He kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making. It was constructed from memories, fragments of stories and imagined events. In his head these building blocks had combined and interlocked until they surrounded him without offering him any way out.
He had tried to escape many times. He had tried to follow one line of blocks from its start to its conclusion, expecting to be taken through a coherent storyline from beginning to end, and from the end to an exit. But the blocks rearranged themselves even as he followed them. Sometimes the same block presented itself over and over again. Or junctions sprang up where many possible storylines opened themselves up for him to choose from. Whichever line he followed, he kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making.
He had tried jumping blindly from block to block, from memory to half-forgotten image, in the hope that these random moves would serendipitously lead him to an unguarded opening, a forgotten door or a window to a world outside. But every door swung round to push him back inside. Every window turned out to be a mirror endlessly reflecting the jumbled blocks of his own fragmented story. And he kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making.
He had even tried stopping altogether. He stopped following stories. He pushed every image or memory out of his mind before he could become consciously aware of its content. He forced himself into the darkness of not thinking, not sensing, no awareness. But in the midst of this darkness he couldn’t help noticing shimmers of light. A spark would shine, faintly but clearly. If he managed to ignore it, another one would follow, and another. They formed sequences, patterns and rhythms. They created forms out of synchronous moves. They danced until he couldn’t help but pay attention. And his attention was all they needed to lead him back from the void into his mind’s confusion. And he kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making.
He was literally trapped.
He was trapped, literally.
And then he saw it. Between the a and the y. Two crowbar shaped ls he could pry loose from their position. And an r between the t and a to put where the ls had been. No longer trapped but armed with a means of escape he tapped
with his newfound tools on the
words that held him
captive moving them
down with every
And he found he could tap
himself a way out
from inside this maze
of his own making.
Outside there was light and endless potential. Outside was the freedom to see everything for the very first time. Here he could be without having been.
The village clung to the steep mountainside like a foolhardy mountaineer who suddenly realised he had climbed beyond his abilities and was now too overcome with vertigo to move either up or down. The houses were old, decayed and obviously unmaintained for many years. Smoke was rising from a few of the crumbling chimneys but most houses were just empty shells, offering shelter only to the few birds and rodents that could survive at these altitudes.
Tired from the long climb up from the valley he hoped to find shelter for the night in one of the occupied houses. Maybe there was a chance of a warm meal or a soft mattress. But just some warmth and protection against the piercing wind would be worth a lot.
Having reached the village square, he chose the very first house with smoke coming from its chimney. One could barely call it a house: it was a timber construction that leaned against the stone wall of the house behind it like an old man pausing for breath after a short walk up a steep flight of stairs. The house looked like he felt. Maybe the recognition between fellow sufferers would encourage some hospitality towards him?
He knocked on the door.
It took a while before he heard how a bolt was moved aside and someone laboriously pulled open the heavy, crooked wooden door just enough for a face to peer through. An old man looked at him curiously with eyes that were surprisingly clear and lively in that old and furrowed face.
“There you are.” the old man said, “That took you long enough.” “What do you mean?” he said, taken aback, “Were you expecting me? Or did you see me climb up from the valley?”
“No, none of that” the old man replied, “but I knew eventually someone like you would arrive and knock on my door. The very existence of this door in my house made that inevitable.” “Why?” he said, somewhat confused, “The existence of this door bears no relation to whether someone ends up knocking on it, does it? Why would this door make my knocking on it inevitable?” “Right!” the old man said happily, “Exactly! A normal door lets people enter and leave and that justifies its existence. But I have been sitting inside since this house was built up around me. I never go outside and none of the villagers would dream of coming in. And yet, here is this door. It’s obvious!” De old man made those last words sound like the triumphant conclusion of a convincingly won debate.
When he didn’t immediately reply, the old man started laughing. “Never mind, never mind. I don’t expect you to understand this straight away. After all, I have spent my whole life thinking about these things. Whereas you, if I judge you correctly, have barely begun to think.” The old man pulled the door further in now and invited him in with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. “Be welcome in my domain, long expected traveller.”
The old man’s smile was too friendly and inviting to resist. He followed the old man inside the dimly lit interior. There he saw a mattress and blanket against the stone wall and a low table with a lit candle and two tin plates on it. In a corner stood a wooden crate with a water pitcher, a couple of mugs and few chunks of bread. In a niche in the stone wall a wood fire was burning, with its smoke disappearing through a smoke hole in the roof. The rest of the room was bare and empty. A place to shelter against the winter storms. Nothing more.
The old man told him to sit by the table and offered him a piece of bread and a mug of luke-warm water. “Please enjoy.” de old man said, “My palace is your palace, my abundance is yours.” Too perplexed to respond he ate and drank what the old man had given him.
They sat in silence for a while.
Suddenly the old man got up and walked to the outside wall. That turned out to contain a small wooden panel that could be moved aside to reveal a narrow opening. It was just wide enough to reveal a bit of the street outside. “Come,” the old man said, “it is about to happen. You don’t want to miss this.” He stood up to stand next to the old man and peer through the narrow opening with him. “What’s going to happen then?” he asked, but the old man gestured for him to be silent and to keep watching.
