that is true, you cannot relate to the cosmos with joy, not even abstemenious joy. You must despair in it. And—I think this is connected, it’s all connected—if the entire cosmos is an illusion which we must escape, then no less is its creator the same sort of thing. There’s a perverse acknowledgment, I think, that the cosmos must reflect its Creator and radiate its glory. Because if they believe this horrible thing about the cosmos, they believe the same about its Creator, and as they transgress the cosmos as an obstacle they get past, so they transgress its Creator as an obstacle to get past. From what I’ve heard, their pictures of subordinate gods vary, but one of the few common features is that since this cosmos is evil or illusory, and this cosmos must reflect its Creator, the Creator himself must be something we need to get past if we are to find real good.”

“You are describing an error that is really more than one error.”

“Yes. Things are… private. They consider themselves more spiritual, more of the spiritual power we use to touch spiritual realities, yet somehow they have a hydra’s different pictures of what those spiritual realities themselves. In some of them it almost sounds as if that spiritual apprehension is private.”

“I won’t ask you to inventory everything that was private. Did you see any of the Scriptures?”

“Not many. And those I read were… odd.”


“The Gospels are wondrous documents indeed.”


“But they never pander. Never does a writer say, ‘I tell these things that you may be titillated.’ However amazing or miraculous the events are, the miracles are always secondary, signs that bear witness to a greater good.

“And I appreciated this after the few occasions I was able to read their Gospels. Those books do not tell the story of when Heaven and Earth met; the ones I read don’t tell a story at all; they are collections of vignettes or stories, that suck you in with the appearance of hidden wisdom. They appeal to someone despairing of this cosmos and seeking what is hidden behind it. Your Grace, only when I had tried to dive into those crystallized vortices had I realized how pedestrian the Gospels are: the Glorious Man shines with the uncreated Light and we blandly read that his clothes are white as no fuller on earth could reach them.”

“Hmm,” he said. “That’s like—a bit like the difference between marriage and prostitution. In many ways.”

“And… if you understand this basic despair, a despair that forges the entire shape of their relationship to Creation and Creator, you will understand not only their excessive asceticism and their license, their belief that the Light is not good, but also their magic. The incantations and scrolls are in one sense the outermost layer of a belief: if this Creation is evil and illusion, if one must transgress it to find truth, then of course one does not interact with it by eating and drinking, ploughing and sewing. One must interact in hidden, occult ways, and gain powers.”

“I see. But don’t get into that; I’d rather not have you remember that poison. And I assume you could say much more, but I’m beginning to get the picture, and I want to pray and contemplate the Glory before meeting any more of it.

“How would you summarize it, in a word?

“There are many ways our Scriptures can be summarized in a word: ‘Love the Glory with all of your inmost being and your soul and your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Glory require of you, but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly in the Light.’ ‘The Glory became a Man and the Glorious Man that men might become Glorious Men and Glories.’ And this error could be summarized in many ways…

“‘Your spirit too pure for this unworthy cosmos.'”

“Take a rest,” he said. “I think you’ve said enough for now. Let’s pray.”

“Oh, and one other thing. When your heart is set on pushing past the One Glory, there seem to many gods offering their protection and guidance.”

“Pray, child. You’ve said enough.”

We reached another city, and Fortress said, “We have a decision to make. The city we want to reach is due East. The road turns, and heads almost directly south.”

I said, “Why?”

“Because East of the city is the dark forest.”

The bishop looked at him. “I think we can enter the city and buy a good meal. But we lack the time to take the Southern route.”

Less than two hours later, we were re-supplied and heading East. It was weeks before we met anything worse than stepping in poison ivy.

At night, I was awoken by the sound of a foot shuffling. I looked around; it was still Fortress’s watch, and Bishop Fire and Father Mirror were already getting up. The campfire was burning low, and in the flickering torchlight I saw a ring of many eyes.

“Black wolves,” Fortress whispered. “Stand up and mount your horse slowly.”

I reached across my bedroll. Fortress hissed, “No. We can’t afford that. I don’t know what—”

I slid up on my horse and slowly reached for my crossbow. Fortress hissed, “Are you crazy? There are more wolves than quarrels, and they’d be on us by your third shot.” Then he cocked his head and said, “Whisper soothing in your horse’s ear. And be ready to gallop.”

The wolves had become visibly closer in this scant time; one started to run towards Fortress’s horse. Then Fortress reared and parted his lips, and bellowed.

I have never heard a man roar that loudly. Not before, not after. It hurts my ears to think about it. He roared like thunder, like waterfall, like an explosion. The wolf was stunned, and immediately he was galloping forward, the wolves running from him in abject terror. It was all I could do to control my horse, and it took some tracking before Fortress found Father Mirror.

We sat in our saddles; every sound, every smell, seemed crisper. Then I realized that tendrils of dawn were reaching around, and as we rode on, we descended into a clearing and His Grace said, “Look! The great city itself: Peace.”

It seemed but an hour and we were inside the great city itself. Having taken time to drink our fill of water, but not eat, we came into the great chamber where the holy bishops and the other attendees were gathered.

I could hear Wind blowing. I tried to listen.

“And I know,” an archbishop said, “that not everyone can scale the hidden peaks. But you misunderstand us gravely if you think we are doing a poorer job of what you do.”

Several heads had turned when we entered. An archbishop said, “Your Grace Fire! May the Glory grant you many years. Have you any thoughts?”

The Wind whispered in my ear, and quite suddenly I climbed on top of a table in an empty part of the chamber. I ignored the shock of those around me, so intently was I listening to the Wind’s whisper.

“If that is anything,” I shouted, “but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down!”

I heard a click, and then several things happened at once. I was thrown violently forward, and I heard an explosion. I felt an unfamiliar sensation in my back, and I tasted blood.

A deathly silence filled the room. I began to move, and slowly picked myself up. “I repeat,” I said. “If that is anything but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down.”

There was another explosion, and I felt fire on my back. I stood unmoved.

“I repeat. If that is anything but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down!”

The Wind whispered, “Duck!”

I ducked, and a crossbow quarrel lodged itself in the wall.

Time oozed forward.

There was a scuffle, and four soldiers entered. One of them was holding a crossbow. Three of them were holding Clamp.

“Fathers and brothers, most reverend bishops and priests, deacons and subdeacons, readers and singers, monks and ascetics, and fellow members of the faithful, may the Glory reside in Heaven forever! I speak from painful awareness that what that son of darkness says is false. That is how it presents itself: a deeper awareness, a higher truth.

“This Council was summoned because you know that there is a problem. There are sins that have been spreading, and when you encourage people to penitence, something doesn’t work. It is as if the disease of sin separated us from our natural union with the Light, and when the chasm was deep, the Glorious Man became Man, the Great Bridge that could restore the union… and something strange happened. Men are sliding off the Bridge.

“Fathers and brothers, the problem we are dealing with is not only a chasm that needs to be bridged. The problem is a false path that leads people to slip into the chasm.

“This error is formless; to capture it in words is to behead the great Hydra. It will never be understood until it is understood as error, as deadly as believing that poison is food.

“It is tied to pride; far from enjoying Creation, visible and invisible, however ascetically, it scorns that which we share, and the path of salvation open to mere commoners. It’s the most seductive path to despair I’ve seen. I know. I’ve been there. The teaching that we are spirit and not body, that there is a sharp cleavage between spirit and body… I don’t know how to distinguish this from proper asceticism, but it’s very different. When we fast, it is always a fast from a good, which we acknowledge as good when we give it back to the Light from whom every good and perfect gift shines. This is a scorn that rejects evil; I don’t know all the mythologies, but they do not see the world as the shining of the Light. The true Light himself would never stain his hands with it; it is the evil creation of a lesser god.

“And it is despair. It tingles, it titillates, it excites at first, and all this is whitewash to cover over the face of despair. Everything that common men delight in is empty to them, illusory joy. The great Chalice, that holds the meat of the Glorious Man’s own flesh and holds the fluid more precious than ichor, his own true blood, the fluid that is the divine life—that all who partake see what they believe and become what they behold, younger brothers to the Glorious Man, sons of Light, sustained by the food of incorruption, servants in the Eternal Mansion who are living now the wonder we all await—I will not say what exciting thing they propose to replace it by. Some manage, I know not how, to find greater wonder in saying the Man was not the Glory and the Chalice as we know it is nothing. But it is in the beginning as sweet as honey, and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword. In a word, it says, ‘Your spirit is too pure for this unworthy cosmos.’

“It is not healthy to dwell long on such things; I will not tell how its broken asceticism turns to people believing they can do whatever they wish with their bodies. (If the body is evil, not our true self…) He who long gazes into darkness may find his eyes darkened very soon or very slowly. In either case it is not good. But I will say this: Gaze on the Light, be strengthened by the Glorious Man, and listen to the Wind, and the better you know it, the less Darkness will look like Light. And we can rise against this error as error.”

The archbishop who spoke when I entered said, “Would His Grace Fire please speak? I believe he has been rudely interrupted.”

His Grace Fire looked at him levelly. “I have already spoken,” he said, “and I have nothing further to say.”

Then His Grace turned to me. “Unspoken. Your robe is damaged beyond repair. Would you like a green or blue robe to replace it?”

My voice quivered. “A green robe was chosen for me. I need to—”

“That isn’t what I asked of you. Would you like a green or blue robe to replace it?”

I looked at Fortress.

He fell on his face prostrate before me and said, “Dear Unspoken, you have surpassed my humble tutelage for ever. I release you.”

I turned back to His Grace Fire. “A blue robe.”

Then I turned to Father Mirror. “To gaze on the glory as a member of your monastery.”

A flask of oil was in the bishop’s hands. “Unspoken, I give you a new name. You have spoken the unspoken. You have delved into the unspoken, searched it out, drawn forth jewels. I anoint you Miner.”

All was still as he anointed my forehead, my eyes, my mouth, the powers of my body.

The Council’s decision was swift. My words had opened a door; insight congealed in the hearts of those present. It moved forward from discussion to decrees, and decrees in turn gave way to the divine liturgy.

I had never been at a Meal like that, and have never been at one since. The uncreated Light shone through every face. I saw a thousand lesser copies of the Glorious Man. The Wind blew and blew. The Glory remained with us as we rode home.

We rode in to the city, and I saw Pool. She—she looked different. But I couldn’t say why. Was I seeing a new beauty because of the Light? I sat silently and watched as Fortress dismounted. She walked up to him, and slowly placed one arm over one of his shoulders, and then the other arm over the other of his shoulders, and looked at him and said, “There is life inside me.”

His eyes opened very wide, and then he closed them very tightly, and then he gave Pool the longest kiss I have ever seen.

“Wait,” Father Mirror said. “First discharge your duty to our bishop. You will have this life and the next to gaze on the Glory. My guest room is free to you for as long as you need.”

I looked at him wistfully.

“The highest oath a monk takes is obedience. That oath is the crystallization of manhood, and when you kneel before me as your father, your spirit will fall in absolute prostration before the Father of Lights for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named. And if you are to be in obedience to me, you can begin by waiting to take that oath.”

I waited.

The days passed swiftly. Quills and scrolls were given to me, and I inscribed three books. I wrote The Way of Death, in which I wrote about the error as a path, an encompassing way of living death, in which error, evil, and sin were woven together. I contemplated, prayed, and spoke with Fortress and others. Then I wrote The Way of Healing, in which I answered the question, “If that is the path we should avoid, what path should we walk instead?” Then I wrote The Way of Life, in which I left the way of death behind altogether, and sought to draw my reader before the throne of the Glory himself. I wrote:

But what can I say? The Light is projected down through every creature, everything we know, yes, even the Destroyers themselves. But if we try to project upwards and grasp the Light, or even the hope that awaits us, it must, it must, it must fail. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” These rooms are nothing other than us ourselves—the habitations and places into which we invite friend and stranger when we show our loves, and the clay that is being shaped into our glory, the vessels we will abide in forever. The Tree from which we were once banished, has borne Fruit without peer, and we will eat its twelve fruits in the twelve seasons. Yet a tree is smaller than a man, and a man is smaller than—

The temple where we worship, where Heaven and earth meet, is now but the shadow cast when the Light shines through the Temple that awaits us. The Light is everywhere, but we capture him nowhere. He is everything and nothing; if we say even that he Exists, our words and ideas crumble to dust, and if we say that he does not Exist, our words and ideas crumble beyond dust. If we look at the Symbols he shines through, everything crumbles, and if we say that everything crumbles, those words themselves crumble.

