Quests are stories of journeys and searches. They are deeply embedded in the human brain from our ancestral past, and all cultures have them. They are examples of what scholars call cultural universals, stories, rituals, language features, etc. that exist across every culture.
Quests come in many forms, but they offer challenges, temptations, risk, and the possibility of reward. Not only are there knightly quests, but we have quests we face daily. Life is a quest.
Recently, I pondered the quest after an engaging experience in social media. I spend time on Quora when I'm in a cantankerous mood. Quora is a social media question and answer venue, among other quirky things. The patrons seem an educated bunch who like to question, answer and debate. So, when I'm in the mood to argue, that is where I head.
I wrote and answered a few questions on skepticism, and then I found the following intriguing question:
What is the correct quote and the source for the following philosophical statement on altruism: in a kind and generous manner creates no obligation on the part of the universe to reciprocate?
The snarky little quote got me thinking, and the words sounded vaguely familiar. I couldn't pin down where I had heard them. The ideas made sense to me on an intellectual level: giving can be purely altruistic, without expecting reciprocation. This quote suggests that paybacks do not occur regularly, nor should they. While the idea conflicts with theory in economic anthropology, I hold off on an explanation in order to pursue my quest.
I thought the task simple: I needed to Google his quote and scan the results. This would be so easy, and I wondered why thy questioner had not already tried. Had I thought it through, I would have realized that this he had already tried this, unsuccessfully. Google's results were random, unrelated, or contradictory.
I love this feeling of cognitive dissonance: when what I thought and assumed turns out to be wrong. I was presented with a challenging task that I thought would be easy, but proved more complicated. At every turn lurked dead ends (or barely living ends). I began a 2 hour long, intense search. I didn't mess around.
As I searched, I my curiosity trumped the frustration of not finding the information I desired. The quote eluded me, and though I found some quotes with a similar sentiment, I could not find a match.
Previous to my jaunt to Quora, I had been in the grips of a massive writer's block, hence my frumpy mood. I could find no passion in any topics: blog titles (dud), motivation in writing (nothing there), sex (off topic), etc. You know that feeling, recognizing you must complete a project, but finding yourself lacking ability and motivation.
My mental block was profound and had hindered me for nearly a week. I followed the plethora of advice on the web for beating writer's block. I even read past articles of mine (listed below), but only stared at that blank screen, the damn black cursor blinking. Do you encounter this? I wanted to write so intensely that it shut me down.
I had forgotten to try a solid writer's block solution that almost always works for me and my writing students. Reading and researching stimulates the mind in a unique way, shifting your attention from the problem by engaging your mind in interesting tasks. The skills engage the part of the brain that communicates through words, spoken and written: principally the frontal lobe, Wernicke's Area and Brocha's Area.
The solution to my problem began with frustration but turned into curiosity. I tried at least a hundred searches, mixing and changing keywords. I assumed that the person who posed the question had written the quote pretty accurately. I later found this a false assumption. I found a quote by Twain with a similar message, but different words entirely.
I also found that economic anthropologists believe the assumption in the question is false. Reciprocal giving is consistent in all cultures and is important for establishing social ties. People tend to expect a gift in return, at some point, when they give you something. The idea that one should not expect anything from the universe was the minority opinion.
I read a lot as I searched, distracted when I found an interesting article or snippet. When I finally located the quote, I felt that certain sort of ecstasy that comes with the triumph of the quest.
The words and sentiment were different from the man's question, but it was clearly the one he was looking for. I found the quote by focusing on the words "universe" and "obligation." This two word combination yielded results. Nothing else worked to pull up the quote. Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, penned the words:
A man said to the Universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However," replied the Universe, "the fact has not created in me a sense of obligation."
What an exquisite quote (I love Crane), but a hard one to find, and I only had fragments of clues - a very rough paraphrasing.
As an author in the Naturalist veign of American literature, Crane was heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, which applied natural selection to human cultures. His stories were about people confronted with a universe that seemed indifferent or even opposed to them.
So, he believed that humans lived in an environment where evolution ruled, and the universe was indifferent to the human, whose survival depended on fitness. The proud human, in the quote, claims existence, but the universe does not care. It's a godless universe he describes.
The whole research process and the rewarding find brought satisfaction, which led me to write, a priceless gift. This article is the result, and I would never have written it without the research process I went through.
Research is prewriting
Reading and searching for obscure information is challenging, but locating answers is satisfying. When you are stuck or find yourself passionless about your writing, you might try these strategies that build on this idea that research stimulates the mind and writing:
The man was so grateful that I found the answer, and this was an added bonus. "Thanks," he said, "You found it!!" In my research notes, I am writing, among other things, that helping others promotes writing ideas and passion. A community of thinkers holds more power than an individual.
You might also enjoy these pieces on writing:
Could you stay a moment? I would love to hear your feedback on this article. Feel free to comment, question, and even criticize. Thank you, and you are great!
By Darin L. Hammond
Writer for ZipMinis and owns ZipMinis Freelance Writing.
Darin Publishes across the web on sites like Technorati
BC Blog, Blog Critics, Broowaha, and Social Media Today.