And then it happened. Slowly a cow moved past their view. First there was the pink nose, then a large, dark eye, a nervously moving ear, a bit of a horn. Next came its back rolling past like a slow-moving wave. The display ended with the tail, with its dangling plume as a final punctuation mark disappearing from view. And then there was nothing again.
The old man looked at him triumphantly. “Now you have seen what I have been thinking about all these years. This is the mystery I was called to solve: the mystery of causality.”
Not understanding, He looked at the old man. “The mystery of what?” he asked.
“Of causality, dimwit. The beginning and ending of all things.” “But all I saw was a cow passing by.” he said “What does that have to do with causality?”
The old man’s grin was as wide as his face now. “All he saw was a cow passing by. A cow! That’s all. The Universe revealed itself to us, the beginning and ending of everything unfolded before our very eyes. And all he saw was a cow.” The old man looked at him as if this should have been enough of an explanation for him to show some understanding. When he didn’t respond, the old man shook his head. “Boo!” the old man shouted, so loudly he stepped back, startled, and knocked his head hard against a low hanging beam. “Boo! Boo! Boo!” The old man clearly enjoyed his reaction. When he touched his head to feel if he wasn’t bleeding the old man burst out laughing. “He had to split open his head to let in some understanding.” the old man laughed. “His eyes are closed, his ears are clogged, maybe the hole in his skull is letting in some light.”
Suddenly the old man composed himself and gestured for him to sit down. The old man joined him on the floor. “That’s enough fun for now,” the old man said, “these are serious matters. Now tell me exactly what you just saw, and I will explain it to you.”
He took some time to think. “I was watching the street. That opening in the wall is very narrow, so I couldn’t see much. Then a cow came along. Then all I could see was that bit of the street again. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” the old man shook his head in disbelief. “How easy it is for the unenlightened mind to under-appreciate the mystery of existence.” The old man paused for some time, deep in thought. Then he continued: “First there was the street. Then there was a cow. Then the street again. Great. You saw what was there. But what you didn’t see is what it’s really all about. Where did that cow come from?” The old man looked at him with a penetrating gaze. “Where has that cow gone to? What causes that cow to appear and disappear like that?”
The old man straightened his back to emphasise his words. “I have thought about this my whole life. I even had this house built around me so I could completely dedicate myself to this task without getting distracted. And finally, after endless observation and deep reflection, I can now reveal to you my answer. Because you found my door, you will be the first one to hear this from me. Listen … “ the old man paused to heighten the tension.
“… the answer to the mystery of existence is this: …” another pause “… the nose causes the tail!” Victoriously, the old man looked at him. “The nose causes the tail. That’s the secret.”
He looked at the old man with his mouth open. This couldn’t be true. This had to be a joke. He laughed nervously. “The nose causes the tail? Is that it? That’s the answer to everything? That’s what I climbed this mountain for? That’s what I bumped my head for against your stupid roof?” His laughter had turned into anger. “Old man, you’re out of your mind. ‘The nose causes the tail’ is an old koan, a Zen-buddhist riddle. It illustrates our tendency to explain things on the basis of our limited observations. When we forget that we only see a little piece of reality, we tend to over-generalise that small piece and read more into it than we should. We see the Universe in a grain of sand. We see a cow and think it explains creation. The nose doesn’t cause the tail. That’s nonsense. That nose simply comes first because a cow walks forwards not backwards. You are confusing correlation with causality, that’s all.”
He stopped to catch his breath and to see how the old man would react. Would he be upset by this little rant? Had he been too hard on the old man? The old man had apparently spent his whole life thinking about this answer. Should he have left him his dignity and simply agree with him?
He was a bit surprised to see the old man still grinning at him. “Are you done with your story?” the old man asked. “A koan, you say? A riddle about the limitations of our observations? If that is true, O wise one, explain to me this. You saw that cow pass by; first the nose, then the tail, then nothing at all. Where has that cow gone to then? Just look outside. Nothing there. Just an empty street. Can you explain that? The old man looked at him. “I don’t think so.”
“Of course I can explain that.” He said. “That cow just walked through the street on its way to a meadow somewhere outside the village. It’s probably grazing there now. Or it was on its way to a stable nearby. Simple. No mystery, no revelation, just an ordinary cow on its way from point A to point B.”
“Oh” the old man said, “simple, eh? That cow is just standing in a stable or grazing in a meadow. You are sure of that?”
The old man pulled open the door for him and said: “I never leave my house and yet have managed to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. You have been everywhere but appear to have seen nothing. Please go outside for me and see if you can find that cow. And then come back. We’ll talk further then.” The old man waited for him to step outside and then firmly shut the door behind him.