I end this book here. Leave these words behind, and gaze on the Glory.

I dropped my pen and sat transfigured in awe. I was interrupted by shaking. “It’s time for the Vigil?”

I began to collect myself. “Vigil?”

“The Vigil of when Heaven and earth met, and the Word became flesh.”

I opened my eyes. I realized the end of a fast had arrived.

“The books are finished.”



I do not remember the Vigil; I saw through it, and was mindful only of the Glory. The head monk learned I had finished, and the bishop was called.

Then came the feast. Pool held a son at her breast, and looked dishevelled, tired, radiant. Fortress beamed. His Grace Fire spoke on the three gifts given the Glorious Man: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Gold was a reverent recognition of his kingship, Myrrh a reverent recognition of his suffering, and Frankincense a reverent recognition of his divinity. He turned these three over and over again, blending them, now one showing, and now another. His words burned when he said that in the person of the Glorious Man, these gifts were given to the entire community of Glorious Men.

The feast was merry, and when it wound down, Father Mirror welcomed me into the community. It was a solemn ceremony, and deeply joyful. I swore poverty, chastity, and obedience. I found what I had been seeking when I fled my island. Then I was clothed—I was given the shroud, the cocoon of metamorphosis by which I was to be transfigured during the rest of my life.

After I retired to my room, I heard a knock at my door, followed by quick footsteps. I looked around, but saw no one.

Then I looked down, and saw a gift box. It was empty. Or was it?

Inside was a single grain of Frankincense.

Firestorm 2034

The Sign of the Grail


Within the Steel Orb

The Mindstorm


Read it on Kindle for $3!

The Alumnus: Hello. I was in town, and I wanted to stop in for a visit.

The Visionary: How good to see you! What have you been up to? We’re all interested in hearing what our alumni are doing.

The Alumnus: Well, that would take a bit of explaining. I had a good experience with college.

The Visionary: That’s lovely to hear.

The Alumnus: Yes, and I know that some alumni from our Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, also known as IMSA, didn’t. I got through college the same way I got through gradeschool, playing by the law of the jungle. I stopped and thought about how to approach college. I realized soon that higher numbered courses were easier than lower numbered courses, and how to find professors I could work with. And I understand why one alumna said, “IMSA didn’t prepare me for college. It prepared me for graduate school.” College will not automatically be a good experience for IMSA students, but there are choices the college won’t advertise but could be made.

The Visionary: I wish you could speak to some of our students.

The Alumnus: I’d like the opportunity. There are a lot of things to say—that there’s a normal scale of elementary-junior high-high school-undergraduate-graduate school, and IMSA doesn’t fit on it. It has high school aged students, but it’s not a modified high school; it’s close in ways to graduate school, but there’s something about it that is missed if you put it at any one point on the scale. And this has the result that IMSA students need to realize that when they enter college, they are not going from high school to the next step after high school; they’re going from IMSA to something that was not meant to follow IMSA. But something that has opportunities if they knock on back doors and take advantage of some things the university doesn’t know they need.

The Visionary: If you’re serious about talking to our students, I mean talking with our students, I can introduce you to the appropriate people.

The Alumnus: Thank you. I was mentioning this to lead up to a gem of a class I took, one on what you need to know to make user-friendly computer programs, i.e. usability. There was something that set me thinking, nettled me, when I was reading through some of the jargon file’s Hell desk slang, um, I mean help desk slang. The term “pilot error” meant much the same thing as “ID ten T error”.

The Visionary: I know what “pilot error” means in some contexts, but what does “ID ten T error” mean?

The Alumnus: It’s easiest to see if you write it out.

The Visionary [goes to a markerboard and writes, “I D 1 0 T” ]: Um… I assume there’s a reason you started to say, “Hell desk.” Aren’t they just blowing off steam?

The Alumnus: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the ways many help desk employees have blown off steam is to say, “Ok. If you’ll hold for a minute, I’m going to transfer you to my supervisor. Would you tell her that you appear to have an ‘eye dee ten tee’ error?” And they all gloat over what they’ve gotten the customer to say. No, seriously, you don’t need to keep a straight face.

But what really struck me was the entry for PEBKAC, acronym for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.” There was an example given of,

Did you figure out why that guy couldn’t print?

Yeah, he kept canceling the print operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.

This was philosophically interesting.

The Visionary: How?

The Alumnus: In a computer, you get these time wasting messages where a little window pops up and you can’t do any useful work until you click on the button. It becomes noise for the sake of noise; like the boy who cried, “Wolf!”, we have the computer that cries, “Worth your attention.” After a while, the normal thing most people do is click on the button automatically so they can get back to their work. It’s a waste of time to try to decipher the cryptic messages.

So when people go to print, another one of these waste-of-time windows pops up, except that this time, when you do the right thing and click on the button and make it go away, your print job fails. And this specific example is chosen as a paradigm example of PEBKAC.

For a lot of these errors, there is a problem between a keyboard and chair. But the problem isn’t between the user’s keyboard and chair. The problem is between the programmer’s keyboard and chair.

The Visionary: Ouch.

The Alumnus: That course was what led to what I did for my Ph.D.

The Visionary: And that was?

The Alumnus: My discipline of record is philosophy of mind/cognitive science.

The Visionary: “Discipline of record?” I’m curious to hear you drop the other shoe.

The Alumnus: Usability is connected to cognitive science—an amalgam of computer science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, and other areas, all trying to understand human thought so we can re-implement it on a computer. It’s a fascinating area for interdisciplinary study, and usability draws on it, just from a different angle: instead of making computers intelligent, it tries to make computers friendly to people who don’t understand how they are built. And a lot of things which are clear as day if you built the system aren’t automatically clear to customers. A system which is usable lets the user have an illusory cognitive model of how the system works that is far, far simpler than how a programmer would understand it. And programmers don’t consciously believe that customers understand the innards of their system, but there’s an assumption that creeps in, an assumption of, “My way of thinking about it is how a person thinks about it.”

The Visionary: That way of putting it makes the programmers sound ego-centric.

The Alumnus: I wouldn’t put it in such crude terms as that; they are thinking in a way that is human.

With languages, there is a lot of diversity. Aside from the variety of languages, there’s a difference between the U.S., where the majority only speak one language, and Sénégal, where it is common for people to speak five or six languages. There’s a difference between Italy, where people speak one national language in a fairly pure form, and India, where English and Hindi are spliced together seamlessly. For that matter, there’s the deaf outlet of speaking with your hands instead of your mouth. But with all these differences, language itself is not something which is added to being human. Language is not a custom that cultures may happen to include. There are exceptional cases where people do not learn a language, and these are tragic cases where people are deprived of a human birthright. The specifics of language may vary, but language itself is not adding something to being human. It is something that is basically human. The details and even diversity of languages are details of how language works out.

And a lot of things are like that. Understanding something that you’re working on is not something added to being human; it’s an interpretation of something basic. How one thinks, about technology and other things, is not something added to being human. It’s something basically human.

One very natural tendency is to think that “I” or “we” or “people like us” are just being human; we just have what is natural to being human. The “them” group has all sorts of things that are added to being human, but “we” are just being human. So we expect other people to think like us. We assume it so deeply and unconsciously that we are shocked by their perversity when they violate this expectation.

The Visionary: Wow. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. Do you think IMSA provided a safe haven from this kind of lockstep thinking for its students?

The Alumnus: I think it provides a safe haven for quite a lot of its students. But getting back to my Ph.D. program—

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: So I began, encouraged by some initial successes, to try and make the first artificial mind. For a while I thought I would succeed, after overcoming some obstacles that couldn’t have been that bad.

The Visionary: What were these obstacles?

The Alumnus: Just a special case here and there, an unrepresentative anomaly. But when I worked, I had a sneaking suspicion dawn on me.

Freshman year, I had a college roommate who was brilliant and eccentric. He turned out stunning proofs in math classes. He was also trying to build a perpetual motion machine. He was adjusting this and that; I listened, entranced, when he traced the history of great experiments in physics, and talked about how across the centuries they went from observing obvious behavior to find subtle ways to trick nature into showing you something you weren’t supposed to see. Think of the ingenuity of the Millikan oil drop experiment. And so he went on, trying to adjust this and that, seeking to get things just right for a perpetual motion machine. There were times when he seemed to almost have it. It seemed there were ten things you needed for a perpetual motion machine, and he had an almost working machine for any nine of them. But that tenth one seemed never to fall into place.

And I had a sneaking suspicion, one that I was going to try awfully hard to ignore, that for a long time I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was expecting. But deja vu kept creeping in. I had just succeeded with a project that met every clearly defined goal I set for it… but I had just found another way not to make artificial intelligence.

The crusher was when I read von Neumann’s 1958 The Computer and the Brain. Then I stopped running from deja vu. Here was crass confidence that in 1958 we discoved the basis for all human thought, and all human thought is add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Here was an assumption in lieu of argument. And here was the air I breathed as a cognitive science.

The Visionary: But I’ve looked at some reports, and artificial intelligence seems to be just around the corner.

The Alumnus: Full artificial intelligence is just around the corner, and it’s been just around the corner since at least the fifties—arguably much longer, because for a hundred years before the brain was a computer, it was a telephone exchange. (I think that’s why we talk about a person being “wired” a particular way.) The brain is always understood as the state of the art technology we’re most proud of.

I hit rock bottom after thinking about how I had convinced myself I was creating a working artificial intelligence by obtaining results and reinterpreting results as success. It’s very seductive, and I was thinking about what some skeptics had said about magic.

What emerged was… The effort to make computers think has found ways that the human mind is much more interesting than we thought. And I began to push in a new direction. Instead of trying to understand human intelligence to make computers more intelligent, I began to try to understand human intelligence to make humans more intelligent.

The Visionary: What exactly do you mean?

The Alumnus: There are a lot of disciplines that teach you how to think. I think scholars in many disciplines see their discipline as the discipline that teaches you how to think, where truly different disciplines are a sort of no-man’s land that doesn’t qualify as “how to think.” But these are a coupled subject matter and how to think about the subject matter. This was, in abstracted, crystalline, and universal form, “How to think.” The analogy I used at the time was that it was the elementary school number line (1, 2, 3, …), abstracted from sets of one physical object, two physical objects, three physical objects…

The Visionary [pausing]: It sounds like you’re pioneering a new academic discipline. Would you like IMSA to highlight this?

The Alumnus: I am working that out. Not exactly whether what I am doing would qualify as an academic discipline—I’m pretty sure of that—but whether going down that route would be the wisest choice. For now, I’d rather wait.

The Visionary: Are you sure you wouldn’t want the prestige? Hmm… on second thought, I can see that.

What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?

The Alumnus [pause]: That question is one of the first ones people ask me. It’s automatic.

In tandem with what you might call my loss of faith in cognitive science, I began to question the cultural place of science. Including that in a question like this, the nearly immediate question people ask is one that assumes the answers are fed by science. Three of the most difficult mental accomplishments I’ve made are learning to think like a scientist, crafting this discipline of how to think, and learning to genuinely ask “How else could it be?” when people automatically go charging in with science.

The Visionary: But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?

The Alumnus: Both your questions, “What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?” and “But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?” are examples of the tendency I’m talking about. Your latter question assumes that “understanding the body” and “study the science of the body” are interchangeable terms; they often are treated that way in Western culture, but they need not be.

The Visionary: But how else could it be?

The Alumnus: In journalism and some writing classes, students are taught a technique of cubing, which asks six questions, one for each side of the cube. The six questions are all “w” words: who, what, when, where, and how.

In most aboriginal cultures, for instance, people ask more than one question, but the big question is, “Why?” The stories provide explanations for why the world is as it is.

In science, the big question is, “How?” Laws and theories provide mechanisms for how things happen. “Why?” isn’t just de-emphasized; it’s something people learn not to ask, something that is subtly stamped out like much of a child’s creativity. Asking “Why?” is a basic error, like asking how much an idea weighs. One philosopher of science I read gave an example of a father asking a teenaged son, “Why is the living room light on?” and getting the answer, “Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, closing the circuit and causing electricity to flow through the bulb.” That isn’t why, that’s how. And if students are taught science without being taught how to be independent from science, or for that matter if they are in a culture influenced by science as ours has been, they’ll come to share the assumption that this is the one and only serious answer to, “Why is the living room light on?”

That puts things too simply, but my point is that science does not represent the full range of inquiry. Science has cast a powerful shadow, not just in that science is scientific (which is as it should be) but in that non-scientific inquiry is not as independent as it should be.

But I’m getting off topic. What I was meaning to say was that I use science, but my discipline is dependent on an independence from science as well.

The Visionary: Could I backtrack a fair distance?

The Alumnus: Sure, to what?

The Visionary: There was something in the back of my mind when you answered my question about IMSA shielding its students from a lockstep environment. May I ask a more specific question?

The Alumnus: Certainly.

The Visionary: Did IMSA shield you from a lockstep environment?

The Alumnus: IMSA was unquestionably a better environment for me than a mainstream school.

The Visionary: You’re being diplomatic.

The Alumnus: Ok. IMSA tries to be a magnet school serving the gifted population. Instead of memorization, it tries to produce critical observers, right?

The Visionary: Yes, and this isn’t just for IMSA. We want to be a beacon of hope, for educational progress to the state and to the world.

The Alumnus: IMSA still doesn’t have a football program, right?

The Visionary: IMSA students still don’t really want one. If there was enough demand, we’d have one.

The Alumnus: What would you say to a football coach who wanted to liberate the tough, aggressive quarterback struggling to get out of every IMSA bookworm?

The Visionary: I think I see where you’re going. Let me play devil’s advocate for the moment. Our society has recognized football as an endeavor for some. But don’t we recognize that education is a goal for all?

The Alumnus: All analogies break down, and I can’t force you to see my point if you don’t want to. My reason for drawing that analogy is that the average mind learns by memorization of given material, and that mind is ill-served by trying to liberate that critical observer just as many bookworms would be ill-served by trying to liberate that hidden quarterback. The kind of student that does well at IMSA doesn’t do so well with the memorization that serves the average student. But it’s a two-way street.

The Visionary: And I think I see a connection to what you said about programmers assume that how they think about a product is how everybody will think about it. And…

The Alumnus: Yes. But there’s something else.

The Visionary: So how do you think IMSA’s outreach should be changed? Should we stop outreach?

The Alumnus: I’d want to give that some thought. That isn’t why I brought this up. I brought up this two-edged sword to make it easier to see another two-edged sword.

The two-edged sword I’ve suggested is that, just as IMSA students tend to be uncomfortable with the instructional methods at most schools, average students would be uncomfortable with instruction that seeks to liberate a hidden critical observer. It’s a bad match both ways. The other two-edged sword has to do with the nature of giftedness. How would you define giftedness?

The Visionary: I try not to, at least in not as strong terms as you do. IMSA is trying to liberate the genius of every child.

The Alumnus: I think your actions are wiser than your rhetoric. How much thought goes into your admissions decisions?

The Visionary: Our admissions staff give a great deal of thought! Do you think we’re careless?

The Alumnus: I would have been disturbed if IMSA made a random choice from among the students whose genius would be nurtured. Are you sure you don’t want to define giftedness?

The Visionary: Every child has some talent.

The Alumnus: I agree, although your words sound suspiciously like words that many IMSA parents have learned to wince at. There are a lot of parents who have bright children who have learned that “All of our children are gifted.” means, in practical terms, “Your daughter will be educated according to our idealization of an average student, no matter how much it hurts her, and we won’t make accomodation.”

But you are, unlike me, an administrator whom everybody blames for problems, and you know that there are many occasions where coming out and expressing your candid opinions is an invitation to disaster. I groused about the administration to no end as a student; it is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the difficult and delicate task of being an administrator, and what kind of performance on an administration’s part lets me focus on my work.

I’m going to put on my suspicious and mistrustful observer cap and read into your actions that it would be politically dangerous for you to say “This is the kind of gifted student we look for at IMSA.” But I am not an administrator. I am more of a private person than you can afford to be, and there are more degrees of freedom offered to me. Would you mind my giving my opinion on a matter where you in particular need to be very careful in what you say?

The Visionary: I’m always open to listen, and I’m not just saying this as an administrator.

The Alumnus: I should also say that because something is politic, I don’t automatically translate “politic” to “insincere.” I believe you’ve been as successful as you have partly because you sincerely want to hear what people have to say. When someone says, “political sensitivity,” I’ve learned to stop being a cynic and automatically hearing, “Machiavellian intrigue.”

But when I teach, I try to have a map that accomodates itself to terrain, both old and new to me. There are surprisingly many things I believe that are human universals, although I won’t discuss them here. But diversity is foundational to how I communicate, and in particular teach.

By “diversity” I don’t just mean “affirmative action concerns.” I read what I can about minority cultures, and how Asperger’s or ADD minds tick. That much is important, and I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon. But diversity doesn’t begin when a student labeled as “minority,” “different,” or “disadvantaged” sits down in your classroom. Diversity begins much earlier. Diversity is every person. I’m fond of books like David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II which explore what temperament and Myers-Briggs types mean for personhood. I want to appreciate learning styles. I absolutely love when students come in during office hours, because then I can see exactly where a student is, and exactly how that student is learning and thinking, and give an explanation that is tailored to the student’s specific situation. I like to lecture too, but I’m freest to meet student needs when students visit me in my office.

And one very important facet of that diversity is one that is unfashionable today, more specifically IQ.

The Visionary: I remember seeing a report that your IQ was so high it was untestable by normal means. I’ve heard that polite drivers value politeness, skillful drivers value skill, and safe drivers value safety. Is there…?

The Alumnus: If you want to dismiss what I’m saying because of speculation about my motives, there’s a good case to do so. I know that. But please hear and accept or dismiss my arguments on their merits, and if you read books like James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child, you’ll see this isn’t just my idea. I accept multiple intelligence theory as a nuance, but I would point my finger to the idea that a single IQ was an adjustment in theory, made by people who started by assuming multiple intelligences.

But with all the debates, and in particular despite the unfashionability of “IQ”, there is excellent reason to discuss giftedness in terms of IQ. IQ may not be the whole story, but you’re missing something big if it is treated as one factor among others.

Several caveats deleted, I would point out that giftedness is not a binary attribute, any more than being tall is binary. There may be some people who are clearly tall and others who clearly aren’t, but regardless of where you draw the line, you can’t divide people into a “tall” group of people who are all exactly 190 centimeters tall and a “non-tall” group of people who are 160 centimeters tall. There is diversity, and this diversity remains even if you restrict your attention to tall people.

The Visionary: So then would you say that most high schools serve an average diversity, and IMSA serves a gifted diversity?

The Alumnus: Umm…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: An average high school breaks at both ends of its spectrum…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: Um…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: And IMSA breaks at both ends of its spectrum.

The Visionary: If there are some students who the administration overestimates, this is unfortunate, but—

The Alumnus: That’s not my point. Ignoring several other dimensions of diversity, we don’t have two points of “average” and “gifted” defining a line. Giftedness, anyway, is not “the same kind of intelligence as most people have, only more of it and faster”; it’s a different kind of intelligence. It diverges more the further you go.

Instead of the two points of “average” and “gifted”, there are three points to consider: “average”, “gifted”, and “profoundly gifted.”

I think it is to IMSA’s great credit that you have a gifted education, not a pullout tacked on to a nongifted education. Serving gifted needs isn’t an adjustment; it’s the fabric you’ve woven, and it is impressive.

But “profoundly gifted” is as different from the “moderately gifted” as “moderately gifted” is from “average”…

…and IMSA attracts a good proportion of the profoundly gifted minority…

…and the position of the profoundly gifted at IMSA is exactly the position many IMSA students had in TAG pullouts.

The Visionary: May I say a word in IMSA’s defense?

The Alumnus: Certainly.

The Visionary: IMSA began as a dream, a wild, speculative, powerful, risky vision. From the beginning, its place was tentative; some of the first classes did math problems before the state government because IMSA was threatened with closing. IMSA makes things happen that wouldn’t happen anywhere, and for all we’ve done, there are still people who would remove us from the budget. I’ve talked with alumni, both those who like and dislike the school, and I see something in them which I didn’t see in other places.

The Alumnus: And IMSA is a safe place to learn and grow, and IMSA alumni are making a powerful contribution to the world. All of this I assume. And IMSA seems like the kind of place that could grow, that does grow. IMSA could offer the world certain extraordinarily talented individuals that have been stretched to their limit, who have spent certain very formative years doing things most people don’t even dream of, and doing so not in isolation but guided and supported as powerfully, and as gently for their needs, as IMSA already offers to so many of its students.

The Visionary: If you have any plans, I would like to hear them.

The Alumnus: Before I give the plans as such, I would like to give a brief overview, not just of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted mind, but of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted spirit. Keep in mind that this is not a trichotomy, but three reference points on a curve.

The average mind is concrete. It deals in practical, concrete matters. There was one study which posed isomorphic problems to people, one of which was stated abstractly, and one of which asked in concrete terms who the “cheaters” were. The average respondent did poorly on the abstract isomorph, but was astute when it was put concretely. The average mind is more practical, and learns by an understanding which gradually emerges by going over things again. The preferred learning style is oriented towards memorization and is relatively slow, concrete, and (on gifted terms) doesn’t make connections. This person is the fabric with which society is woven; a person like this tends to understand and be understood by others. The average mind concentrates on, and becomes reasonably proficient, in a small number of skills.

The moderately gifted mind, around an IMSA IQ of 140, deals with abstractions. It sees interconnections, and this may be related to why the moderately gifted mind learns more skills with less effort. (If this is true, an average mind would be learning from scratch, while a moderately gifted mind would only make adaptations from similar skills.) This person is likely to have a “collection of skills”, and have a low self-assessment in those skills. (Today’s breathtaking performance is, tomorrow, marginally adequate.) Self-actualizing concern for becoming a particular kind of person is much more common. The moderately gifted mind enjoys an advantage over the average mind, and is different, but still close enough to connect. This person learns more quickly, and most of society’s leaders are moderately gifted. (Some have suggested that this is not just because people above that range are much rarer, but because they can easily connect.

There is controversy about how isolated the profoundly gifted person is, with an IQ around 180. Some researchers believe that the greater gap is bridged by the greater ability to connect; Webb suggests otherwise, saying that children with an IQ above 170 feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. He asks what the effects would be if a normal child grew up in a world where most people had an IQ of 50-55. Some profoundly gifted have discussed the feeling that there’s an instruction manual to life that everyone but them has. The unusual sense of humor that appears in the moderately gifted is even more pronounced in the profoundly gifted. Average people tend to believe some tacit and naively realistic philosophy. Moderately gifted people tend to believe some conscious and creative reinterpretation of realism. Profoundly gifted people tend to believe an almost automatic anti-realism. The realism assumed by most people doesn’t resonate with them. And I need to explain what I mean by “believe” here. I don’t mean that someone engaged them in a discussion and are convinced by logic or eloquence that an anti-realist philosophy is true. I mean something close to experience, as we believe that a radiator is hot after we touch it. Realism is obvious for someone of average intelligence. For someone profoundly gifted, coming to that perspective represents a significant achievement.

Furthermore, where the moderately gifted person has a “skill collection”, the profoundly gifted individual has what might as well be magic powers—

The Visionary: You mean is involved with the occult or psychic phenomena?

The Alumnus: Not exactly. Profoundly gifted individuals have been known to do things like reinventing the steam engine at age six. Some of them can walk into a room and in an instant infer what kind of presentation is going to be given, and what kind of organization is going to give it. They have been known to make penetrating observations of connections between vastly different disciplines. Some have written a book in a week. Others remember everything they have read. Verbatim. Another still has invented a crude physics and using it to solve problems before she was old enough to talk. It’s entirely plausible for a profoundly gifted individual to think for a few hours about a philosophical school he’s just read about, and have a better grasp of the assumptions and implications surrounding that school than scholars who have studied the discipline for years. Many accomplishments are less extreme than that. Some are more extreme. I said that they might as well be magic powers because they are no more believable to many people than levitation or fairies granting wishes. Moderately gifted achievements are envied. Profoundly gifted achievements are disbelieved, and one social lesson the profoundly gifted learn is that there are certain accomplishments that you don’t talk about… which feels the way most people would feel if people were shocked and offended when they tried to say, “I can read,” or for that matter, “I can breathe.”

These people do not think of themselves as having magic powers. Their impressive abilities are no more breathtaking or astonishing to them than our impressive abilities of walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book are to us—and if you don’t believe that walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book is an astonishing mental feat, just spend a year in artificial intelligence. Artificial researchers know what kind of achievement is represented by these “basic” tasks. The rest of us misunderstand them as mundane. If you can understand how you can be better at understanding emotions than any computer in the world, and not think of yourself as gifted, you have a good start on understanding what it’s like to feel that it’s natural to tinker with your hands, imagine who you’re going to be when you grow up, enjoy cooking, and have dreams where your brain creates languages on the fly.

It’s a commonplace that the gifted can have a rough time of school. What IMSA does is place the profoundly gifted in the position of fixed pace classes designed for people significantly less intelligent than them.

It’s easier to criticize than it is to give a positive alternative; let me give a positive alternative.

First of all, profoundly gifted students can pick things up much more rapidly even than most IMSA students. Something like a factor of four speedup can happen again and again. Many of these students would tear through textbooks if you let them.

The Visionary: But at IMSA we don’t dump textbooks on students. We provide an environment where they can discover things for themselves.

The Alumnus: They will discover things for themselves. But if you look at learning styles, the profoundly gifted are some of the most able to understand a crystallized abstraction, and the most likely to work ahead in their textbooks.

IMSA may have a dozen or so profoundly gifted individuals at any one time.

The Visionary: And we’ve provided accommodation for a bright sophomore physics class.

The Alumnus: Yes, it is possible for students to lobby for accommodation on a specific point.

But it’s possible to go further, as IMSA has gone further than TAG pullouts.

There could be a small number of people who serve as tutors, in a sort of tutorial system as can be seen in Oxford’s and Cambridge’s history. They would be like thesis advisors, less responsible for knowing what the students need to learn than offering direction and referrals.

The Visionary: What would you have them do if they tear through IMSA’s curriculum sophomore year?

The Alumnus: Students that bright are likely to have their own axes to grind—good axes, axes which they should be encouraged. I really have trouble imagining a student flying through IMSA’s normal curriculum and then wanting to watch TV for two years. The problem of motivating these students is like the problem of defending a lion: the first thing is to get out of the way.

The teachers themselves should offer the kind of individualized instruction that is basic to special education, and deal with the “magic powers” that the main curriculum doesn’t know how to deal with.

The Visionary: Would the teachers have to be profoundly gifted?

The Alumnus: I don’t know. I would place more emphasis on understanding profoundly gifted students than necessarily being profoundly gifted oneself.

Furthermore, as well as standing in need of conceptual education, profoundly gifted students could benefit from personal development to help them meet the rest of the world. I don’t know whether it would be correct to say that average education should be about knowledge, gifted education should be about how to think, and profoundly gifted education should be about personal development. I think the idea is worth considering. And I would try to develop some things that aren’t needed in average education and less needed in moderately gifted education, such as how to bridge the gap and meet the rest of the world.

The Visionary: I’ll think about that. I would be delighted to say you’ve shown me how to solve this problem.

The Alumnus: I’d be surprised if I’ve shown you how to solve this problem. If I were asked what I could guarantee for this model, it would be that some part of it is wrong. I would ask you to consider what I’ve presented you as a rough draft. In my opinion it is a rough draft worth revising, changing course in midstream if need be, but it is a rough draft.

The Visionary: This is all very well for office hours, but how do you teach a class? You don’t try to individualize a lecture twenty different ways, do you?

The Alumnus: I believe what I said about diversity as foundational, but I also believe there are things that are common. I believe there are significant commonalities as well as significant differences.

What would you say is the dominant educational philosophy at IMSA?

The Visionary: There are several philosophies we draw on, and several things vary from teacher to teacher. But if I were to pick one school, it would be constructivism.

The Alumnus: Does constructivism see the student as an empty pot, to be filled with knowledge?

The Visionary: Quite the opposite. Constructivism sees the students as agents, trying to actively construct their models of the world, not as empty pots to be filled, or as formless clay for the teachers to shape. We see the teacher as supporting the student in this active task.

The Alumnus: And I agree that students should be active and encouraged by teachers. A related question—do you believe mathematics is something that research mathematicians invent, or something that they find out?

The Visionary: Well, the obvious answer would be that it’s something constructed.

The Alumnus: I disagree with you, at least about the “obvious” part.

The Visionary: Then I’ll trust your judgment that it’s something mathematicians discover. You’ve probably thought about this a lot more than I have.

The Alumnus: You don’t need to agree with me here. There are a lot of good mathematicians who believe mathematics is something invented.

The Visionary: Are you saying I should believe mathematics is constructed?

The Alumnus: No. There are also a lot of mathematicians who understand mathematics and say mathematics is something that’s found out.

The Visionary: Now I’m having trouble seeing where you’re going.

The Alumnus: There’s a debate among mathematicians as to whether mathematics is invented or discovered, with good mathematicians falling into either camp. The word ‘discover’ itself is ambiguous; one can say “I discovered the TV remote under the couch” and have “discover” mean “dis-cover” or “find out,” but one can also say, “I discovered a way to build a better mousetrap,” and have “discover” mean “invent”. “Invent” derives from the Latin “invenire,” which means “come into”, i.e. “find,” so that it would be more natural in Latin to say “I just invented my car keys” than “I invented a useful tool.”

The Visionary: I think I see what you are saying… Are you saying that there is a single reality described both by discovery and invention?

The Alumnus: Yes. Now to tie in with constructivism… What are students doing when they are constructing models?

The Visionary: They are shaping thought-stuff, for lack of a better term, in a way that’s different for each learner.

The Alumnus: And this is to break out of the Enlightenment/Diderot encyclopedia mindset which gives rise to stuffing the learner with facts?

The Visionary: Absolutely.

The Alumnus: Where would you place Kant? Was he a medieval philosopher?

The Visionary: He was one of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers.

The Alumnus: And Kant’s model of ideas was unchanged from Plato.

The Visionary: Um…

The Alumnus: Yes?

The Visionary: What Plato called “Ideas” and Kant ‘s “ideas” are two different things. For Plato, the Ideas were something strange to us: a reality outside the mind.

The Alumnus: Um… Plato and Kant would equally have affirmed the statement, “Ideas are internal.”

The Visionary: I don’t think so. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests that the Ideas are part of something that is the same for all people.

The Alumnus: If I may digress for a moment, I think that famous passage should be called “the Allegory of the Television.” I appreciate your limiting the place of television at IMSA. But back to the topic, for Plato the Ideas were internal, but were not private.

The Visionary: Huh?

The Alumnus: Kant was a pivotal figure in our—the Enlightenment’s—idea that the only real stuff outside our head is matter. When Kant says “internal,” he says “private,” and when we say “internal,” we say “private.” If you think this way, then you believe that thought is something done in a private corner. This privacy may be culturally conditioned, but it is privacy. And yet, however self-evident this seems to us, a great many philosophers and cultures have believed otherwise.

There is a private aspect to thought, but my research into how to think has led me to question the Enlightenment model and believe that we all think on the same contoured surface. We can be on different parts and move in different ways, but in thinking we deal with a reality others deal with as well. And I’m going to sound like a kooky philosopher and say that you have a deficient cosmology, and therefore a deficient corollary understanding of how humans are capable of learning, if you believe that everything is either inside the mind or else something you can kick.

The Visionary: But we’re questioning the Enlightenment model, and rejecting parts of it that have problems!

The Alumnus: I know you are. And I would encourage you to question more of it.

The Visionary: How does this belief affect teaching for you?

The Alumnus: Most immediately, it helps me say ways to identify with students—connect with their thought. There are some things that pay off long term. But in the short run, when a student makes a mistake, the student is not bad, nor is the mistake is not an anomaly to push away. A mistake is an invaluable opportunity for me to understand how a student is thinking and draw the student to a better understanding.

In terms of base metaphor, if you look at Dewey’s foundationalism, what it is that bothers many IMSA teachers and IMSA teachers are working to change, the basic idea is that the teacher is building up knowledge, from its foundations, in the student’s mind. If I were to try and capture it in a metaphor, I would say that the student is an empty lot, and the teacher is building a house on it. The teacher is actively doing teaching to the student.

The constructivism that resonates with many IMSA teachers doesn’t like the idea of the teacher being active and the student being the passive receptacle of teaching. It’s fine for the teacher to be active, but they don’t believe the student is passive because they were quite active learners themselves. Constructivist writers don’t refer to ‘students’ so much as ‘learners;’ they emphasize that the learner is active. The basic idea is that people are actively trying to build their own unique understandings of the world, and a constructivist teacher is trying to support learners in this endeavor. If foundationalism is crystallized in the image of a teacher building a house on an empty lot, constructivist learning theory is crystallized in the image of learners picking up what they can to build their own private edifices of thought, their interior castles.

The Visionary: What do you think of those?

The Alumnus: I think we’re comparing a hammer with a screwdriver. If you read debate on the web, you’ll see people who think constructivism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of foundationalism, and people who think foundationalism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of constructivism. The truth is neither; good foundationalist teaching like Direct Instruction is doing one thing well, and good constructivist learning is doing another thing well, and different people learn differently.

The Visionary: But do you have an alternative?

The Alumnus: Yes, and it is again suggested by basic metaphor. Instead of building a house, or helping learners construct their private models, I would suggest looking at a single word, katalabein. I am using a Greek word without an exact English equivalent, because it ties together some things that are familiar—part of the shared inner human reality which we can recognize. It can be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘understand’, and it provides for a basic metaphor in which what is understood is actively acquired, achieved even, but it is not necessarily idiosyncratic and private. We still have an active learner, and implications for how a teacher can support that active learner…

The Visionary: Go on.

The Alumnus: But it’s different. I was fascinated with one constructivist learning page that recast the teacher as a sort of non-directive counselor. They facilitated learning experiences, but they realized that students came in with beliefs, like “Weeds are not plants because they don’t need to be nurtured,” and what really fascinated me was that some of them found themselves in an ethical quandary about the appropriateness of using a science class to influence student beliefs, say to agree with a botanist that dandelions are plants.

The Visionary: None of the IMSA teachers are that squeamish about influencing student beliefs.

The Alumnus: One alum made a comment that “looney liberals” seemed to him to offer a similar service to coal miner’s canaries. It wouldn’t be fair to accuse most liberals of their excesses, but it was still worth keeping an eye on them: they could be a warning that it was time to rethink basic ideas. Even if those web pages may fall more into the “canary” category than anything else…

The Visionary: But what do you have instead of helping students build private world-pictures?

The Alumnus: Instead of helping students build private world-pictures, helping students grapple with, in the overcoming that is understanding and the understanding that is overcoming, the katalabein of material. And this is material that always has a personal touch, but is understood to be internal in a way that is not simply how one has arbitrarily exercised privacy, but connects with a sort of inner terrain that is as shared as the outer terrain. No two people are at—no two people can be at—the exact same place in the external, physical world, nor can two people see the same thing, because their personal bodies get in the way. But that does not mean we inhabit our own private physical universes. I can tell you how to drive to my house because to get there, you would be navigating some of the same reality as I navigate. But somehow we believe that our bodies may touch the same doorknobs and our shoes may touch the same carpets… Somehow we believe that when we turn inside, the “reality” becomes impenetrably private, influenced by culture perhaps but shared to so little an extent that no two people shares the same inner sun and moon.

The Visionary: But that’s the external world! You’re not talking about when people can make up anything they want.

The Alumnus: Hmm… As part of your job, you field criticism from people who want IMSA to be shut down, right?

The Visionary: Yes.

The Alumnus: And a good portion of that criticism comes from people who are certain you’ve never considered the objection they raise, right?

The Visionary: You’ve been reading my mail!

The Alumnus: And how many years has it been since one of those letters contained a criticism that was new to you?

The Visionary: You’ve been reading my… um… [pause] Wow.

The Alumnus: The introduction to the Handbook of Special Education tries to make a point by quoting the opening meeting of the International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children. The meeting had in all respects a typical (for today) discussion of how one should define special needs children. And the meeting was in 1923. The point was made that special educators assume they’re the first people to address new issues, when neither the issues nor their thoughts are new. An old internet denizen, writing about “the September that never ended”, talked about how each year in September new college students would flood newsgroup discussions with “new, new, new” insights that were, in the denizen’s words, “exactly the same tripe” that had been posted the previous year.

There is really not that much that is new, and this is tied to another observation. There is really not that much that is private. There is some. Even in the outer world there are some things that are private to each person. But in the inner world—and I am not talking aboutyour inner world, or mine, but a real world, the inner world, a place that has contours of its own and laws of its own and terrain of its own and substances of its own which are no more the subject of an idiosyncratic private monopoly than the outer world’s sun and moon. Perhaps it has a private dimension, but to assume that an inner world is by definition someone’s most private possession is almost like answering the remark “The Atlantic Ocean is getting more polluted,” with “Whose Atlantic Ocean?”

The Visionary: Is there a way to integrate the inner world with the outer world?

The Alumnus: I am guilty of a rhetorical fault. I have spoken of the outer world as if it were separate from the inner world, and the inner world as if it were separate from the outer world. The real task is not one of integration but desegregation, and that is a lesson I’ve been wrestling with for years. The biggest lesson I took from my Ph.D. thesis, where I achieved a fascinating distillation of how to think from learning as we know it, is that how to think cannot be distilled from learning, and learning cannot be distilled from the rest of life. It is all interconnected. It’s like a classic plot in fantasy literature where a hero is searching for a legendary treasure, and goes to strange places and passes amazing trials. We’re there learning with him, until there is an end where “nothing” happens, but by the time that “nothing” takes place, we’ve been with the hero all along and we have been transformed just as much as he is, and we see through the “nothing” to recognize the treasure that has been all around the hero—and us—all along.

The real world has an internal and an external dimension, and there is nothing like trying to crystallize purer and purer internal knowledge to see the interpenetration of the internal and the external. I learned that the internal is not self-contained.

The Visionary: Is there anything that has been written which deals with this connection?

The Alumnus: Are you asking me if you can borrow a truckload of books? There are some cultures where it’s hard to find material which doesn’t relate the connection in some form.

But let me tie this in with education. Postmodernism is fragmented, so much so that postmodern scholars tend to put “postmodern” in ironic quotes and add some qualifier about whether it’s even coherent to talk about such a movement. From the inside, there isn’t a single postmodern movement; talking about a postmodern movement is like talking about a herd of housecats. But this is not because talking about being “postmodern” is meaningless; it’s because one of the characteristics is fragmentation, and so if there is anything called postmodern, then it will be much more of a grab bag than something called modern.

Constructivism is postmodern, not in that anything called postmodern must resemble it, but because it can be placed on a somewhat ad hoc spectrum. It is internally fragmented, in that it is not helping students navigate the world of ideas, but in trying to reckon with learners’ development of private models of the world. In typical postmodern fashion, the movement shows exquisite sensitivity to ways in which student constructed models are parochial, and does not inquire into ways in which students may be grappling with something universal. (At best learners’ constructs are culturally conditioned.)

In what I am suggesting, learners are active, but students are working with something which is not so much clay to be shaped in the privacy of one’s mind. I am aware of the parochial dimension—as a culture, we’ve been aware of it to death—but I’m trying to look at something we don’t pay as much attention to today. I suggest, instead of a basic metaphor of learners constructing their own models, learners struggling to conquer parts of the world of ideas. Conquer means in some sense to appropriate; it means in part what we mean when we say that a mountain climber physically conquered an ascent and mastered its terrain. And this is not a cookie cutter, but it provides serious place for something that doesn’t have soil to root itself in in constructivism.

I suspect that this is a lot less exotic than it sounds. Would you say that IMSA teachers often understand their students?

The Visionary: I think they often try.

The Alumnus: I think they often succeed.

Communication in general draws on being able to identify with the other. It says, “Even if I disagree with you, I understand what it means that you believe differently from what I do.” You know what it’s like when someone is talking with you and simply cannot identify with where you are coming from. It feels clumsy. Good communicators can identify with other people, and even a partial understanding is much better than no understanding at all.

I think the teachers I had at least showed something wiser than constructivism. Read something like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and you will see appreciation of incommensurability and a communication divide between opposing camps; unlike the later Kuhn, you will also see that this claim of incommensurability, where opposing sides invariably argue past each other in debates, is applied to both major and minor paradigm shifts. Now if we look at a constructivist approach, where this kind of thinking is applied to individual peoples’ models as well as models that are shared across a camp, then we have an excellent reason not to teach.

We have an excellent reason to say that teachers’ and students’ models are not only conflicting but incommensurable, that the teacher may have more power but in a fair debate they would argue past each other, and that the basis for the teacher understanding and therefore successfully influencing the student is at very least questionable. In the end, we have something which affects the concept of teaching more profoundly than the observation that students will see things that teachers don’t realize. If you look at Kuhn, you will see a remark that the winning side of a scientific paradigm shift will naturally view the shift as progress. This contributes to an account for people thinking science progresses without science actually progressing. Science shifts. But the shift is not a step forward from less developed science to more developed science. It is a step sideways, from one reigning paradigm to another. And in like fashion, if you follow a natural constructivist path, you have an alternative to saying that the teacher knows more about science than the students. The teacher is more powerful, but there is a way out for someone who wants to deny that the teacher has more desirable knowledge that the students should learn. Not only can we argue that “teaching” communication is impossible, but we can argue that “teaching” communication is undesirable even if it were possible.

The Visionary: But that can’t be what our teachers believe! You have to be misunderstanding constructivism. That’s not how it works out.

The Alumnus: I agree with you that that can’t be what many IMSA teachers believe. It is only what they say. And what they think they believe.

The Visionary: You mean…

The Alumnus: Foundationalism is a bad account of how most IMSA teachers learn. They learn actively, and IMSA students learn actively. And constructivism offers a compelling metaphor for active learning. But teachers at IMSA don’t believe all its implications. Like the character in a George MacDonald book who was fond of saying, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure,” and had married in haste, but hadn’t really thought about repenting, even though she’d had plenty of leisure in which to repent. If constructivism may undercut the possibility of communication, and the possibility of the teacher drawing students to join her in expert practice, this is not yet a problem. In practical terms, teachers believe they can communicate, and they have something to share. And they do this. There may be problems where this goes down the road, but in practical terms IMSA teachers live a philosophy with communication that is often excellent.

And, as far as metaphors go, I think that the katalabein metaphor offers something valuable that the constructivist metaphor doesn’t. In particular, the fact that teachers can communicate, and leave students better off, doesn’t just happen to be true; it’s something that one can delve into. You don’t just take the metaphor into consideration when you communicate on a basis that doesn’t come from the model; the metaphor itself gives you a basis to communicate. And it’s different enough to compete in an interesting way. Or complement constructivism in an interesting way. Even if it’s not perfect.

The Visionary: Yes, I know. Do you regret the fact that it’s so messy?

The Alumnus: I regret the fact that it’s not messy enough.

When we describe a rainbow, we say that the colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But those aren’t the colors of the rainbow. If you pick a color at random on the rainbow, there’s a zero percent chance that you will exactly pick one of those colors. A rainbow is a spectrum, and if you have a wavelength for each of those colors, you have seven reference points for a spectrum with infinitely many colors. And a reference point can help you understand a spectrum, but a reference point is not a spectrum.

I’ve done, I think, a decent job of describing one reference point on a spectrum. But teachers rarely follow one educational theory in pure form; they tend to draw on several, and this is intended not to be a complete theory, but a reference point in a pluralistic theory. Most theories are a single point. This theory is meant to be a spectrum, but isn’t there yet.

And as much as a robust theory of education needs to be pluralistic, sensitive to the diversity that is every student, there also also needs to be a sensitivity to the diversity of knowledge. English is cursed to only have one word for knowledge.

The Visionary:But we have well enough established division of knowledge into subjects. In fact that’s what we’re trying to teach our students to get past.

The Alumnus: That’s not quite what I meant.

In most of the languages I know, there’s more than one word for knowledge. In French, there is savoir, which is the knowledge one has about facts, and connaissance, which is the knowledge one has of a person. It’s a different kind of thing to know about a fact and to know of a person, and this is reflected in different words. Conscience is not simply the French word for conscience; it means consciousness, and some of the more ethereal and personal aspects of knowledge. The Latin eruditio and notitia have other nuances. In English we do have “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “information,” which are as different from each other as an apple, an orange, and a pear.

And this is without treating ways of thought. One of the things I learned was that knowledge and ways of thought could be distinguished but not separated. If you look at Eastern ways, whether they are religions like Hinduism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or martial arts like Kuk Sool Won or Ninpo, you will find quite a different pedagogy from what we assume in the West. Instead of trying to open the mind and dump in knowledge, they begin by training the body, in actions, and then this begins to affect the soul and transform the spirit.

The Visionary: Isn’t constructivism more like that?

The Alumnus: It is. But instead of reinventing experiential learning, Eastern ways preserve a Tao, or for a Western word, a matrix. Most recently in the West, Matrix is the name of a trilogy where each movie was better than the next. But before that, a matrix was a mathematical construct, and are you familiar with what “matrix” meant before that? It was the Latin word meaning “womb.” And this concept of a womb, or a matrix, is something which has become alien to Western thought. A matrix is the medium in which you move, the air in which you breathe. It has the authority of your culture and your mother tongue. It is a very different kind of authority from the authority of a single leader, or a written rule; a matrix does not consciously command you, but provides you with the options which shape your choice. And the Eastern ways all preserve a matrix, a way, that provides their pedagogy. In a sense the difference between constructivist experiential learning and Eastern experiential learning is the difference between non-native speakers trying to speak a language and a community of native speakers continuing to use their language. Except to make the comparison more fair, constructivists are trying to construct a language, and put together something that works, and Eastern pedagogues have inherited something that works. The difference is kind of like the difference between an experimental kind of baseball glove that someone is trying out and a glove that is not only traditional but already broken in.

The Visionary: Um… I’ll have to think about what you have said about a “matrix.” Ok, you’ve given me a lot to think about. It would be premature for me to respond now. I’m going to need to think about what you’ve said. But let me change the susbject. What other ideas do you have about teaching, especially concrete ones?

The Alumnus: It’s a bit like a light—it makes other things easier to see. But let me talk about other ways of teaching, such as listening.

The Visionary: I know how you can listen if a student asks a question, but how do you listen when lecturing?

The Alumnus: Listening is about trying to understand the other person as a basis for communication. Apart from the feedback that’s in student questions—if you look for it—a person’s face is a window to what is going on inside, and a teacher sees student faces frequently. I know the ominous silence when the class is so lost that students are afraid to ask questions. I don’t just charge on because it’s important to cover the remaining material. I try to stop, back up, and help the students to genuinely understand, and then proceed from genuine understanding. Homework offers implicit feedback on what I succeeded in communicating, and what I did not succeed in. And there’s an implicit listening mindset behind trying not to inundate students with too much information at once.

There’s a book of little stories, and in one of them, a sage was asked, “What is your name?” He pondered for a moment and said, “My name used to be… Me. But now it’s… You.” I didn’t like that story at first, because I didn’t understand it. Now I understand enough of it to see that it has a profound truth. Talking is about “me”, and listening is part of a lifelong journey of learning to think in terms of “you.” Listening has far more to offer a teacher than a better understanding of student questions.

There are a lot of things I like about how IMSA works—your belief that the needs of the mind cannot be met if the needs of the body are neglected. How this you fit this in with Arbor food service is not clear to me—

The Visionary: Thanks, Dear…

The Alumnus: Any time. But I really like the understanding you have of the human person as interconnected on multiple levels, including the body and mind. I also take that as axiomatic, and teach so that students will understand concepts and preferably their connections, and many other things. Just as I haven’t read what I just said about listening in anything that came out of IMSA, but the teachers I had at IMSA were all examples of good listening.

The Visionary: Thank you.

