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Jack Smith

The Everlasting Yea--or Nay : 'Simple' Yes-or-No Questions Are at the Heart of Some of Life's Most Complicated Decisions

June 28, 1987|Jack Smith

In observing recently that an are the two most important words in the language, I was not aware that I had stumbled onto profound philosophical turf.

I suppose I was thinking of the more basic choices those words imply, such as whether to engage in sex and drugs.

Even if they are limited to those two functions, yes and no are critical words and can profoundly alter one's life.

Their broader implications have been impressed on me by Rabbi Alfred Wolf, former rabbi of Wilshire Temple and now director of the American Jewish Committee's Skirball Institute on American Values.

"When you hinted at the importance of those two tiny words, yes and no ," the rabbi writes, "you touched the very essence of human life."

I am acquainted with Rabbi Wolf, and I know of no one who is more searching, tolerant and human.

"We are very conscious, these days," he writes, "that the complex marvels of the computer are wrought entirely by electric circuits which understand only two commands, 1 and 0, on and off, yes and no . Similarly, the countless microdecisions involved in every human act are made at the synapses, the touching points of billions of brain cells saying yes or no to transmitted stimuli.

"Should we not also be aware that neither yes nor no figures more prominently in the macrodecisions which shape our lives? We are what we are--or, more correctly, we become what we become--by the configuration of both our positive and negative responses to the opportunities and the challenges, the pressures and the temptations along our path of life . . . ."

As a person who uses but does not understand a computer, I have been vaguely aware that it makes all its transactions with a vocabulary limited, so to speak, to 1 and 0.

Thus, when I write my name, or some phrase like "the importance of yes and no ," the computer reads those signals as 1's or 0's and renders them back into English.

I do not know how this is accomplished, and I do not think I have to know simply to infer the phenomenal implication that all human ideas, values and calculations can be expressed in yeses and noes .

It is a staggering thought. It makes us see that that marvelous organ, the brain, is nothing more than an extremely complex computer--one than can reduce all its refined artistic judgments and critical decisions to a series of 1's and 0's, yeses and noes .

We go through the day making a series of decisions. Shall I get up? Or shall I stay in bed? Shall I go to work? Or shall I stay home? Shall I be civil to my wife? Or shall I pout? Yes or no . Yes or no .

Almost any course that one takes throughout the day can be initiated by a simple yes or no . Shall I ask for a raise? Shall I invest in municipal bonds? Shall I invite Ms. Frobisher to lunch?

It is also obvious that a simple yes or no launches us onto the more fateful paths of life. Shall I ask Ms. Frobisher to marry me? (Am I afraid she'll say yes ?) Shall I quit my job and go up the Amazon in a river boat, as I planned to do when I was 10 years old?

The necessity of making a yes -or- no decision is inescapable. Shall I go out to dinner, or whip something up at home? If I stay at home, what shall it be? A Lean Cuisine in the microwave? Yes or no . If I say yes to going out, what shall I wear? A suit? A sweater and slacks? Where shall I go? What shall I order? Shall I have a glass of wine? Two? A bottle?

When we regard a Picasso, we say, "Do I like that woman's nose? Do I like her second nose?" And Picasso must have painted it through a series of similar decisions.

It is as if we were not creative at all. We do not conduct our lives according to grand intuitions and romantic scenarios. Instead, we are presented with a series of alternatives-- yes or no --between which we must choose.

All of the great decisions in history have been decided, in the end, by a simple yes or no . Should the Colonies declare their independence from the Crown? Yes . Should the North fight to keep the South in the Union? Yes . Should the Imperial Japanese Navy attack Pearl Harbor? Yes . Should the United States drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima? Yes . Should Tommy Lasorda pitch to Jack Clark? Unfortunately, he did.

Kathleen A. Dahms of Long Beach writes that yes is her favorite word. "What other word makes more people happy or offers more hope?" she asks.

That has always been my sentiment. It is true that human commitments are sealed by the word yes . Yes gets cities built and launches marriages. What word is sweeter to a suitor's ear? But we seem to find ourselves in circumstances today that urge the negative on us. The wisdom of the hour is "Just say no ."

Rabbi Wolf has expressed the idea of yes or no with more erudition than I have at my command, and I have reduced it through my vocabulary of 1's and 0's to a ruder formula.

Rabbi Wolf points out that this is not a recent insight. It is at least as old as Deuteronomy: "Today I have set before you life and death, good and evil . . . blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life!"

And life is a series of simple decisions. Just say yes or no .

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