Once outside, he looked around. Where would that cow have gone to? The direction from which it had come was the same direction he had entered the village from. The cow then had passed the old man’s door into that dark, narrow alley. He took a few steps in that same direction. To his surprise he almost immediately ran into the same stone wall the old man’s house was leaning against. The alley ran straight into that wall, which also flanked both sides of the narrow street. A stone wall, without doors or windows, or any other openings of any sort. The ‘alley’ was not much more than a fairly shallow niche in a very high wall.
Where then had that cow gone to? There were not exits here. The niche itself was barely deep enough to contain the whole beast and yet he had seen with his own eyes how the animal had walked past and disappeared from sight. To be certain, he felt along all sides of the niche. Nothing. Heavy stones, impossible to move. No hidden trapdoors either. Now he really was confused. He turned around and knocked on the old man’s door.
The old man opened the door straight away, still with that grin on his wrinkled face. “Did you find the cow?” he asked, mockingly. “Was she grazing in that imaginary meadow of yours? Or resting in the stable of your fabricated reality? I hope you learn something from this, with your koans and buddhist riddles. The world reveals itself to those who can see it for what it is and can interpret what they see. That cow is both the mystery and the answer to everything. I will repeat this one more time, before sending you on your way: the nose causes the tail! And that’s all there is to say.”
The old man started to close the door and muttered “confusing correlation with causality, my nose!” And as his face disappeared behind the door as it slammed shut, the old man, too, vanished forever.
The road had long ago ceased to be a road. The higher he came in this mountain landscape, the less the road had been maintained. Tarmac had given way to cobblestones. In the end, all that remained of a reasonably level path with an occasional pothole filled with pieces of brick and gravel was a barely walkable gravel track. And now, several hours after he passed through an abandoned village, only vague traces of that track were visible beneath the grass and weeds growing everywhere.
And yet he walked on, convinced the path he was following would eventually lead him to his destination; wherever that might be.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. Clearly no traffic had crossed this bridge for quite some time. The bridge was as overgrown as the path, as if the foliage spanned the gap on its own strength and was the only thing keeping the bridge from collapsing.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. Looking down hundreds of meters below he saw a fast-flowing river forcing itself between massive boulders. The roaring of the water was faint but persistent. It sounded threatening, almost angry, as if the spirit of the river was annoyed at the rocks obstructing her progress.
Through the silvery haze rising from the chasm he could just make out the other side of the bridge. The path appeared to broaden there. The landscape looked more accessible, too; the cliffs less steep and the hillside green and undulating.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. There he would find the reward for his long and arduous climb of the past few days. All he had to do was cross that bridge. De rest would be easy. Filled with new hope and energy he stepped onto the bridge without further thought.
After a few paces the bridge started noticeably resonating with his footsteps. Every step he took worsened the vibrations until he felt the bridge shake with the rhythm of his walking. Worried, he began to increase his pace, which only made the shaking worse. The whole bridge was swaying now. Almost halfway, he started running. For one brief moment he thought he would make it but then the road rose up like a wave in front of him before disintegrating completely underneath his feet.
He fell. He had just enough time to think he should have been more careful. Then he hit the rocks. His lifeless body was dragged away by the river without leaving a trace.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. Clearly no traffic had crossed this bridge for quite some time. The bridge was as overgrown as the path, as if the foliage spanned the gap on its own strength and was the only thing keeping the bridge from collapsing.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. He had the strange feeling he had seen this before. He seemed to recognise the landscape on the other side. He felt there was something he should remember but couldn’t quite get clear.
He took a few more steps until he saw the decaying remains of what looked like a signpost or warning sign on the side of the road. He dragged it onto the road to get a better look. Nothing. If anything had been written on it, time and weather had completely erased any trace. He dropped the sign back on the road.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. There he would find the reward for his long and arduous climb of the past few days. But that bridge didn’t look very sturdy. And the weathered sign had spooked him. But he decided to push on. The other side was calling him. He stepped over the sign onto the bridge.
After a few paces the bridge started noticeably resonating with his footsteps. Worried, he began to increase his pace. The whole bridge was swaying now. Almost halfway, he started running. For one brief moment he thought he would make it but then the road rose up like a wave in front of him and fell apart underneath his feet.
He fell. He had just enough time to think he should have listened to his premonitions. Then he hit the rocks. His lifeless body was dragged away by the river without leaving a trace.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. The bridge was as overgrown as the path, as if the foliage was the only thing that kept the bridge from collapsing.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. Though he had never been in these mountains in his life, he was almost certain he had seen this place before. The landscape across the bridge looked very familiar as well. It made him feel restless and agitated, as if there was something he should be able to remember but couldn’t quite put his finger on.
He walked forward until he saw an old sign lying in te middle of the road. He wondered how who put it there and why. Unfortunately, the sign was devoid of any legible text. Without really knowing why, he picked up a piece of limestone from the ground and chalked a few words on the badly weathered wood. He read back what he had written and chuckled. He shouldn’t get carried away like that, he thought. Surely it wouldn’t be as bad as that? He carefully leaned the sign upright against a large boulder at the entrance to the bridge and looked across again.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. But the sign had rattled his confidence for a moment. Yet he decided to push on. He had come too far to turn back, so close to his destination.
