Take a listen the next time you hear somebody say “Good question.” It means they don’t have the answer. Maybe it also means the best questions are unanswerable.
And maybe we also need to keep asking them anyway, for exactly that reason. This was a lesson I got a long time ago, and reported in 2005, in this post here:
About ten years ago I took a few days off to chill in silence at the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. One of the values the White Monks of the monastery share with Quakers in Sunday meeting is confinement of speech to that which “improves on the silence”. (Or, in the case of the monks, fails to insult the contemplative virtues of silence.) It was there that I had an amazing conversation with Father John Powell, who told me that any strictly literalist interpretation of Christ’s teachings “insulted the mystery” toward which those teachings pointed — and which it was the purpose of contemplative living to explore. “Christ spoke in paradox”, he said. Also metaphor, which itself is thick with paradox. Jesus knew, Father Powell said, that we understand one thing best in terms of another which (paradoxically) is literally different yet meaningfully similar.
For example, George Lakoff explains that we understand time in terms of money (we “save”, “waste” and “spend” it) and life in terms of travel (we “arrive”, “depart”, “fall off the wagon” or “get stuck in a rut”). For what it’s worth, George is Jewish. Like Jesus.
The greatest mystery of life, Father Powell explained, isn’t death. It’s life. “Life is exceptional”, he said. For all the fecundity of nature, it is surrounded by death. Far as we can tell, everything we see when we look to the heavens is dead as a gravestone. Yet it inspires the living. “Life”, he said, sounding like an old rabbi, “is the mystery”.
I was a kid in the fifties, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were busy not talking to each other while planting thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the ground, pointed at each other’s countries. They were also sending thousands of additional warheads to sea in nuclear submarines. Every warhead was ready obliterate whole cities in enemy territory. Our house was five miles from Manhattan. We had frequent air raid drills, and learned how to “duck and cover” in the likely event of sudden incineration. Like many other kids in those days, I wished to enjoy as much of life as I could before World War III, which would last only a few hours, after which some other species would need to take over.
I was no math whiz; but I was an authority on adults and their failings. I could look at the number of missles involved, guess at all the things that could go wrong, and make a pretty good bet that something, sooner or later, would. I wasn’t sure we would die, but I was sure the chances were close to even.
In his new book The Dead Hand, Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffman explains exactly how close we came:
At 12:15 A.M., Petrov was startled. Across the top of the room was a thin, silent panel. Most of the time no one even noticed it. But suddenly it lit up, in red letters: LAUNCH.
A siren wailed. On the big map with the North Pole, a light at one of the American missile bases was illuminated. Everyone was riveted to the map. The electronic panels showed a missile launch. The board said “high reliability.” This had never happened before. The operators at the consoles on the main oor jumped up, out of their chairs. They turned and looked up at Petrov, behind the glass. He was the commander on duty. He stood, too, so they could see him. He started to give orders. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system. He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch. The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to nd out. Was the satellite holding steady? Was the computer functioning properly?…
The phone was still in his hand, the duty ofcer still on the line, when Petrov was jolted again, two minutes later.
The panel ashed: another missile launched! Then a third, a fourth and a fth. Now, the system had gone into overdrive. The additional signals had triggered a new warning. The red letters on the panel began to ash MISSILE ATTACK, and an electronic blip was sent automatically to the higher levels of the military. Petrov was frightened. His legs felt paralyzed. He had to think fast…
Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in the correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything.
He told the duty ofcer again: this is a false alarm.
The message went up the chain.
How many other events were there like that? On both sides?
I think there lurks in human nature a death wish — for others, even more than for ourselves. We rationalize nothing better, or with more effect, than killing each other. Especially the other. Fill in the blank. The other tribe, the other country, the other culture, the other religion, whatever. “I’ve seen the future,” Leonard Cohen sings. “It is murder.” (You can read the lyrics here, but I like the video version.)
Yet we also don’t. The answer to Matt’s question — How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years? —is lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, and others like him, unnamed. Petrov had the brains and the balls to prevent World War III by saying “Nyet” to doing the crazy thing that only looked sane because a big institution (in his case, the Soviet Union) was doing it.
We’re still crazy. (You and I may not be, but we are.)
War is a force that gives us meaning, Chris Hedges says. You can read his book by that title, (required reading from a highly decorated and deeply insightful former war correspondent). You can also watch the lecture he gave on the topic at UCSB in 2004. The mystery will be diminished by his answer, but not solved.
Still, every dose of sanity helps.