The Alumnus: You’re welcome.

But another part of the Enlightenment I reject is its depersonalization of knowledge and teaching. Have you read any Polanyi?

The Visionary: Not yet. Should I put him on my reading list?

The Alumnus: I don’t know. He writes hefty, if understandable, material. It takes time to understand him, but he’s worth understanding.

Michael Polanyi was a philosopher of science, and his big work was on tacit and personal knowledge. The core idea is that scientific knowledge (I would say knowledge in general) is not a set of dessicated constructs that can be understood without reference to people; it is enfleshed in people who know it. He talked about how competing swimmers inhale a little more air and exhale a little less, so they always have more air in their lungs and therefore buoyancy than we would, but this knowledge is never thought of in so many words by the coach or by the student who “picks it up” from the coach, wordlessly. I don’t know if it’s a fair reading to say that the knowledge we can articulate is the just tip of the iceberg, but what I do think is a fair reading is to say that the knowledge we can put into so many words is not the whole picture. I think he would have liked IMSA trying to avoid teachers mindlessly regurgitating material so students can learn to mindlessly regurgitating material.

In tandem with the Enlightenment depersonalization of knowledge, is a depersonalization of the concept of teaching and a teacher. About two thousand years ago, one teacher tried to demote teachers from being human gods (who were superior to everyone else) to being human like the rest of us. Then, in connection with the Enlightenment there came a second demotion. A teacher was no longer someone responsible for initiating those in their care into humanity, but only a part of a person imparting a skill to another partial person.

That is an illusion; no matter how much keep our mouths shut on certain matters, we are humans teaching. The question is not whether or not teachers will be an ethical force; the question is whether, given that teachers will be an ethical force, whether they will be a positive force or a negative force. Because students are affected by what kind of people their teachers are—as well as what they say—a teacher should try to be a positive force. This means things like a humility that listens and appreciates other people, and caring, and is willing to listen both to “I don’t understand partial differentiation,” and “I’ve had a lousy week.”

This means that a teacher who sees past the present, and sees students as the concert pianists, research scientists, and ballerinas they can become, will by that very respect help make that potential a reality.

The Visionary [looks at watch]: Thank you. I need to be somewhere in a few minutes; do you have any closing comments?

The Alumnus: I think that one aspect of how we speak of teaching is unfortunate. We speak of the active teacher who teaches, and the presumably passive student who is taught. Nothing of this manner of speaking suggests a dialog, a two-way street—but if teaching succeeds, it must be because of a cooperation between student and teacher. Even with constructivist understanding of learning, we’re just looking at what the teacher can do.

I spend most of my time thinking about how I can see to my end of the partnership, not how students can handle their job. But there is something I would love to say to students, reinforced by a handout, on the first day of class, some toned-down version of:

Steal knowledge.

Prometheus stole fire. Your job is to steal knowledge.

The wrong way to think is that my job is to teach you, and you just sit there and be taught, and after enough teachers have taught you, you’ll be educated.

You will get a much better education if you think that whatever I do, however well or poorly I teach, is simply the baseline, and you can start from there and see what you can do to take as much knowledge as you can.

Listening in class and asking questions is one way to steal knowledge. Is there something I said that doesn’t quite make sense? If you just let my teaching wash over you, you’ve missed an opportunity to steal knowledge.

If you listen to my words, that’s good. It’s even better if you think about why I would say what I am saying. There may be a clue, maybe a little whisper in your intuition that something more is going on than you realize. That is a key that you can use to steal knowledge.

When you read the textbook, it will tell you more if you push it harder. Look at the problems. What are they asking you to know? What are they asking you to think about? There’s a powerful clue about what’s important and what’s going on, if you’re adept enough to steal it.

What do I assume about the material? I make assumptions, and some of those are assumptions I make because of what I know. If you’re willing to ask why I assume something, you may steal knowledge of how people think when they understand the material.

My office hours are meant for you. Come in and discuss the material. If I see you make a mistake, that’s good. It means you’re learning and I have an opportunity to clarify. If you don’t understand something, and all of us don’t understand things from time to to time, it will cost you points to wait until the test to find out that you don’t understand it. It won’t cost you anything if you come in during my office hours, and I’ll be glad you visited. And you might steal some knowledge.

Steal knowledge. There’ll be some days when you’re a little tired, and you can’t look for all the extra knowledge you can steal. That’s OK; just try to take the knowledge I clearly set out before you. But steal knowledge when you can.

You’ve gotten into IMSA, which is one of the best and one of the worst places in the world. Take advantage of opportunity. Learn to steal knowledge. And when you graduate from IMSA… Steal knowledge.

The Visionary: I definitely have some food for thought to take into the meeting. Do come and visit again! Goodbye!

The Alumnus: That I shall. Goodbye!

Gifted? Let me harass you!

On Mentorship

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Within the Steel Orb

An Author’s Musing Memoirs: Retrospective Reflections, Retracings, and Retractions


The Best of Jonathan's Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Theology
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Taking a second look at some of what I wrote

Dear Reader,

Years back, when I was a math grad student, I wrote a short essay entitled, Why Study Mathematics? The basic thought was connected with the general education math class I was taking, and it is not really an article for why to specialize in mathematics through intensive study, but why a more basic knowledge of math can be a valuable part of liberal arts education. Much like how I taught my class, I did not speak favorably of memorizing formulas—pejoratively called “mindless symbol manipulation” by mathematicians—but spoke of the beauty of the abstractions, the joy of puzzles and problem solving, and even spoke of mathematics as a form of weight lifting for the mind: if you can do math, I said, you can do almost anything. I was sincere in these words, and I believe my obscure little piece captures something that a lot of math students and faculty sensed even if they did not explain their assumption. Since then, there are some things I would say differently. Not exactly that I was incorrect in what I said, but I worked hard to climb a ladder that was leaning against the wrong building.

One famous author in software development, who wrote a big book about “software engineering”, had said, “What gets measured gets improved,” and began to express second thoughts about his gung-ho enthusiasm for measurement. He didn’t exactly take back his words of, “What gets measured gets improved,” but he said that the most important things to understand are rarely things that are easy or obvious to measure: the mantra “What gets measured gets improved,” is a mantra to ruthlessly optimize things that often are less important than you might think. His second thoughts went further: the words “software” and “engineering” have been joined at the hip, but however hard software developers have tried to claim to be engineers, what they do is very different from engineering: it’s an apples and oranges comparison.

I would pretty well stand by the statement that if you can deal with the abstraction in math, you can deal with the abstraction in anything: whether chemistry, analytic philosophy, engineering, or sales, there isn’t much out there that will call for more abstract thinking than you learn in math. But to pick sales, for instance, not many people fail in sales because they can’t handle the deep abstraction. Sales calls for social graces, the ability to handle rejection, and real persistence, and while you may really and truly learn persistence in math, I sincerely doubt that mathematical training is a sort of industrial strength preparation for social graces and dealing with rejection. And even in engineering, social graces matter more than you might think; it’s been said that being good at math gets you in the door, but social influence and effectiveness are what make a real superstar. I would still stand by a statement that if you can handle the abstraction in math, you can probably handle the abstraction in anything else. But I’m somewhat more wary of implying that if you have a mathematical mind, you just have an advantage for everything life may throw at you. That’s simply not true.

There are some things I have written that I would like to take back, at least in part, but even where my works are flawed I don’t believe mass deletions are the best response. I would rather write what might be called “Retractions and retracings” and leave them available with the original works. Why study Mathematics?, whatever its flaws, gives a real glimpse into the beauty that draws mathematicians to mathematics. I may be concerned with flaws here, but they are not the whole truth. However, there are some things I would like to comment on, some flaws to point out. In many cases, I don’t believe that what I said is mainly wrong, but I believe it is possible to raise one’s eyes higher.


Mathematics may be seen as a skill, but it can also be how a person is oriented: jokes may offer a caricature, but a caricature of something that’s there. One joke tells of a mathematician who finds something at a bookstore, is delighted to walk home with a thick volume entitled HOW to HUG, and then, at home, is dismayed to learn he purchased volume 11 of an encyclopædia. And I mention this as a then-mathematician who wrote A Treatise on Touch, which may be seen as interesting, may be seen as deep, and may have something in common with the mathematician purchasing a book so he could know how to hug.

Part of what I have been working on is how, very slowly, to become more human. This struggle is reflected in Yonder, which is at its most literal a struggle of philosophers to reach what is human. There is an outer story of disembodied minds set in a dark science fiction world, who are the philosophers, and there is a story within a story, an inner story, of the tragic beauty of human life. When I showed it to a science fiction guru, he suggested that I cut the philosophical dialogues down by quite a bit. The suggestion had a lot of sense, and quite possibility a traditional publisher would want to greatly abbreviate the sections that he suggested I curtail. But I did not follow his advice, and I don’t think this was just author stubbornness. When literature builds up to a success, usually the path to success is filled with struggles and littered with failures. This is true of good heroic literature, and for that matter a lot of terrible heroic literature as well. (Just watch a bad adventure movie sometime.) Yonder is a story that is replete with struggles and failures, only the failures of the disembodied minds have nothing to do with physical journeys or combat. They begin stuck in philosophy, mere philosophy, and their clumsy efforts to break out provide the failures, and therefore to greatly abridge the philosophical discussion would be to strip away the struggle and failure by which they reach success: a vision of the grandeur of being human. Like much good and bad literature, the broad sweep was inspired by The Divine Comedy, opening with a vision of Hell and building up to a view of our painful life as a taste of Heaven, and you don’t tell The Divine Comedy faithfully if you replace the Inferno with a brief summary stating that there are some gruesome images and a few politically incorrect ideas about sin. The dark science fiction world and its mere philosophy provides the vision of Hell that prepares the reader to see the humanness of Heaven and the Heaven of humanness. The inner story can be told by itself; it is for that matter told independently in A Wonderful Life. But there is something in Yonder, as it paints the stark, dark, disturbing silhouette of the radiant, luminous splendor and beauty of human life.

While I was a math undergrad, I read and was deeply influenced by the Tao Te Ching; something of its influence may be seen in The Way of the Way. That work has its flaws, and I may have drunk too deeply of Taoism, but there was a seed planted that I would later recognize in fuller forms in the Orthodox Way. I had in full my goals of studying and thinking, but I realized by the way that there was some value to be had in stillness. Later I would come to be taught that stillness is not an ornament to put on top of a tree; it is the soil from which the tree of life grows.

After I completed my studies in math, and having trouble connecting with the business world, I took stock, and decided that the most important knowledge of all was theology. I had earlier planned to follow the established route of being a mathematician until I was no longer any good for mathematics and then turning out second rate theology. My plans shifted and I wanted to put my goal up front and, I told my pastor, “I want to think about theology in community.” (If you are wincing at this, good.) So, in this spirit, I applied to several schools and began the study of academic theology. If you are an astute reader, I will forgive you if you ask, “But isn’t this still a mathematician looking for a book on how to hug?” The goal I had, to teach at a university or even better train Orthodox priests at a seminary, was a laudable enough goal, and perhaps God will bless me with that in the future. Perhaps he wants the same thing, but perhaps God first wants to free me from the chain of being too much like a mathematician wanting to learn how to hug by reading a book.

During my time studying theology at Cambridge, I was received into the Orthodox Church. I am grateful to God for both a spiritual father whose lenience offered a corrective to my legalistic tendencies, and for a godfather who was fond of reading Orthodox loose cannons and who helped me see a great many things that were invisible to me at the time. For instance, I asked him for help on some aspect of getting my worldview worked out correctly, and I was caught off guard when he explained, “You aren’t being invited to work out the Orthodox worldview. You’re being invited to worship in the right glory of Orthodoxy, and you are being invited to walk the Orthodox way.” In that sense Orthodoxy is not really a system of ideas to work out correctly that, say, a martial art: there may be good books connected to martial arts, but you learn a martial art by practicing it, and you learn Orthodoxy by practicing it. And in that response, my godfather helped me take one step further away from being a mathematician trying to find a book that will teach him how to hug. (He also gave me repeated corrections when I persisted in the project of trying to improve Orthodox practices by historical reconstruction. And eventually he got through to me on that point.)