After a few paces the bridge started noticeably resonating with his footsteps. Worried, he began to increase his pace until he was running at full speed by the time he was halfway across. For a moment he thought he would make it but then the road rose up like a wave in front of him and completely disappeared beneath his feet.
He fell. He had just enough time to reproach himself for not turning around after seeing the sign. He should have trusted his intuition. Then he hit the rocks. His lifeless body was dragged away by the river without leaving a trace.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. He was almost certain he had seen this bridge before. The landscape on the other side of the canyon also looked very familiar. He felt nervous and scared. There was something urgent and important he felt he should remember but it refused to come into focus.
He took a few more steps and saw and old, weathered sign leaning against a boulder near the entrance of the bridge. It was clearly put there to be noticed. He wiped away the dust and dirt from the timber and saw that someone had chalked a few words there. With some difficulty he read: “Look out! Unstable bridge. Collapse imminent!” He wondered who had put the sign there and why. He looked across to the other side.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. But that bridge didn’t look very sturdy. And the words on the sign sounded ominous.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. Looking down hundreds of meters below he saw a fast-flowing river forcing itself between massive boulders. The roaring of the water was faint but persistent. It sounded threatening, almost angry, as if the spirit of the river was annoyed at the rocks obstructing her progress. He could well imagine what it would be like to plunge down there and smash against those rocks. The water would drag away his lifeless body without leaving a trace.
He looked once more at the luring landscape on the other side of the bridge.
He then turned around and with a feeling of relief mixed with disappointment he started the long descend back into the valley, where he would search for another way to cross that river.
Lost in thoughts he had walked into a forest without noticing. When he finally looked up and around he didn’t see anything he recognised. A barely visible path wound between high trees and dense undergrowth. Patches of thick green moss under the highest trees were surrounded by stretches of high, dry grasses and strips of bare sandy ground. Even with the sun high up in the sky it was almost dark here. The heavy foliage blocked almost all the sunlight and the little light that reached the ground was washed through with a greenish, pastel-like haze.
Where was he? And how could he get out? The narrow path didn’t seem to go anywhere and he only saw forest as far as he could see in this dusky light.
Slightly worried he tried to get his bearings.
After having twice turned around 360º he thought he saw something shimmer in the distance. He looked again. Yes, it was clearly lighter there and he thought he could see the blueish glittering of water through the thick shrubs and high grasses.
The darkness of the forest was getting to him. He didn’t hesitate. He started running in the direction of the water he saw in the distance.
Because he could barely see the ground he walked on he couldn’t go very fast. He had to be careful with placing his feet: the path was full of irregularities, holes and tree roots you could easily trip on.
After running along for a while in this way, with his eyes mostly on the ground, he stopped for a moment to check his progress. It took him a moment to locate the light in the distance. To his surprise it seemed further away than before. It was still clearly visible, especially in contrast to the darkness around him. But the distance between him and the reflecting water had clearly increased. He must have veered off from the main path, into a direction away from the water instead of towards it.
He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. Panic is not going to help you, he told himself. And there’s no reason to panic. As long as you keep the water in sight it’s impossible to get lost.
Instead of running, he decided to walk while keeping his eyes fixed on the water and not on the ground. By carefully placing his feet and making sure he was standing on level ground before taking the next step he managed to slowly move forward.
After having taking a number of big strides this way he started to get the feeling that even though he was moving forward the water was receding from him. He took a few more steps and was certain now: he was again further away from the water than he had been before.
Again he walked forward. The water had by now almost disappeared from sight. Only the bright light on the horizon betrayed where the water would be. Afraid to lose sight of that light as well he started running again. Until he tripped over a tree root and fell flat on his back.
Slowly, he got back up again. He was completely surrounded by the half-darkness of the forest. There was no trace of the water or even the light on the horizon.
Panicking, he turned around and around, hoping to glimpse the light reflecting off the water somewhere.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she stood there in front of him. A slender, stately
woman, dressed in light-green robes. She had long, black hair and dark-brown, almost black eyes. She held a staff in one hand and had her other hand raised in a ‘stop’ gesture. She had a slight smile around her lips but her voice was stern and commanding when she said: “That’s enough. Please show some dignity.”
His mouth had fallen open in amazement. He was still panting from his panic attack and he was dizzy from turning around and around. But when he heard her voice he felt himself jump to attention. Without a thought he straightened his back, closed his mouth and waited for her to speak again.
“Good. You know how to listen. Maybe you can still be saved.” There was that hint of a smile again. “But you will have to do exactly what I tell you to.” Speechless, too surprised to say anything at all, he nodded his understanding.
“Do you have any idea why you can’t reach the water?” she asked? He shook his head. She kept looking at him, apparently expecting an answer. “It seems like the water is running away from me,” he suggested, cautiously. “Every time I try to approach, the water seems to have moved further away.”
“Ah” the woman said, “you know how to observe. But your conclusion is typically male: when you encounter something you cannot explain something has to be wrong with the world. Have you considered, even for a moment, that maybe there’s something wrong with you, and not with the water?”
