Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

Counting a Fistful of Coins

fistful of coins


Most of the time in this life, we make decisions based on a mildly incoherent mix of information, wishful thinking, bias or feelings. We fool ourselves that the “big decisions” get a more serious analysis, but usually, they just take longer to resolve. More agony is involved but how often that actually improves a decision is a doubtful thing.

Often we choose because time or circumstance insist upon it: we need dinner and have to pick something off the shelf; we are in an exam and we have to write SOMEthing down as an answer. We are at a party and we have to talk to somebody. So we choose. The act of choosing depends on so much, and so little, all at once.

Imagine you were to close your eyes and grab two fistfuls of coins. You are told this: without looking at your hands, can you say which handful is most valuable? If you judge correctly, you keep both. Choose wrongly and you lose both. How do you choose?

First, if you’re a lawyer, you would ask for an adjournment until we could agree on what the word “valuable” means. The handful with the highest precious metal content? Any antique coins hiding in there that will skew the count? So let me thank all the lawyers and make this simple: just say which handful has the highest denominated value. Next step?

In Canada we have dollar and two dollar coins, in regular use. They’re roughly the same size but bigger than quarters, dimes and nickels. We don’t even issue pennies anymore. But even if you live in the U.S. (quarters, dimes, nickels and the Lincoln penny prevail) or the U.K. (pound coins and various pence denominations) just holding a handful of coins won’t offer immediate proof of what they’re worth. Most countries have their own range of coins. Choose a currency and proceed with the test, please.

You might guess which handful weighed the most, on the principle that the heavier scoop was worth most. This depends on two assumptions: that value correlates to weight (maybe, depends on the coins) and that you can actually tell the difference in weight between the two handfuls. You’d be surprised how hard it is to distinguish trivial distinctions in weight, a task made more complex by the fact that your arms aren’t identical in strength.

Turns out, how strong you are, can fool you into thinking you know much something weighs. It takes a very refined sense of these things to correctly choose the heavier of two equal-sized handfuls of the same stuff. Try it with rice and you’ll see.

“You’re making this too complicated” you object. “I can just squeeze the coins and feel their shapes. The larger ones are worth more, so I can make an educated guess.”

Yup, you can do that. When you do though, remember that the harder you squeeze something, the more aware you become of the things pressing into you. The objects buried in the mix are obscured, might even be undetectable. It would be generous to call this an “educated” guess.

No friend, these methods – reasonable as they may seem – could prove your undoing.  Guess wrong, remember, and you lose them all. You would be wise to try something else.

You see, you’re going to have to put those coins down on the table and count them. That means letting go of them. Then look, pick apart the coins of different value, count them and then add up the value of the little piles. It’ll take you a minute or so. And yes, you’ll have to let go first.

Any choice we make is a mix, a blend of the facts, feelings, time and the rules of the game. Each factor changes – not even we are constants in this experience. Like a snowball that knows where to roll, we get bigger, veer, fracture, fall apart and recombine. Of course, we just think we know where to roll.

This is bloody hard. The theatre of life has too many actors saying too many lines all at once, too many guitars bashing out their own tunes. It is this huge, impossibly complicated mess of life that sends so many of us scurrying for a quiet corner. We choose certain values and eschew others, consciously or unconsciously, as a way of simplifying decision-making.

It seems impossible for people to live together, for long, without some agreed decision-making principles. If the only thing we have in life is a goat and a well, we need to agree on how to share the water in the well and who has to tend (and gets to milk, and eat) the goats. You would think we could figure that out among ourselves each day, but it has proven difficult to do so without one or another of us getting greedy, angry or violent. We need rules.

So incorrigible are human beings in their desperate greed and disagreeableness, it has proven necessary for us to take our rules from a higher power. That may be a judge, or a junta, but ultimately it usually seems to be a God. You and I can argue about whose goat that is, but once God (or His delegate) tells us who gets the milk, it’s harder to argue.

In our rich, fat, modern democracies we tend to forget that we have a Rule of Law, borrowed not only from Westminster and the French Revolution, but also from one of the Gods (“thou shalt not kill, steal, etc” – remember? THAT God.) Many of us don’t believe that God is actually sitting up in the clouds watching us scurry about, ant-like on the face of the globe, but even the most atheist among us cling for dear life to some of the rules He is said to have provided.

Sure, believe in God. Or don’t believe. In the west, we pride ourselves on tolerating a wide spectrum of values and decision-making systems. But pride is often the foolish product of lazy thinking. Sure, you can be “different” in western society, but the oxygen for that difference gets pumped out by the trees in the forest we all call home. And the forest will be quickly chopped down or set alight, without some rules.

In liberal democracies we have become so good at following those rules, we have decided that God actually isn’t necessary any more to enforce them. And we’ve been pretty good at that. So good, we don’t think that God actually may have an effect on how people behave.  It is often a surprise to the secular many, how the less-secular many keep listening to their Gods.

Putting aside the pantomime piety of American politics, the truth is that in the west, we expect people to keep their God inside their head. And if God must leave their mouths, the sound should not emit through the walls of a home or church, too loudly please. To the believer, this can feel oppressive. Because it is oppressive.

The believer has identified the great decision-maker of the universe, named [INSERT DEITY] whose directives can be found in [INSERT NAME OF SCRIPTURE]. Following Him (it’s always a “Him”) makes life a lot easier, because a good many life decisions are immediately resolved for you.

Swallowing this decision-making pill feels like really “good news” for the believer, but in the chaos of pluralism, there is also some “bad news”: other people who haven’t swallowed it, whose choices offend or actually interfere with what He (God or the believer) wants.  And depending on which deity is offended, those who aren’t following the rules are [PERMANENT STRANGERS / LOST SINNERS IN NEED OF REDEMPTION/ ON THE LIST TO BE KILLED].

Which brings us to November 2015, details of which you can find elsewhere.

It has been a terrible month, so far. Terrible for the dead, the suffering, the survivors. Terrible for those of us thousands of miles away from the bullets and bombs, because we are rapidly ratcheting our public life into a war of words. The irony is how quickly it is turning us all into believers, of one sort or another. And as our competing voices become louder, we shout ourselves hoarse repeating our own most tightly-held beliefs.

One by one, our friends say the wrong thing and become our enemies. One by one, we say the wrong thing and become their enemies. We have all grabbed up our fistfuls of coins and have decided, mainly because we are holding them, that they are worth more than someone else’s.

Thing is, you really can’t count what a fistful of coins is worth, until you put it down, pick it apart, and see.

the City of Coins by Chinese artist He Peiqi

the City of Coins by Chinese artist He Peiqi




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This entry was posted on November 22, 2015 by in Decision making, Faith and Religion, Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.
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