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The Elements of Epiphany

What is an epiphany? In the entire English language there may be no word more intriguing. Originating from the Greek epiphainein, to show or reveal, the word has two definitions according to the dictionary. In the first, it is the name of an event in the Christian religion: the moment when Christ was made manifest to the Magi. The other definition, though technically secular, still manages to possess an aura of the divine. According to this second meaning, an epiphany is also a moment of sudden revelation or insight, a flash of understanding or clarity, an illuminating realization, a breakthrough, a discovery. An epiphany of this kind is a strangely mystical phenomenon, a nonreligious miracle and I believe that no matter who we are, somehow somewhere we’ve all had one.

Legendary epiphanies are scattered like diamonds along the path of mankind. The moment when Archimedes realized that displaced water could be used to measure the volume of an object – and then ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” is one of the flashier examples. Just as precious (though slightly more dignified) was the instant Isaac Newton understood the force of gravity after being hit on the head by an apple. Other epiphanies are relatively minor in the grand scheme of human history but sparkle nonetheless with all the zest of a rhinestone. One occurred in 1970 when Bernard Sadow was hefting his luggage through an airport and suddenly had the revelation that wheels married to suitcases would be a match made in heaven.

Epiphanies don’t have to be celebrated or of world-changing magnitude to be valuable. The magical moment when a child first makes the connection between written letters and spoken words is a small event, often barely noticed, yet priceless every single time it happens. And epiphanies don’t have to be intellectual. They can be deeply personal and emotionally powerful. Some, like discovering that you are in love with your best friend, are jewels of great happiness. Others are not. Finally waking up to the reality that someone you trusted has been lying to you for years is the kind of epiphany that sucks the light out of life like a black lump of coal.

Children learn to read and people discover love every day all over the world so clearly, epiphanies are not necessarily unique. In fact, a few are downright clichéd. Suddenly realizing that your life is half-way over and that you had better make the most of what’s left is the kind of epiphany so common it propels an entire segment of the auto industry with the demand for red sportscars.

Whether exotic and spectacular or as beautifully simple as sea glass on the beach, those fleeting flashes of clarity slicing through confusion only make us all the more aware of the muddled fog we live in 99.99 percent of the time. If only we could live in a state of permanent epiphany. If only we could live lives guided by clarity and deep understanding all the time. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But epiphanies can’t be forced. Enlightenment doesn’t come just because we command it. Still, before we give up hope completely, we should remember that there are clues about the factors and conditions that lead to epiphanies, plenty of them if we bother to look. If we truly seek clarity, then identifying and embracing these essential epiphany elements is where we must start.

I have a friend who used to be a lawyer. Late one night he was locked in a conference room with a group of colleagues hammering out the precise wording of a complex contract. The deadline was looming. Wired on caffeine, exhausted and frustrated, he leaned back in his expensive chromed exoskeleton chair and looked around the table. He later said that for a moment he saw the whole scene as though he were an outsider observing from a distance. With a jolt, he knew as he had never known before that he hated his life.

A new angle, a fresh viewpoint, an outsider’s perspective, such as my friend so briefly grasped, is an element common to a great many epiphanies. A stellar example, and one with profound consequences, was the experience of a young woman named Cecilia Payne.

In the 1920’s she arrived at Harvard from Cambridge, England to take up advanced studies in astronomy and astrophysics. The wisdom of the time at Harvard held that the sun was comprised primarily of iron, a belief based on the interpretation of spectroscopy readings. Although this conclusion didn’t make much sense in many ways it was accepted as gospel by Harvard’s academic community, a close-knit, male-dominated clique governed by the subtle forces of peer pressure and groupthink. Ironically it was the fact that Cecilia was a woman and an unwelcome interloper that led to a big breakthrough. Untainted by bias and free from the pressure to conform since she knew she’d never be accepted into the all male club anyway, she studied the spectroscopy readings from the sun and suddenly realized that they could be interpreted very differently. If they were, they would indicate that the sun was composed not of iron but of hydrogen and helium. Cecilia Payne’s fresh eyes revolutionized astrophysics.

Curiously enough, Cecilia had in her possession not one but two of the elements that catalyze epiphanies. In addition to the fresh viewpoint she brought with her to Harvard she also brought along a mind which was not only intelligent but unusually agile. Back at Cambridge she had first dabbled in biology and botany before finally concentrating on astrophysics. In her free time she studied obscure languages. In fact, she was fascinated by them. Clearly she was a woman of extremely wide interests. It is very likely that her eclectic background helped Cecilia when reinterpreting those spectroscopy readings. Epiphanies flourish at the intersection of disparate fields. They thrive on hybrid vigour. Not infrequently, it is a skill or fragment of knowledge from a foreign realm that turns out to be the missing piece of an unsolved puzzle.

Someone who understood this intuitively was the brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash. He rarely approached big mathematical problems head-on sensing that sheer intellectual power wasn’t enough to conquer where others had already failed. Instead, he would veer off and engross himself for months, sometimes years in the study of a different mathematical area or even a different discipline altogether. As a colleague once described, it was as though Nash climbed a mountain and then from its pinnacle shone a torch across the chasm to illuminate a nearby peak – which was the problem he aimed to solve all along. Perhaps it is not surprising that when Nash won the Nobel Prize it was not for mathematics but for economics, a field which benefitted immensely though almost accidentally from his work on game theory.

