Inspiration and the Elegant Solution (Ken Davidson)

  (06 July 08)

Inspiration and the Elegant Solution:  Grace in Secular Life



A talk given to the Toowoomba SoF group by Dr Ken Davidson.


About 15 years into my working life as a professional engineer I began to notice that sometimes a really beautiful and effective solution to an engineering planning or design issue just seemed to come fully formed out of nowhere.  I enjoyed these experiences but didn’t dwell on them much:  not until I had one with such force and decisive results that it started me thinking about the whole phenomenon.


I’d been working on a PhD for nearly ten years.  I’d enrolled when I became an academic and took the unfinished project with me when I was appointed to a senior position in Canberra’s bureaucracy.   My work was highly relevant to my thesis topic and I found I was making more progress with no time and plenty of external input than I was when at the university (in a more genteel age) with plenty of time and no external input.  But the main aspect of my work lacked focus and conclusion.  At an international conference I had some long discussions with experts in a closely related field and decided to try a parallel mathematical approach which had worked for one of them.  Back at home I fell into a routine of working hard in my job all day then, as soon as family responsibilities were complete at night, I’d get on to this mathematics.  I kept this up every night for a month with no success and one Sunday night at about midnight I slammed my books shut and stomped off to bed deciding I’d completely wasted my month of mathematical endeavour.  My head literally bounced on the pillow as suddenly I saw in a flash and complete in every detail a most beautiful, simple and powerful result that not only solved all the problems I’d been working on but brought into a single integrated whole several peripheral issues which I thought had nothing to do with my main theme.  I couldn’t write it down quickly enough and I knew at that moment that I had a PhD.


It was pretty easy to see that there were several important elements to this process:


·           I was very keen to find a solution;

·           I was completely prepared – my month of working with the maths had given me a full understanding of the issues without which I wouldn’t have been able to perceive the solution;

·           I let go of the problem – I cleared my mind by giving up on the whole issue whereas until that moment I was always carrying some aspect of the problem around with me;

·           The solution came to me freely and complete, and was better than I could ever have hoped, doing all that was needed and much more besides; and

·           Its arrival was completely unexpected.


On reviewing the previous Elegant Solutions that I had been aware of experiencing, I could see that those elements were present then too.  I also began to see that whenever we talked about Grace in a spiritual journey context, the same elements seemed to be there too: 


·           it is God’s free gift,

·           it is abundant above what we could ask or imagine, and

·           without limit, it is perfect, and it comes particularly to those who “wait on the Lord.” 


I could then see too that whenever I had experienced what we call Grace, I had had the same feeling and sense of transcendence, oneness and completeness that I had when confronted with an Elegant Solution.  I’d also noticed that all my recognised experience of Grace had come when I least expected it but nevertheless at a time when, without setting out to be, I was fully prepared.


I came to believe that there was an Elegant Solution to every problem; it was just a matter of finding it.  The trouble was its appearance seemed to be a gift whose timing, or indeed arrival at all, could not be forced.  But it appeared it could be helped.  I got into the habit of trying to be fully cognizant of the issues so that at least I would be in a position to recognise the solution when/if it came. I became very reluctant to go forward with any scheme that didn’t seem to have those qualities of elegance whether or not it came “out of the blue.”  


Later on I took up an operations management position where to make progress many things had to change, there were many disparate elements involved, many different groups had to work together and there were serious financial and timing constraints.


It was quite easy to bludgeon a scheme together.  It would work satisfactorily but it would force many uneasy compromises and create new, if lesser overall, inefficiencies.  In each case I hoped for an Elegant Solution but I did not have sufficient depth of understanding of all the elements involved.  There were always real or imposed time constraints and the work to be done was generally serial so one branch’s work could not start until certain other work was complete. Serious resource constraints (manpower, equipment and finance) always existed and it was a major objective to optimise those. 


