Thursday, December 16, 2010

Seeking the Short Answer [Thoughts]

A friend and I chatted it up recently about answering questions: do people normally want the short answer or the long answer to any given question? We agreed that most (all?) want the short answer. Sometimes I do too. (Mentally, I ruthlessly redline my co-workers' e-mails to remove unnecessary verbiage or break down concepts into bullets.) Yet I am often incapable of forming a short answer myself.

For some, the short answer is no problem to give or accept. A question like, "why is the sky blue?" elicits an answer of "because it's a reflection of the ocean" and most are satisfied. But I'm not. This answer would lead me to other questions followed by a few online keyword searches and maybe a book purchase or two. Within a few weeks, I'll have amassed enough layman's trivia about the atmosphere, planetary physics, and light scattering to bore even the least socially inclined person at that next cocktail party. If you're lucky, I may even throw in a little analysis of the philosophical question, "what is 'sky'?" (And if you were wondering, I don't get invited to a lot of cocktail least not a second time.)

The fact is, I never grew out of my toddler stage. You know, the one every parent dreads: the stage of the endless "but why?" questions. It didn't help that my parents were often able to answer all of them, or at least try. Their careers include landlord, chicken farm owner, real estate sales, bartender, accounting, restaurateur, deejay, media sales, photographer, chemistry/forestry professor, parent, and more. Add to that life experience and the hobbies of home schooling, animal husbandry, gardening, meteorology, sewing, target shooting, military history, singing, and affiliations, by turns, with the Catholic, Mormon, Christian Science, Jewish faiths and you have parents who can pretty much answer any question a child can ask.

I'm doomed to not only normally wanting the long answer but expecting to receive it.

Some people make a living out of the long answer: Michael Pollan, Simon Winchester, Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, C.S. Lewis, Henry Petroski. These are people who probably got the short answer many times but kept on asking...and then wrote a book about it. They have written on the coevolution of humans and corn, the history of the OED, the evolution of the entryway and its etymology, the scientific dissection of the sensation of orgasm, the differences between the human and canine soul, and the design of the paperclip (respectively). If these authors are present in my library, do I even have a prayer of ever composing the short answer?

The short answer cheats us. Whatever gains in time we receive by accepting the short answer, we lose in richness of understanding. You mean you don't want to fully understand the differences between the frequently confused concepts of the virgin birth and immaculate conception as it relates to Jesus and Mary? Gah! Listening to the long answer would result in probably most Catholics realizing they're actually Protestants (if a Christian at all). You don't want to know why cheese or sugar often isn't vegetarian or how a specific virus both fueled and destroyed tulip mania and the Dutch economy in the 1600s and is occasionally considered the first speculative bubble by economists? Tsk tsk. However will you win at Trivial Pursuit?

This extends to a personal level, too. So often I have learned more about others because I just kept asking, "why?" or "tell me more." I cherish those experiences because they are the closest I've ever felt like I achieved a true human connection with another. It's exciting, it's intimate, and it's lasting.

So what's wrong with the short answer? Nothing. But let's say Don Williams is correct in saying that life is about the journey, not the destination. The short answer is a shortcut to easy fulfillment - it takes you immediately to your destination. But within the long answer is the journey of understanding and that's where one fineds all the true rewards.

No comments: