The Professor

“I find it most important to ask new acquaintances whether or not they believe in the soul.” She scribbled the remainder of an equation on the blackboard then stood back to appraise her work as she clapped the chalk dust from her hands.

“That’s surprising,” I said. I wouldn’t have expected so rational a mind to have any concern over such ephemeral things. “Are you weeding out the irrational or something?”

“Quite the opposite!” She turned and walked to the lectern, where her touch-terminal displayed the hidden notes for her upcoming lecture. She tapped at it and raised the lights in the auditorium. I waved from my seat. She squinted out, looking at me over her narrow glasses. “I think belief in the soul is critical to determining someone’s good character.”

“How so?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t it an unquantifiable property? How would you measure a person’s goodness by such a scale as belief?”

“My dear boy, do consider your words carefully before you speak! You tend to rush headlong without first assessing the territory you’re diving into. The question itself is rather simple when first posed: it presents only a binary solution. There is either a yes, or a no.”

“You don’t settle for ‘maybe’?”

“A maybe is as good as a no when it comes to matters of belief. Even a half-hearted and hesitant ‘yes’ is still an affirmation that, on some level, the individual entertains the possibility. You’re an engineer, correct?”

“Trying to be.”

She scoffed. “If you are devoting your energies to the improvement of the profession, both within yourself and without, then you are what you desire to be. Until and unless you should give it up for something else, you are what you do. And I would wager you spend most of your time dealing with the machinery of engineering. The concepts, the theories. These,” she waved her hand at the blackboard behind her, “mathematics.”

“Very well then, by that definition I’m an engineer. Though not a good one.”

“No, likely not I suppose,” she mumbled, and the PA system amplified what she had said. “I would wager that you concern yourself overmuch with the mechanics of it all, yes? The cold science. The rules by which you might construct a framework of operation, something to carry you forward in your burgeoning career—a scaffold or ladder that you can climb to whatever heights will satisfy your need for achievement.”

I stopped to think before opening my mouth. She was right, of course, and I would have rushed to acknowledge it, but she had wanted me to demonstrate some thoughtfulness and so I tried to fake it. “Yes, when put as plainly as that, it’s hard to deny. But who isn’t like that?”

“No one with half a brain, I suppose. But the question then becomes ‘what drives you to climb’? The ladder is already built. You simply discover the rungs as you go. Keeping your head up, putting hand over hand and foot over foot, that’s the real key to advancement. But what is motivating that upward motion? We are not automatons, even in the darkest of times. Consider the factory workers who place themselves in enslavement to eke out a living. Their lives may seem hopeless and robotic, as though their flesh has been subjugated into the monotonous work of producing goods for a thankless consumer, but they have individual ambition all the same. To put oneself into such a predicament for the simple point of ‘being there’? Who does that? I would argue that no one does. It is the soul, that spark of the infinite, that measure of will.”

Again, I paused to consider her words. These “lectures before the lectures” had become my favorite part of the week, and every time the old professor had bestowed some gleaming nugget of wisdom. But in previous meetings they had all seemed practical and applicable to my field. Such discussions of the spirit confused me. “I’m confused,” I admitted.

“Then be confused! It means that your seemingly ordered mind has been thrown for a loop and is seeking once more to settle into its humdrum paths of least resistance. It wants to be comfortable, and along with that comfort find complacency. Here is the gift I’m giving and reminding you of the importance of contemplating things that may be beyond measure, beyond reckoning, contained in no formula and unprovable. My boy,” she said, turning down the house lights once more to stand in her own glowing pool, “above all things you must remain pliant, and prepared to face the unknowable. That is the hallmark of genius, and that pursuit shows a true belief in the soul.”

2015.02.03 – 2023.09.01

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