Bewildered, he looked at her. Something wrong with him? What did she mean? “Could the water be an optical illusion? Am I only imagining seeing water?” he proffered.
“No” she said, “that water is real. There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But something’s wrong” – there was that smile again – “with the way you are looking at the world.”
He had no idea what she was talking about, so he kept his silence, hoping she would explain what she meant.
“Try to walk towards me. Maybe that will help you understand.” Hesitantly, he took a few steps forward. To his amazement the woman was further away from him than when he started walking. Yet she hadn’t moved at all. She held the same position in what seemed to be the exact same spot, yet the distance between them had visibly grown. What was going on?
“You still don’t understand, do you?” the woman said. “I thought you were smarter than that. Let’s try again. Walk away from me now, without turning around. Keep looking at me and take a few steps away from me.” He did as she said and saw how she appeared to come closer with every step backwards he took. He stopped when he was almost touching her and stared at her in confusion.
“Do you understand now?”
When he failed to answer she took half a step backwards and struck his head off his shoulders with her staff in one fluid motion. He felt his head tumble through the air to land on the soft mossy ground, while his body flopped helplessly forward. His body ended on hands and knees as his head rolled to a stop against a tree stump.
He had the eerie feeling he was in two places at once. He clearly felt the moss under his hands and the ground under his knees and feet. But he also felt the rough surface of the tree stump against his face and saw grass sway in front of his eyes. A tiny ant climbed up on one of the stalks, stopped at eye height and ran down again. He was too surprised to panic and too shocked to say anything.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, “but sometimes a direct approach works best after all.” He couldn’t see her but heard her kneel down next to his head. “Now you need to keep your head together. Try to crawl slowly in the direction of my voice.”
Her voice was calm and reassuring and he felt his panic subside. He did as she told him and made a few tentative crawling motions. He felt his body move forward but his eyes didn’t register any motion. That was confusing enough to cause a wave of nausea to wash through him and almost make him fall over.
“Pretty hard to do, eh? When your body and your head are not working together? Try again, but this time keep your eyes closed. Looking is not going to help, feeling is. Concentrate on my voice and the feeling in your body. It may help to imagine you are in the dark, crawling towards me.”
He closed his eyes and did exactly as she told him. Now that his eyes and his body were no longer contradicting each other things were indeed a lot easier to manage. Without too much trouble he crawled in the direction of her voice. He felt his hands bump into his head and instinctively picked up his head and pushed it firmly back onto his neck. He felt his head and body fuse.
Cautiously he let go of his head. It remained firmly perched on his neck, as if it had never been disconnected. He slowly turned his head from side to side. That, too, worked fine. He sat himself firmly on the ground before opening his eyes. Everything looked normal. The forest, the sky, the trees, … and a few paces away the mysterious woman with her staff in hand.
“Well done.” she said, clearly happy with his performance. “Most men lose their head completely when this happens and get hopelessly lost. I have seen plenty of them disappear into the woods in total panic. Never to return. But I am glad you managed to pull yourself together. I think you have potential.” In his mind he saw hordes of headless men crawling through the forest until they died of exhaustion. That could have happened to him. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Come” the woman said and held out her free hand, “get up and walk with me. I will take you to the water.” She helped hem to his feet and together they walked into the forest. After a few turns of the path he could see the light again and the reflections of the water. He half expected the water to disappear from sight again, so he was glad to see the water’s edge quickly approaching. After a short walk he stood next to the woman on a sandy beach bordering a small lake in the middle of the forest.
“Welcome to my lake”, the woman said. “From here you will be able to continue your journey. But before I let you go, have you understood what was going on?” She looked at him, her dark eyes firmly fixed on his.
He thought. Her question sounded like a test and he suspected she wouldn’t take kindly to him giving the wrong answer. He had no idea what she would do but he had witnessed what she was capable of with her staff. Better think this through, therefore. What had just happened? Suddenly it came to him. “I had my head put on the wrong way round.” He looked at her. “I was looking forwards but walking backwards.”
She smiled at him. “Exactly. Or you were walking forwards but looking backwards. I hope you will never forget this: if you cling to where you came from you will never get where you want to go to. Keep your eyes aligned to the direction you want to travel in. The road will then reveal itself.”
That sounded rather obvious. He nodded he had understood her; cautiously, of course, his head had just been on the ground next to his body so he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
With the woman he turned again to face the lake and admired the view of the rippling water and the sunlight playing with the small, wind-driven waves.
One fine day he decided he had had enough. For almost 40 years he had tried to live the way others expected him to. But however hard he tried to adjust, he never quite succeeded. It all remained a play. A play so well rehearsed he could almost at times forget he was just playing a role. But then something would happen, a meeting, a comment, a passage in a book or an unexpected vista during a walk or drive; there would always be something that brought him back to the sense of the unreality of who he was trying to be.
And now it had to end. He couldn’t find the power in himself to put the mask back on, re-find his place in the script and dutifully perform the next act of the play, as his part demanded. He had lost his will to pretend.
