Thursday, August 16, 2007

'The World Increasingly Offers Us Mysteries'

'There's a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler's mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can't find the right answer, you know it exists. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers. But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities. Puzzles may be more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries. Treating them as puzzles is like trying to solve the unsolvable—an impossible challenge. But approaching them as mysteries may make us more comfortable with the uncertainties of our age.'
--from a brilliant piece of writing and thinking in the June issue of Smithsonian magazine, written by a former U.S intelligence officer. He crisply explains the vast differences between how spy agencies must crack the intelligence codes of Al Qaeda (a mystery) and the former Soviet Union (a puzzle). This is an often-overlooked publication, but one of a handful that continue to regularly publish sparkling long-form narrative journalism.


At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

Exactly the same point was made by historian Martin E. Marty on Bill Moyers' Journal this week.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's interesting. Given that this piece was published a couple months ago in a reasonably influential journal, it's entirely possible that Marty had read and was influenced by the piece. Shame on me for missing the Moyers program, which is always great.


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