Becoming Orthodox for me has been a matter of becoming really and truly human, or at least beginning to. There is a saying that has rumbled down through the ages in different forms: in the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.” I have not read this in much earlier sources, but I have read many later phrasings: “God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man and the sons of man might become gods and the sons of God.” “The divine became human that the human might become divine.” “The Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God.” And one real variation on this has been quoted, “Christ did not just become man so that I might become divine. He also became man that I might become a man.

If Christ became man that I might become human, this is manifest in a million ways in the Orthodox Church. Let me give one way. When I was preparing to be received into the Orthodox Church, I asked my godfather some question about how to best straighten out my worldview. He told me that the Western project of worldview construction was not part of the Orthodox Way: I had been invited to walk the Orthodox Way but not work out the Orthodox worldview. If there is in fact an Orthodox worldview, it does not come from worldviewish endeavors: it arises out of the practices and life of the Orthodox Church, much in line with, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Not just corrections, but being caught off-guard by effectively being told, “Here are some of many rules; there is no need for you to know all of them. They are important, and you need to strive for strict excellence, but you are not treating them in the right spirit if you hold them rigidly and legalistically. (Work out with your priest how you will best bend them.)” The Orthodox Church’s nature as essentially an oral tradition has helped cure me of silly things like meticulously studying ancient texts to put my mind to an antiquarian reconstruction and answer the question, “How should we live?” (The Orthodox Church is ancient, but it is not really infected with antiquarian reconstruction efforts.) The rhythm of the liturgy and its appointed seasons, the spiritual housecleaning involved with preparing for confession, the profoundly important community of the faithful: all of these are part of how it works out in the Orthodox Church that God became man not only so that I might become divine, but also so that I might become more truly man.

Part of this becoming human on my part also has to do with silence, or as Orthodox call it, hesychasm. Part of the disorder of life as we know it is that our minds are scattered about: worrying about this, remembering that pain, and in general not gathered into the heart. Mathematical training is a training in drawing the mind out of the heart and into abstract thinking. The word “abstract” itself comes from the Latin abstrahere, meaning to pull back (from concrete things), and if you train yourself in the habit of abstraction you pull yourself back from silence and from what is good about the Tao Te Ching.

In Silence: Organic food for the soul, I all but closed with the words, “Be in your mind a garden locked and a fountain sealed,” which speaks about having a mind that is gathered together and is in the fullest sense mind: which is not when abstract thinking is its bread and butter. Perhaps some of the saints’ wisdom is abstract, but it does not come from building an edifice of abstractions.

The terms intellect and mind mean something very different in Orthodox classics than they do in today’s English. The difference is as great as the difference between using web to mean a physical object woven out of spider’s silk and web to mean interconnected documents and media available over the internet. Today you might say, “The intellect is what an IQ test measures.” An Orthodox saint who had been asked might have said, “The intellect is where you meet God.” The mind is an altar, and its proper thought flows out of its being an altar: in Within the Steel Orb, a visitor from our world steps into a trap:

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

That litany of metaphors summarizes much of my second master’s thesis. Which is not really the point; but my point here is that on an Orthodox understanding, intellect is not something you measure by an IQ test and a mind is not the spitting image of a computer. The mind, rightly understood, finds its home in prayer and simple silence. The intellect is where one meets God, and its knowing flows out of its contact with God and with spiritual reality. And, in the metaphors of the Song of Songs, the mind as it is meant to be is “a garden locked, a fountain sealed”, not spilled out promiscuously into worry, or grudges, or plans for the future that never satisfy. And this gathering together of the mind, this prayer of the mind in the heart, is one that was not proposed to me by my mathematical training.

Now I should mention that I have a lot to be grateful for as far as math goes. There are a lot of people who gave of themselves in my training; there are a lot of people who gave of themselves in the various math contests I was involved in. And, not to put too fine a point of it, I have a computer job now which is a blessing from God and in which I build on a strong mathematical foundation. It would be silly for me to say, “I am not grateful for this” as God has provided me many blessings through math. But I need to place things like “I have a lot of math awards” alongside what a monk said to a maid and to me: she was fortunate in the job she had, as manual labor that allowed her mind to pray as she was working in inner stillness, while I as a computer person was less fortunate because my job basically required me to be doing things with my mind that don’t invite mental stillness. My job may be a profound blessing and something not to take for granted. But he was pointing out that the best jobs for spiritual growth may not be the ones higher on the pecking order.

A streak of escapism

There is a streak of escapism in much of my work. If you read Within the Steel Orb, I believe you will find insight expressed with wonder, and I would not take back any of that. But the wisdom, which is wisdom from here and now, is expressed as the alien wisdom of an alien world that panders to a certain escapism. Wisdom and wonder can be expressed without escapism; Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth and Doxology both express wisdom and wonder in a way that does not need to escape from a disdained here and now. But there is a thread of escapism in much of my work, even as I have sought to reject it.

During or shortly after I was in high school, I wrote a note in an online forum arguing that Terminator 2 had shot itself in the foot. The movie had a scene with two little boys angrily playing with toy guns and the voiceover complained about how tragic this was, and at the end the message was made even more explicit: “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” But the movie was an action-adventure movie, meaning a movie whose attraction was built on glorified violence with guns blazing. In terms of a movie that would speak out against violence, contrast it with a movie idea I had, for a movie that would rush along at an action-adventure clip for the first few minutes and then slow down like a European art film; from Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art:

What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.

The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.

By contrast, it may be clearer what might be called shooting yourself in the foot in the Terminator 2 syndrome, and as far as escapism goes, I have a couple of pieces that shoot themselves in the foot with something like a Terminator 2 syndrome. In The Voyage, the miserable young Jason is an escapist and, when he meets an old man, asks the old man’s help in an escape he doesn’t believe is possible. The old man deftly opens Jason’s eyes to the beauty of this world, the beauty of the here and now, that are simply invisible to him. I stand by everything I wrote in that regard. But the closing line, when thanks to the old man Jason triumphs over escapism, is, “And Jason entered another world.” Which is to say that the story shot itself in the foot, like Terminator 2.

There may be a paradoxical link between escapism and self-absorption. Self-absorption is like being locked in your room and sensing that it is constricting, and so you wish that you could be teleported up to a spaceship and explore the final frontier, or maybe wish for a portal to open up that would take you to the Middle Ages or some fantasy world. And maybe you can get a bit of solace by decorating your room like someplace else and imagining that your room is that other place, and maybe you can pretend and do mind games, but they don’t really satisfy. What you miss is what you really need: to unlock the door, walk out, visit a friend, go shopping, and do some volunteering. It may not be what you could arrange if you were controlling everything, but that’s almost exactly the point. It may not what you want, but it is what you need, and it satisfies in a way that a quest to become a knight, at least in your imagination, cannot. And my own concerns to escape self-absorption and escapism play out in my writing: The Spectacles is more successful than The Voyage in telling of an escape from the Hell of self-absorption and escapism; I’ve been told it’s my best short story. But it still has the imprint of self-absorption even as it tells of someone finding way out of self-absorbed escapism. And something of that imprint affects my writing: there are some good things about my fiction, but I have been told that my characters are too similar and are only superficially different. I do not think I will ever receive the kind of compliment given to Charles Dickens, that he envisions a complete universe of different characters. People may say that my satire like Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary shows a brilliant wit and is bitingly funny, but you can be pretty full of yourself and still write good satire. By contrast, it takes humble empathy to make a universe of characters worthy of Dickens.

A door slammed shut:

God’s severe mercy

I earned a master’s in theology, and entered into a doctoral program. I thought for a long while about how to say something appropriate about that program, and I think the best I can do is this:

I’ve been through chemotherapy, and that was an experience: overall, it was not as bad as I feared, and I enjoyed life when I was going through chemotherapy. I still cherish The Spectacles, the first piece written after a long dry spell because I was drained by illness. I’m not sure it is a nice thing to have powerful cytotoxins injected into your body, and the rough spots included the worst hour of (purely physical) pain in my life, but on the whole, a lot of progress has been made in making chemotherapy not as bad as it used to be, and I had good people to care for me.

And then there are experiences that, to put it politely, put chemotherapy into perspective. My entering this doctoral program and trying to please the people there was one of those experiences into perspective: during that time, I contacted a dean and wrote, “I found chemotherapy easier than dealing with [a professor I believed was harassing me],” and received no response beyond a secretary’s brush-off. After this ordeal, my grades were just below the cutoff to continue, and that school is not in any way going to give me nice letters of reference to let me finish up somewhere else. I suppose I could answer spam emails and get a diploma mill Ph.D., but I don’t see how I am in a position to get the Ph.D. that I wanted badly enough to endure these ordeals.

And if I ask where God was in all this, the answer is probably, “I was with you, teaching you all the time.” When I was in middle school, I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and I found it obvious then that this was because God wanted me to be a mathematician. For that matter, I didn’t go through the usual undergraduate panic about “What will I major in?” Now I find it obvious that God had something else in mind, something greater: discipleship, or sonship, which may pass through being a mathematician, or may not. Not straying too far from this, I wanted a Ph.D., and I thought that this would be the best way to honor him with my abilities. Again I was thinking too narrowly; I was still too much of the mathematician looking for a book to teach him how to hug; again the answer seemed to be, “That’s not the issue. Aim higher and be my servant.” As it turns out, I have four years’ graduate work in theology; that has some use in my writings, and even if it didn’t, the issue is not whether I am a good enough achiever, but whether I am faithful.

During this time I read quite a lot of medieval versions of the legends of King Arthur. There were a couple of things that drew me to them, both of them rather sad. The first was pride, both pride at thinking I was going to be an Arthurian author, and pride at sometimes reading medieval legends in the original.

But the second reason I kept reading them was that compared to what I was covering in theology class, reading the legends almost seemed like I was actually studying theology. (At least by comparison.) Whether a course in theological foundations that assumed, “We need to work from the common ground that is shared by all the world’s religious traditions, and that universal common ground is Western analytic philosophy,” or reading that theologians are scientists and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics, or a course in “philosophy and contemporary theology” that was largely about queer matters and such topics as ambiguous genitalia, the whole experience was like “Monty Python teaches Christian theology.” And it would be a funny, if tasteless joke, but it was really something much more tragic than a Monty Python riff on theology. And in all this the Arthurian legends, which are really quite pale if they are held next to the grandeur of Christian theology, none the less seemed to give respite for me to study.

In the light of all this, there are three basic things that I wrote. The first is the Arthurian book I wanted to write out of all the medieval books I was reading:

The second thing is a group of pieces that were written largely as rebuttals to things I ran into there. (The university was a “Catholic” university, so they were generous to us Orthodox and treated us like liberal Catholics.) I’ve had enough contact with Catholics outside that university; those pieces are not written just in response to being at a “Catholic” university.

I believe there is some merit in these pieces, but not that much: if they say something that needs to be said, they are limited to winning an argument. Theology can win an argument and some of the best theology is meant to win an argument, but the purpose of real theological writing is to draw people into the presence of God. These pieces may say something valuable, but they do not really do the job of theology: beckon the reader to worship before the throne of God.

But that leaves the third group of pieces written in the wake of that un-theological theology program, and that is precisely pieces which are written to draw the reader to bask in the glory of God. The ones I would pick as best are:

So where does this leave me now?

I think I’ve made real progress but I still have a lot in common with that mathematian who bought a book so he could learn how to hug. Be that as it may, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I had my heart set on completing my program, but in 2005 I started a Ph.D. program that was estimated to take eight years to complete. And since then, the economy tanked. And in this, a gracious and merciful God didn’t give me what I wanted, but what I needed. Actually, more than that. In the aftermath of the program, I took some anthropology and linguistics coursework which on the one hand confirmed that I was already good at learning languages (the woman who scored the MLAT for me said, “I’ve scored this test for thirty years and I’ve never seen a score this high,”) and on the other hand, paradoxically provided good remedial understanding of things I just didn’t get about my own culture. And there’s something I’d like to point out about that. God provided academic coursework to teach me some things that most people just pick up as they grow, and perhaps studying academic theology was what God provided to help me get on to something that is at once more basic, greater, and more human: entering the Orthodox Church, and entering real, human theology.