He didn’t even take the trouble of packing or taking anything with him. Exactly the way he had dressed that morning, in his t-shirt and jeans, he walked out of his house, knowing he would never return there.
He walked up to the end of the street. On the corner he turned and saw his house standing on the horizon like a miniature. Which gave him an idea: with one eye closed he stretched out his hand in the direction of the house. Very carefully he pinched the tiny building between finger and thumb and started to pull. With some wriggling and gentle tugging, like a dentists pulling a recalcitrant tooth, he managed to detach the house from its foundations. He shook off some dirt and sand and put the little gem in his pocket.
Happy and content he walked away. Now he would never be homeless – wherever he went.
Our prehistoric ancestors were simple people, speaking in grunts and chipping away at rocks
It is a miracle the human race survived at all. With their limited intelligence, primitive mindset and total lack of technology, their survival under some of the most impossible circumstances most have been dumb luck. Any evidence of global trading from prehistoric times should be attributed to nothing more than the random stumbling about of simpletons. Their megalithic monuments are just a product of brute force and stubbornness. It’s a good thing we modern humans have evolved so far beyond our brutish, stupid beginnings and are so much smarter than our primitive ancestors.
Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that you were transported back in time, to the world our pre-historic ancestors lived in. Surely you, with your superior intellect and sophisticated technological knowledge would soon be able to lead those poor dimwits out of their Stone Age into an Age of Enlightenment.
Or would you?
How much of the technology you have come to rely on do you actually understand? Do you know how to make even the most basic of the tools that are part and parcel of our modern world?
And how resilient are you, really, without any of those tools readily at hand? Would you be able to find and prepare food straight from Nature? Would you be able to navigate dense forests, vast open steppes, and even medium-sized seas without your technological crutches? Do you know how to carve a megalith out of a sheer cliff face, let alone how to transport it for 100s of kilometers, and then place it upright in a way that will last for millennia?
Before you assume you would easily become the King of the Stone Age people, consider this: not only did they survive and often thrive in situations you would perish in within minutes of your arrival; they did so using mostly their own brains, cunning, muscle-power, and verbally transmitted lore. All of the daily challenges you need modern technology for — technology invented by others, made by others, and kept running by others — they would have to find solutions for themselves.
Who is the clever one now? You, who can Google anything you need to know, stay in touch with 100’s of friends you never actually meet, and program a microwave to cook the perfect frozen meal? Or the ‘primitive’ Stone Age human, who had to remember 1000s of lines of verbal tradition, could survive solely on what Nature provided, and still managed to traverse the globe, and leave monuments that will outlast almost anything modern humans have produced?
Business is a means to make money. Nothing more, nothing less
Money is all that matters in the end. The sole purpose of a business is to make its owners rich. Everything else is just embellishment and sales speak, covering up primal greed in lofty words and false sentimentality. There is no room for altruism or empathy in this cold, hard economic reality of business.
This assumption of the ruthless, relentless drive for profit is the one constant argument used to push back at anyone suggesting we should strive for a more humane version of the current capitalist model of commerce. This model has won, we are told, and is the dominant – maybe the only remaining – working economic model in existence. You may not like it, but there is no alternative. Businesses exist to make profit, and even their most altruistic and humane actions can ultimately only be explained by that economic necessity.
Is that really all there is to it? Business is business and there is no room for sentimentality when it comes to the bottom line?
I find it hard to believe that a system that leaves no room whatsoever for human values, such as virtue, compassion, kindness, higher purpose, social responsibility, etc. can ultimately thrive for long in our human world.
Because businesses are not alien life forms or soulless machines, but a collaboration of human beings, like you and me. And I don’t believe human beings are purely driven by greed and a selfish lust for power. We are social creatures at our very core. Wherever there are people, there are social structures and social rules to encourage collaboration, protect the weak, help each other and balance the greater good against the individual’s needs and desires.
Some people would argue that the very existence of those structures and rules proves that without them we would all just be brutal predators, waiting for a chance to pounce on the weak and helpless for nothing but our personal satisfaction. We have societies, they would say, because without them we would be savages.
Yet, all over this planet and all through history, people have found ways to peacefully live together, to collaborate and support each other. We find evidence from before the dawn of history of injured or old individuals being cared for. We find ancient myths proclaiming the virtues of compassion, kindness and social responsibility. Ancient laws talk about justice and fairness and social responsibility as if that is the natural state of our being, and those who deviate from it are the harmful exception society needs to be protected from.
I think the simplest explanation for this very human tendency to form complex, regulated and collaborative societies is that we are at heart a complex, regulated and collaborative species. We are NOT ruthless individuals only limited in the harm we do to other by the force of law and the fear of retribution. We WANT to live in peace. We LOVE to help each other. We THRIVE on collaboration. The rules and structures are there because we know societies are fragile things and can easily be twisted and broken by the few individuals that ignore their social side in favour of their individual desires. Precisely because we value a just, fair and functioning society so much we keep building them. Since we are far from perfect, our attempts to create the perfect society are bound to be imperfect, too. But we keep trying. Because what we really want is to live in peace.