That cross-pollination is such a vital element is worth remembering. Thanks to technology which has brought us the internet, smart phones and social media, we live in an era in which cross-pollination is more possible than ever. Despite this, the trend somehow seems towards increasing insulation and segregation. Though large portions of humanity now spend hours of leisure time on the internet that time is usually used not to explore the unknown, not to cross barriers but to augment existing ideas and to reinforce entrenched beliefs. The algorithms that rule the internet only exacerbate tunnel vision. They pander to our professed dreams of diversity and growth while catering to our true unconscious desire to dwell undisturbed in our comfort zones. The internet will give us whatever we want – and that’s the root of the problem. With the click of a button it will offer up long lists of books, videos and articles. But what at first glance looks like limitless choice is an illusion. Since the lists generated are calculated to provide what the internet already knows we like, variation among the myriad items is actually infinitesimal. It’s volume masquerading as choice. But with our penchant for picking only what we know we already like maybe choice in itself, even genuine choice, isn’t the solution at all.

Long before the internet had influence on our daily lives Richard Saul Wurman recognized both the need for cross-pollination and the great difficulty in achieving it in an epiphany of his own. Living in Silicon Valley in the 1980’s, he saw that technology, entertainment and design were becoming increasingly interdependent. While these fields were interconnected, the people who worked in them were not. In fact, they were often oblivious to developments crucial to the advancement of their own projects. To promote cross-pollination Wurman devised a conference. In it the audience was bombarded by short, startling presentations by experts in an eclectic range of subjects. The key was that the audience did not get to pick which presentations they listened to. They didn’t get a choice. The event proved to be an inspiration hothouse, a breeding ground for epiphanies. It continued, grew and evolved and now, decades later, is famously known as the TED talks.

Along with the lack of cross-pollination there’s another element of epiphanies that is in chronically short supply, another crucial element of which we perversely manage to deprive ourselves. I happened to be writing this essay when my brother called. He lives in London and does some fantastically high-powered job that I confess I’ve never understood. Since he’s so smart and important I asked him if he’d had any epiphanies lately. “Epiphanies?” he grouched. “Who has the time?” Exactly.

In 1930 a young astrophysicist named Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was on board a ship sailing from India to England. The voyage took several weeks and Chandra (as he called himself) was very alone. Not only was he traveling solo but he didn’t get much company from the other passengers. Chandra, being Indian, was brown and they were white so none of them would talk to him. He had absolutely nothing to do but eat, sleep, stare at the stars each night and think. He pondered the evolution of stars, their life and death and in particular he thought about giant stars. What happened when they died? At some point it came to him. Chandra’s insight into the workings of the cosmos resulted in the concept of black holes.

We’ve all heard of black holes. These days it is not the incredible process of a giant star’s death that amazes us but rather the idea of spending weeks on end in total solitude. Epiphanies often follow long periods of deep thought and when they strike it’s frequently in unoccupied moments. Archimedes was relaxing in the bath when he had his “eureka” moment. Isaac Newton was hit on the head by an apple because he was lying under a tree.

We live in an age of distraction. We claim that we’re always busy. We complain that we never have enough time. When we do have spare in-between moments we fill them with activity, activity which we pretend is productivity. It feels like we should be doing something. We feel guilty when we’re not. We’d prefer to do anything other than stare into space.

Einstein was staring into space when he had an epiphany, an epiphany that led to his theory of special relativity. He was going home from his day job as a patent clerk and was absently gazing out the back of a tram car at the Bern clock tower. Einstein’s wasted time helped him understand time.

Part of our love of distraction is the result of habit but part of it is something else: fear. We fill every waking moment with the endless stream of electronic media provided by phones and computers with music, video and chatter. We’re afraid to be bored and even more, we’re afraid to be alone with our thoughts. We’re afraid of what we might discover if we allowed ourselves to think, to delve below the surface of our busy, busy lives.

And that leads us to the most underrated element of epiphanies: courage. It takes courage to have an epiphany and it takes even more courage in the aftermath. An epiphany all by itself is meaningless. It’s what follows that truly counts – which will likely be a lot of hard work. Ideas must be proved, researched, supported by evidence and implemented. The biggest task following an epiphany will no doubt be convincing other people of its value. The more significant the idea the more daunting the quest. An epiphany that could change the world means that it will inevitably disrupt the status quo. Livelihoods, power and money are at stake. Establishments dependent on the current system are at risk. If you and your epiphany are right then that means that others are wrong. People hate being wrong. In the eyes of society you will not be the hero you thought you’d be. You will be the enemy.

Consider the ordeal suffered by Cecilia Payne. Her epiphany about the composition of the sun was met with stony displeasure at Harvard. She backed up her assertions with a mountain of supporting data but even then she was almost browbeaten into recanting. Other scientists who believed her were too afraid to admit it, too afraid to support her. It took several years before the academic community accepted the idea and Cecilia never really received credit for her breakthrough. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar had a similar experience. His concept of the black hole was ridiculed and rejected for thirty years. Even Bernard Sadow, who simply wanted to put wheels on suitcases, was stymied by almost comic resistance to his innocuous innovation. As he wryly noted, the world doesn’t welcome change.

Small epiphanies that don’t demand a grand campaign still take courage. Personal change sometimes seems harder than changing the whole world. My lawyer friend is now a wilderness guide. He changed his life completely, but it wasn’t easy. There was upheaval, sacrifice, disappointment and judgement every step of the way. The final outcome, he assures me, was worth it. He’s a much better wilderness guide than he ever was lawyer. His moment of clarity put him on the road to a happiness that flows naturally from a profound sense of integrity and rightness.

Deep down inside, that’s the kind of happiness we all long for. Only clarity can help us find it.

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