But back to after the anthropology courses. Then the economy took a turn for the worse, and I found a good job. Then the economy got worse than that, and my job ended, and I had my fast job hunt yet and found an even better than that. There’s no way I’m entitled to this; it is God’s gracious providence at work. These are blessings covered in the divine fingerprints.

I still have failings to face: rather spectacular failings which I’d rather not detail. And it God’s grace that I am still learning of my clumsiness and my sin, and realize I really need to face ways I don’t measure up. But that is really not the issue.

Does God work with flawed people?

Who else does he have to work with?

He has glorious, majestic, awesome, terrifying holy angels. But there is another glory when God works in and through flawed people.

Even the sort of mathematician who would read a book on how to hug (or maybe write one). The worst of our flaws is like an ember thrown into the ocean of God’s transforming power.

And the same God wills to work in you, whatever your flaws may be.

Much love,
Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward

About the author


The Spectacles

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

A Four-Dimensional Maze


In this maze, each of the large squares represents a two-dimensional slice of the maze. You are the blue square; you can move on white squares, but not red ones. You move by either clicking on a small square that is in the same large square and shares a side with your present square, or by clicking on a small square that is in the same position as your present square, on a large square that shares a side with your present large square. If you aren’t sure if a move is legal, try it. If you’re allowed to move on a square from your present square, the computer will let you; if you can’t make that move, nothing bad will happen — you just won’t move anywhere. The goal is to get to the light green square.

The maze is a hypercube; in the same sense that a diagram might represent a three dimensional structure by showing some two dimensional slices one above the other, this maze represents a four dimensional structure by a grid of two dimensional slices.

In eighth grade, when I first wrote this, I was very interested in higher dimensions, and I tried to learn to visualize in four dimensions; I never really succeeded, but I did learn to visualize the shifting three dimensional cross sections of hypercubes passing through three-space at a couple of different angles. Visualizing higher-dimensional objects is hard (impossible, by some sources), but doing math or programming in higher dimensions is not by nature more difficult than doing things in two dimemsions.

Does the maze look flat? Is it really four-dimensional? Let me ask you a question. What can you see that doesn’t look flat? All the images you see are two-dimensional. A movie or a 3D game doesn’t look flat because it represents a three-dimensional area in a two-dimensional way, and you learned as a child to perceive that as three dimensional. This maze also represents a four dimensional maze, just like a flat schematic diagram represents something three-dimensional. The picture on your screen is two dimensional, just like every other picture on the web, but the maze that’s represented is four-dimensional.

An author’s musing memoirs about his work: retrospective reflections, retracings, and retractions

The labyrinth

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Within the Steel Orb

Why Study Mathematics?


One question which is raised by many people is, “Why should I study mathematics?”. The question is usually asked from a perspective that there is probably no good and desirable reason for the speaker to study mathematics, but he will tolerate the minimum required because he has to, and then get on to more valuable and important things.

I readily acknowledge that there are many math classes which are drudgery and a general waste of time, and that many people have had experiences with mathematics which give them good reason to hold a distaste for the discipline. However, it is my hope that I may provide readers with an insight that there is something more to mathematics, and that this something more may be worthwhile.

Let’s begin by looking at the reasons that the reader may already have come across for why he should study mathematics:

  • There are certain basic computational skills that are needed in life. People should be able to figure out whether a 24-pack of their favorite soda for $3.89 is a better or worse deal than a 12-pack for $1.99.
  • It builds character. I suffered through mathematics for such-and-such many years. So should you.

Of course, nobody explicitly says the second reason, but it may very well seem that way—like one of the hush-hushed truths that the Adult Conspiracy hides from students the same way it hides the fact that there is no Santa Claus from little children. And the first reason is something that many non-mathematical administrators believe.

But those are not the real reasons that a mathematician will give for why a nonmathematician should study mathematics, and what kind of mathematics a nonmathematician should study.

The first question which should be addressed is, “What is mathematics really about?”

The answer which many nonmathematicians may have is something along the lines of, “Mathematics, at its heart, is about learning and using formulas and things like that. In gradeschool, you learn the formulas and methods to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; then in middle school and high school it is on to bigger and better formulas, like the formula for the slope of a line passing through two points. Then in college, if your discipline unfortunately requires a little mathematics (such as the social sciences requiring statistics), you learn formulas that are even more complicated and harder to remember. The deeper you go into mathematics, the more formulas and rote methods you have to learn, and the worse it gets.”

The best response I can think of to that question is to respond by analogy, and my response is along the following lines:

A child is in school will be taught various grammatical rules, sentence diagramming, and so on. These will be drilled and studied for quite a long while, and it must be said that this is not the most interesting of areas to study.

An English teacher who is asked, “Is this what your discipline is really about?”, will almost certainly answer, “No!”. Perhaps the English student is proficient in grammar, but that’s not what English is about. English is about literature—about stories, about ideas, about characters, about plots, about poetic description, about philosophy, about theology, about thinking, about life. Grammar is not studied so that people can suffer through learning more pointless grammar; grammar is studied to provide students with a basic foundation from which they will be able to use the English language. It is a little drudgery which is worked through so that students may behold an object of great beauty.

This is the function of the formulas and rules of mathematics. Not rules and formulas so that the student is prepared for more rules and formulas, but rules and formulas which are studied so that the student can go past them to see what mathematics is really about.

And what is mathematics really about? Before I give a full answer, let me say that it is something like what English is about.

The one real glimpse that someone who has been through high school may have had of mathematics is in the study of geometry. There are a few things about high school geometry that I would like to point out:

  • In geometry, one is given certain axioms and postulates (for example, the parallel postulate—given a line and a point not on the line, there is exactly one line through the given point which does not intersect the given line), definitions (a circle is the set of points equidistant (at an equal distance) from a given point), and undefined terms (point, line). From those axioms and postulates, definitions, and undefined terms, one begins to explore what they imply—theorems and lemmas.
  • In geometry, rote memorization is not enough—and, in fact, is in and of itself one of the least effective approaches to take. It is necessary to understand—to get an intuitive grasp of the material. Learning comes from the “Aha!” when something clicks and fits together—then it is the idea that remains in the student’s memory.
  • Geometry builds upon itself. One starts with fundamentals (axioms, postulates, definitions, and undefined terms), and uses them to prove basic theorems, which are in turn used along with axioms and postulates to prove more elaborate theorems, and so on. It is like a building—once the foundation has been laid, beams and walls may be secured to the foundation, and then one may continue to build up from the foundation and from what has been secured to the foundation. Geometry is an edifice built on its fundamentals with logic, and the structure that is ultimately built is quite impressive.
  • Geometry is an abstract and rigorous way of thinking. (More will be made of this later.)
  • Geometry is about creative problem solving. The aforespoken edifice—or, more specifically, what is in that edifice—is used by the geometer as tools with which to solve problems. Problem solving—figuring out how to prove a theorem or do a construction (which is a special kind of theorem)—is a creative endeavor, as much as painting, musical improvisation, or writing (and I am writing as one who does mathematics, paints, improvises, and writes).

Imagine a dream where there are many pillars—some low, some high—all of which are too high to step up to, and all of which are wide enough to stand upon.

Now imagine someone dreaming this dream. That person looks at one of the pillars and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar?” Then one of the Inhabitants of his dream answers, “No, nobody has been on top of that pillar.” Then the person looks at another of the pillars, which has a set of stairs next to it, and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar over there?”. The answer is, “Yes, someone has, and has left behind a set of steps. You may take those steps and climb up on top of the pillar yourself, if you wish.”

And this person continues, and sees more pillars. Some of them stand alone, too high to step up to, and nobody has been to those. Others have had someone on top, and there is always a set of steps which the person left behind, by which he may climb up personally. And the steps go every which way—some go straight up, some go one way and then another, some seem to almost go sideways. Some are very strange. Some pillars have more than one set of steps. But all of them lead up to the top of the pillar.

The person dreaming may well have the impression that one gets atop a pillar by laying down one step, then another, then another, until one has assembled steps that reach to the top of the pillar. And, indeed, it is possible to climb the steps up to the pillars that others have gone to first.

But that impression is wrong.

And the person sees what really happens when the guide becomes very excited and says, “Look over there! There is a great athlete who is going to attempt a pillar that nobody has ever been atop!”

And the athlete runs, and jumps, and sails through the air, and lands on top of the pillar.

And when the athlete lands, there appears a set of stairs around the pillar. The athlete climbs up and down the stairs a few times to tidy them up for other people, but the stairs were produced, not by laying down slabs of stone one atop another, but by jumping.

Then the guide explained to the dreamer that the athlete had learned to jump not only by looking at the steps that others had left, but by jumping to other pillars that already had steps, instead of using the steps.

Then the dreamer woke up.

What does the story mean?

The pillars are mathematical facts, some proven and some unproven.

The pillars that stand alone are mathematical facts that nobody has proven.

The pillars that stand with steps leading up to them are mathematical facts that have been proven.

The steps are the steps of proofs, the little assertions. As some of the steps are bizarre, so are some proofs. As some pillars have more than one path of steps, so some facts have more than one known proof.

The leap is a flash of intuition, by which the mathematician knows which of many steps will take him where he wants to go.

As the steps appeared when the leap was made, so the proof appears when the flash of intuition comes. The athlete then tidied up the steps, as the mathematician writes down and clarifies the proof, but the proof comes from jumping, not from building one step on another.

The athlete was the mathematician.

Finally, the athlete became an athlete not only by climbing up and down existing steps, but also by jumping up to pillars that already had steps—one becomes skilled at making intuitive leaps, not only by learning existing proofs, but also by solving already proven problems as if there were no proof to read.

As one philosophy major commented to me, “Mathematicians do proofs, but they don’t use them.”

That flash of insight is the flash of inspiration that artists work under, and in this sense a mathematician is very similar to an artist. (What do a mathematician and an artist have in common? Both are pursuing beauty, to start with…)

This character of mathematics that is captured in geometry is true to geometry, but the actual form that it takes is largely irrelevant. Other branches of mathematics, properly taught, could accomplish just the same purpose, and for that matter could just as well replace geometry. Two other disciplines which draw heavily on applied mathematics, namely computer science and physics, have essentially the same strong points. I would hold no objections, for that matter, if high school geometry classes were replaced by strategy games like chess and go.

Mathematics is about puzzle solving; I would refer the reader to works such as Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady or the Tiger? and Colin Adams’s The Knot Book: an Elementary Introduction to the Mathematical theory of Knots. There are many people to whom mathematics is a recreation, consisting of the pleasure of solving puzzles. If mathematics is approached as memorizing incomprehensible formulas and hoping to have the good luck to guess the right formula at the right time, it will be a chore and a torture. If it is instead approached as puzzle solving, the activity will yield unexpected pleasure.

My father has a doctorate in physics and teaches computer science. He has said, more than once, that he would like for all of his students to take physics before taking his classes. There is a very important and simple reason for this. It is not because he wants his students to program physics simulators, or because there is any direct application of the mathematics in physics to the computer science he teaches. There isn’t. It is because of the problem solving, the manner of thinking. It is because someone who has learned how to think in a way that is effective in physics, will be able to think in a way that is effective in computer science.

This applies to other disciplines as well. Ancient Greek philosophers, and medieval European theologians, made the study of geometry a prerequisite to the study of their respective disciplines. It was not because the constructions or theorems would be directly useful in making claims about the nature of God. Like physics and computer science, there was no direct application. But in order to study geometry, one had to be able to think rigorously, analytically, critically, logically, and abstractly.

Thinking logically and abstractly is an important discipline in life and in other academic disciplines that consist of thinking—it has been said that if you can do mathematics, you can do almost anything. The main reason mathematics is valuable to the non-mathematician is as a form of weight lifting for the mind. Even when the knowledge has no application, the finesse that’s learned can be useful.

To the non-mathematician, mathematics is a valuable discipline which offers practice in how to think well—both analytic thought and problem solving. Mathematics classes will most profitably be approached, not as “What is the formula I have to memorize,” but with ideas such as those enumerated here. The nonmathematician who approaches a mathematics class as an opportunity for disciplined thought and problem solving will do better, profit more, and maybe, just maybe, enjoy the course.

It is my the hope that this essay have provided the nonmathematician with an inkling of why it is profitable for people who aren’t going to be mathematicians to still study mathematics.

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