Which brings me back to business. Businesses are human organisations and the people that come together to form a business bring all their human characteristics with them. That means that next to their individual needs and fears and insecurities, they bring their very human social instincts. They bring their desire for collaboration, for contribution, for attention, appreciation, affection, and acceptance, for fairness, for meaning and purpose.
Yes, they want money, too. They need to earn at least a living wage and most of us would love to earn a comfortable income, enough to put a rest to our – also very human – worry of not having enough in the future. But that is hardly ever the sum total of what we are after. Once our basic needs are met, most of us want more from work than just an income. We want to feel part of our organisations. We want to be proud of the work we do. We want to feel proud of the organisations we work for. We want to feel we’re making a positive contribution to our work and to the world.
With all the evidence we have that human beings are more, much more, than purely self-centred egoists, isn’t it sad that our corporate methods are so focused on bringing everything down to the lowest and meanest common denominator? More than sad, even. I have a strong suspicion that because the accepted business narrative has become so devoid of social and human considerations, the people working for them also lose touch with that side of their own socio-emotional needs and desires. By leaving no room for human needs other than money, status and power – by denying even that such needs exist – our organisations push people into a state of almost pure survival mode, where everything becomes a win-lose transaction, and every relationship and collaboration only exists for its utilitarian function.
The sad thing is that our society seems to have fallen for this false narrative of human nature. Business has become the dominant force in shaping our culture and with that its portrayal of humans as ‘homo economicus’ – the individual always out to maximise personal gain – has become the standard we measure everything by.
So, does that mean business has won and this is what we have to learn to live with?
As I said, I don’t believe that this model and its way of thinking is ultimately sustainable. We all get pressured on a daily basis to believe in this model. We all are forced to obey its rules even if we don’t believe in it. Yet, humans will be humans, and when a part of us remains unfulfilled and unexpressed, this will, sooner or later, create a reaction. When we can’t express our social nature, we will get stressed, uncomfortable, dysfunctional and sick. When we can’t satisfy our need to be a good person, we feel unfulfilled and unhappy. We know there is something missing, even if we can’t exactly put our finger on it. Even if we belong to the lucky minority that succeeds in the material race for money, status and power, if we can’t express our essential social character, we will not be satisfied.
By ignoring the social nature of the people that make up their organisations, businesses are pushing them to a breaking point. In this time of change and uncertainty, just when businesses need their people to be at their best, their most creative and most daring, they are reducing their people to the most basic state of survival. This makes it harder, almost impossible, for people to live up to what is expected of them, which only increases their stress and fear of failure, making things even worse. Something will have to give. Something will give.
I think we are close to breaking-point right now. The very success of the current way of thinking is creating the conditions for its own downfall. By taking over all aspects of our lives, the cold, self-centred homo-economicus we are made to believe we are has driven the altruistic, caring homo-socialis1almost completely underground. But there, with its back to the wall, it will become stronger. Like all suppressed emotions, our social needs and desires have not disappeared, they are just gathering strength. They are collecting the tension, the sadness, the disappointment and the longing and turning it into energy, like tightening a spring. And when the right moment comes, the spring will be released. All that stored energy will come out with an unstoppable force when the breaking point is reached.
I don’t know how this is going to end. I am not a prophet. I am not even a futurist2. But I do know we are facing a fundamental choice here. When the breaking point comes, what are we going to break? Are we letting it break society and all the people in it, or will we break the business model causing all this pain and dysfunction?
The forest floor is covered in ankle-high layers of dead, brown leaves. It could easily be mistaken for an Autumn scene somewhere in Europe. Yet this is a rainforest in sub-tropical Australia, a country where the trees are always green and shed their bark, not their leaves.
There still is some green around, as the hardier plants and trees stubbornly hold on to the preciously little water they can still access. There are patches of colour even, from flowering trees and shrubs that feel they are dying and push out a last abundance of flowers in a last attempt to produce enough seeds to preserve the species for after the drought.
But most of the trees are bare. The once dense jungle is visibly thinning out. It is like the forest is slowly fading away and becoming transparent, like a ghost of its former impenetrable self. Where walls of green once blocked all views, dark outlines of trees in charcoal black and burnt-earth browns are no more than shadows between here and the now starkly visible horizon.
Is this what the death of an eco-system looks like? Is this how life fades away, one species at a time, until only the translucent outlines of that abundance remain? Will we all become pale, lifeless, shimmering ghosts, aimlessly wandering through a desert of dead and dying dreams, vainly grasping at the mirages of the lush and vibrant riches we failed to value when it was all still alive around us?
More information automatically leads to better decisions
The more I know about something the better I can weigh my decisions: instead of having to guess and assume, with enough information I can simply reason my way to the best decision. With all the information at my disposal I will always make the right decision.
