You’re asking would Amos agree with me? He’s been dead 15 years

Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, gave a lecture titled “The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking” to a group of other geniuses in other fields, then followed by a discussion. You can click the link for the full lecture, text and video, and the fascinating discussion. This is how Kahneman begins:

The marvels and the flaws that I’ll be talking about are the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time, a little over 40 years. I wanted to show you a picture of my collaborator in this early work. What I’ll be trying to do today is to sort of bring this up-to-date. I’ll tell you a bit about the beginnings, and I’ll tell you a bit about how I think about it today.

This is Amos Tversky, with whom I did the early work on judgment and decision-making. I show this picture in part because I like it, in part because I like very much the next one. That’s what Amos Tversky looked like when the work was being done. I have always thought that this pairing of the very distinguished person, and the person who is doing the work tells you something about when good science is being done, and about who is doing good science. It’s people like that who are having a lot of fun, who are doing good science.

What I like about this glimpse of the scientist and the introduction to the essay is the sense of playing within work, and intensely intellectual work as well. The idea that such “science” is indeed fun and perhaps fulfilling speaks beyond just the passion of the individual, but in a very real sense, a spiritual approach to work. The picture on the right brings to mind the cliche of “getting into the zone” or relaxed focus on the task at hand. Good work is done within the confines of joy.

Kahneman’s lecture is fascinating in its own right as is the following discussion. But what struck me like a punch to the stomach was what he said in an answer about the differences of him and his pictured collaborator.

Kahneman: “You’re asking would Amos agree with me? He’s been dead 15 years.”

It took my breathe away. If you watch the video this quick exchange happens about the one hour and six minute mark and is uneventful. But since my first reading, I have not been able to forget this remark. I’ve since started working a fictional story around it.

I’ve explored, for the last two months, why these sentences affected me so much. As an introvert I often feel things more strongly before I can understand them consciously. So I allow my subconscious to work through the thoughts, I pray and write, and try to put it into words eventually. My story is one small attempt. This is another.

I’ve come to this conclusion (along with many others, but I’ll try to stay focused):

Even our life’s work is meaningless.

This is not pessimistic, however, for Amos’ work helped advance the discussion and the science. He was a meaningful part, but at some point everything moves on, the world, the science, the ideas.

And we are left with a man sitting on a couch in pure enjoyment of the work. That is what lasts.

Amos is not left with dusty books and forgotten ideas. He has, eternally, a joy that goes beyond this life, quite mysteriously. And maybe Solomon’s stated all this meaningless-talk before, but our work does more to us than we realize. It’s more than the finished product or project. There’s an eternal, I don’t want to say reward, but something that results from the work itself. This is when we’ve come into contact with the divine, when we’ve collaborated with the Holy Spirit. We are re-created in the act of recreation. And maybe we don’t see it at the start and maybe not even in 15 years, but at some point we will.

When the officer passes, the man pulls out a four-inch blade

When the security officer patrols down the aisle, the man in a red cap two seats down, wakes from the slight jingle of keys and turns a page in his picture book of galaxies, open in front of him on the table, to show the officer–before he passes–that he has every right to be here at this table.

When the officer passes the man pulls out a four-inch blade and sets it in his lap. Then he unrolls a packet of tobacco and fills slits of paper, licking the edges, and making four cigarettes. He places the cigarettes in a jacket pocket. With the knife he trims his fingernails. He returns the knife to his jean pocket and the tobacco to his backpack. He leaves.

Visitors walk on marble floors to the tip-tap click of heels and boots rising toward the open ceiling. Security officers in brown and tan uniforms patrol the aisles of bums and vagrants wearing black jeans and overstuffed backpacks with the prolonged smell of body odor drifting above the shelves and computer monitors.

The library is full of men, homeless or in school. Defeated men, cold and aching. They browse and skim the books. Nothing is ever what they need. They are not here for the books and neither am I. They are here for warmth, to pass time, for safety and sleep.

I sit at the corner of a long table with an open, dusty dictionary in the middle. The man who left was sleeping upright with the book on the table of dazzling lights and explosions of colors and gas.

It’s library-quiet with coughing and clearing throats and muffled conversations and the flipping of pages, but most of that is imaginary, what I expect to hear. Instead it’s all computer keys clicking, the blast of music when someone accidentally pulls out their headphones and then the silence as they re-enter the plug.

I am here for the quiet and for the meditation and to mourn our life . We are at a funeral, the bums and the men in suits studying government files. The women behind the counters, who answer questions from us confused ones, guide the procession: “Military is that way, DVD’s are downstairs, sign up for a computer at the lobby desk.”

To the left of me are rows of books about tiling, roofing, masonry, carpentry, and trim work. The books are old and full of information all available on the computers. The books take up space one foot wide and six feet high and one hundred feet long. Both the books and the men inhabit a public space. Outside the library the information is sent as data, wirelessly and through miles of cables, as the books sink farther into uselessness and obscurity. Us men, we’ll have not made our mark, unremarkable and failures perhaps in many ways. We will turn to dust and fall asleep forever. We will disappear into the evening rain.

I’m at home in the ancient artifacts, silent unless opened, immovable in bulk, policed and directed simply. A world slipped behind the present, catching up in decades.

I come to see what we were.

For we are all stories and words: Created, Once, in a wild haste. A burst of joy.