When the answer isn’t always 42*

A few weeks ago, my Fitbit broke.

This caused a few minutes of anxiety. I was so used to knowing that I would usually walk around 20,000 steps today (I walk everywhere) and, in doing that, there was a sense of reassurance. That this amount of steps would keep me well; whereas any fewer would obviously let the wolves through the door.

After these few minutes though, I remembered that I would still be doing however many steps without a Fitbit. All it did was record; it didn’t determine or judge. There were no wolves, not really, that weren’t simply products of my self-judgment. A Fitbit alone wasn’t going to keep me well.

And anyway, two days later I got a tattoo on the wrist where my Fitbit would have usually sat. I would have had to take it off anyway. In the end it really didn’t matter.

But I got to thinking about the reassurance of quantification again a few days ago when I was unexpectedly asked to give a lecture on suicide prevention – what we know, what we don’t, and studies I’ve worked on that have given some answers which have led to more questions. I was asked questions during and after the presentation and most of my answers were ‘It depends on….’, ‘It depends but…’ Simply because we don’t know enough to give many definite answers. But more than that – simply because something so very human means that its not easily definable or quantifiable – or the same depending on time or space or place or person.

So much depends on the particular person at a specific time within circumstances that may never necessarily be repeated for anyone else.

But this wasn’t enough for some of the students; it never is for some. They wanted sureties and tick boxes and linear ideals where A would always lead to B but not straight to G. When I couldn’t provide this, some of them became a little frustrated. How could I be an expert if all I knew was ‘It depends…’

Friends in similar sensitive, human fields have had this same experience.

But being human doesn’t always equal tick boxes, or either/ors, or yes/no.

Being human can equal open-ended questions and both and maybes.

Being human can mean that there are few certainties, no answers that will always be right, no superheroes fully assured at the very last moment.

Sometimes we will be uncertain, sometimes we will be wrong, and sometimes we will fall and not be caught.

Sometimes our hearts will be broken and sometimes we will break hearts. And we won’t always be able to predict either, even if it’s of ourselves.

Sometimes the answer will be 42.

But sometimes – because we are all so beautifully, so magically, so brokenly human -we will want the answer to be 42 and it won’t be at all, no matter how much we play with the maths.

Sometimes there won’t be any answer and we could easily spend lifetimes chasing something that simply doesn’t exist. Or deciding that the answer is 42 regardless and wondering why nothing seems to work around it and all our fears and flaws don’t magically resolve.

Except that knowing the answer is 42 can make life seem simpler. There is a calm in knowing that 6×7 will always equal the same number. There are questions that have right answers and definite answers. Unchangeable answers – as unchangeable as anything can be. And these are brilliant because we can move onwards and upwards from them. We can build bridges from them. We can fly planes. We can see stars and find dinosaurs.

These are all entirely inspiring things.

But there will always be things that can’t be quantified. Can’t be numbered.

The feelings that get right to the core of being human – that can make a heart beat or make it stop. And it’s our very humanity that makes everything so complicated because how do we see inside our very selves?

How can you measure love? Or make a numerical comparison of that moment when you look at someone and realise you don’t love them anymore?

How can you measure anger between a fleeting feeling to something that causes irreparable damage?

How can you quantify how much you miss someone who’s gone?

How can you value how much a heart can break?

How many times can it heal over and over?

How sometimes it won’t?

None of these will ever add to 42. None will ever have a definite answer, a consistent one, one that will be the same over time and space and person.

No one thing that will always make a heart stop hurting, or someone return, or whatever it is that we’re searching for to make us feel whole.

And it’s this uncertainty that can cause discomfort. It’s this discomfort that makes it seem easier to search for bones and name the planets rather than sit in the rubble. But it’s this ability to sit in the discomfort – to be peaceful with it in some ways – that’s important. Here it may not be that answering questions is the ultimate goal but rather creating a space that allows for the discomfort and the uncertainty and the multitude of greys in-between.

Maybe we need to truly trust that there are more than 50 shades of grey and not all of them are fucked up by any means. That we can make meaning out of certainty without having all the answers. That we can give kindness, spread compassion, so good work, based on depends and maybes and sometimes.

That humanity is allowed and accepted in all its 42s and heart beats and heart breaks. That we don’t search for answers where there may not be any. That we trust the wolves won’t only not come to our door but trust that they were never there to begin with.

But that’s harder to teach. Harder to put on a band around our wrist. This peacefulness sits inside us, waiting to be recognised and nurtured, if we could only trust ourselves to believe in it.

*Apologies and credit to Douglas Adams – if only the mice were right.

3 thoughts on “When the answer isn’t always 42*

  1. The unexpected arrival of humanity (or, rather, the Golgafrinchans) onto Earth meant that the actual question of life, the universe and everything was corrupted to “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”

    As always, there is no simple answer for anything to do with real people. Quantitatively, we can count and describe general trends, but on an individual level, the answer is often going to be 54 rather than 42, simply due to the joys of self-determination rather than needing to fit a pre-determined statistical model.


  2. Pingback: A pirate, a question, and feet | thesecondplanb

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