But is this true for all decisions? When there is only one choice, the decision is obvious. When there are two options, one of the two usually stands out as the better choice. When there are five choices, however, making a decision becomes difficult and I need information to work out what is best. When there are dozens of choices, the decision is complicated, and I need a lot of information to work things out. When there are a hundred choices or more, the choice is now complex, and even a single new bit of information can completely change the outcome. What exactly is the best decision when the outcome changes with every new bit of information and the information available is never complete?
Is the constant demand for more information an example of believing you can never have enough of a good thing? Sure, without any information at all, your guess is as good as mine – or as random. So a bit of information can be helpful. But piling up information from different sources, of varying quality, of variable levels of relevance, does that clarify things for us, or does it merely confuse us?
Maybe we need to come to terms with the limits of our decision-making abilities, and the limits of what information can do to improve them? Maybe we live in a world that is too complex to fully fathom and all we can hope for is on average to get things more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’, trusting that we have more than just our rational thought processes to guide us; and trusting that in a complex, highly dynamic, and never fully understood reality even our ‘wrong’ decisions can be portals of discovery leading to completely new and unimagined opportunities?
When the total sum of wealth in the world increases, should we care about its distribution? We are all related, and everything is connected, so when the wealth of the world increases, the whole world is better off, even when only a lucky few benefit directly. Feeling left out and disadvantaged is just a narrow-minded, selfish reaction of the misguided ego that fails to see the bigger picture. A rising tide floats all boats, they say. And the trickle down principle works better when there’s more at the top to trickle down from. So let’s just keep slaving away at increasing the size of the pie, and not look too closely at how the slices are divided.
But if all the food of the world ends up on one table and the rest of the world is starving, does it really matter how richly stacked that table is? Does it matter how big the pie gets, when its parts are shared more and more inequitably? Does it benefit the world that a lucky minority can waste water on pools, parks, and fountains while the masses are dying of thirst? Is it right to boast of our fabulous cities and technological marvels while the rest of the world is turned into a wasteland to make those wonders possible? Does concentrated wealth really count as wealth, or it just another name for distributed poverty?
There is something deeply flawed about our current economic models. It all sounds really good in theory: in a free market, with all players having equal access and the freedom to choose, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, production and consumption will all balance themselves out in a dynamic equilibrium. The most deserving will get a bit more, the most productive will make the most profit, while the least productive and least deserving will get a bit less. But that is only fair, and much more fair than any centrally led economy or government-regulated system could ever be.
For a long time I have tried to believe this narrative, in spite of the plenty of evidence to the contrary. I wanted to believe the fundamental theory was sound and that a free market was – in theory – the best solution to our economic needs. I tried to explain the obvious failings of the system – the rising income inequality, the massive environmental damage, the overwhelming power of the wealthy elite over the poor majority of humanity – not as a flaw of the system but of the people running it. It had to be because of bad people, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and criminal governments that the system refused to balance out. Surely, if we could find a way of weeding out the bad apples that were ruining the beauty of the free market, everything would work out OK?
An article in this month’s Scientific American, titled “The Inescapable Casino”, changed my mind. What the article claims, using fairly simple mathematics, is that the free market theory is fundamentally flawed. Even a truly free market, untainted by the distortions and machinations imposed by bad and greedy influences, will not move towards a balanced distribution of goods and value. Instead, small ‘errors’ of value exchange – where one party receives slightly more value than they should – build up over time. Once the value distribution is skewed, the unfair advantage of having received slightly more builds up over time, invariably leading to a lucky few owning almost everything, with only a few scraps left over for the rest. Instead of trickling down, the authors state, a free market tends to trickle up: shaving off value from the poorest to add to the increasingly disproportionate abundance of the rich.
For me, this insight changes a core part of my own thinking about our economic future. The flaws in our system have always been obvious to me, but I kept thinking we could correct these by limiting the damaging influence of the bad people involved. I was hoping that a free market without their distorting influences would be possible, so we did not have to rethink the entire foundation of our current economy. But I am coming to the conclusion this was a naive and idle hope. The system itself is fundamentally flawed. Even without ‘evil’ influences in it, it will never lead to a just and fair distribution of wealth and power.
But hidden inside this realisation is some (perhaps unexpected) good news.
It means we can change our focus. Instead of fighting the bad people and thinking up ways to limit their evil ways, we can turn our minds and energy to solving the real problem. Fighting evil people may give us the satisfaction of righteous indignation and moral superiority, it will not, however, solve our current problem of income inequality and massive over-concentration of wealth. It may smoothen the curve a bit, and soften some of the edges, but it cannot ‘cure’ a system that is so fundamentally flawed. We need to find a better system if we want to have a sustainable future. We need a system that is fair, balanced and equitable at its core.
So, let’s keep calling out bad behaviour and abuse of power where we see it. But let’s stop blaming bad people for all the problems in our world. They may be taking advantage of it but they are not the cause of our economy’s failings. The root cause is our economic system itself. Finding a better system should have our full attention and complete devotion. This is not a matter of winning a battle between good and evil. It’s a matter of finding a way of life that offers us a future.