A way to reach the Elegant Solution gradually emerged.  I took to having meetings of all the branch heads to consider each required change or scheme– between us we understood the whole picture.  We would discuss what needed to be done and how it might be done.  Various options were proposed and discussed.  Some were acceptable and it was tempting to go with those because of the pressure of the time constraint.  If the option was rejected as being clearly sub-optimal, we would keep on talking and proposing and assessing options, adjourning the meeting as necessary.  Things proceeded like this until the pattern was broken by some non-scripted event.  Someone, to relieve the tension might crack a joke.  Someone else would go one better but the concentration was broken and somehow, from some such off-the-cuff remark, the Elegant Solution would be apparent.  It was always apparent to all of us together such that it didn’t need to be elaborated or discussed further.  We all seemed to know exactly what each had to do and the meeting would break up quickly.   Of course, the solution which emerged always was easier to implement, produced better outcomes in all areas including resource requirements, and it always solved other extant but seemingly unrelated problems even when they were not on the agenda.


This was really interesting because it seemed to apply a formula which produced the desired result and this does not seem to be the pattern of the gift of Grace which seems not to come if one attempted to force it or when it is sought specifically.  That was before I remembered Jesus’ promise that “when two agree on what they should ask…..” and it was then I got the goosebumps. 


I never shared with my branch heads where I got my meeting model but we all enjoyed the outcomes.


I’ve not met anyone else who knowingly used anything like my meeting model but it is apparent to many that Inspiration meets all the criteria of Grace.  I’ve spoken at length about this to people who need inspiration in their secular work and they all agree it happens as I discussed above.  One of my sons is a music composer and we are in complete agreement on this.  Of course prior preparation is essential as is an action to let the problem go whether this is deliberate or otherwise.  All also make the point to the effect that “God helps those who help themselves,” but I think this is part of the need for preparation.  To me it’s analogous to tuning in a receiver.  You need to have the correct frequency or the equipment will not be able to receive or understand the message.  Preparation is like tuning in.  Letting the problem go is like stopping talking so the incoming transmission can be heard.


There is an interesting tension too between Jesus’ teachings that those who ask receive, those who seek find and to those who knock it shall be opened, and the frequent admonition that Grace, as God’s free gift, comes in its own time.  The resolution of this to me lies in the fact that we have to open ourselves to the possibility of Grace or inspiration, even if we’re doing so without being conscious of it.  We have to be like the bridesmaids who wait ready because they know not when the bridegroom will come - but first we have to be a bridesmaid.  


I read in an Einstein biography something about the way he received the Special Theory of Relativity:


(after long discussion with a colleague)…..He woke next morning in great agitation, as if, he said, “a storm broke loose in my mind.”  With it came the answers.  He had finally tapped “God’s thoughts” and tuned in to the master plan for the universe.  ….Einstein said his basic discovery came on waking up one morning, when he suddenly saw the idea.  This had been going around and around in the back of his mind for years, and suddenly it wanted to thrust itself forward into his conscious mind.  We know brilliant ideas come at crazy times… suddenly the idea comes, almost as if it’s coming from somewhere.  You cannot command the idea to come, it will come when it’s good and ready …..Einstein said “Ideas come from God” ….although he didn’t believe in a personal God. 


St Paul’s defining moment gives us a good example of how the preparation does not have to be sympathetic to the inspiration to be effective.  His experience on the road to Damascus inspired him in a completely new and unexpected way, he being so fully prepared to do the opposite.  Indeed I suspect a lot of inspiration and elegant solutions come out of what we might call “left field”…they are tangential to where we were looking and this is perhaps why there is the need to let the problem go – to relieve ourselves of our preconceived notions.


The reality of the Elegant Solution has now become so much a part of my life and my wife’s and my joint endeavours that waiting for it has become our basic decision-making tool.  We inform ourselves fully and then procrastinate about major and minor decisions until it becomes clear that the Elegant Solution has arrived, then we proceed completely without caution or any delay or further consideration, often leaving people aghast at our seeming thoughtless and unresearched decisions.


The similarities between spiritual Grace and inspiration came home to me powerfully during one of my weeks with the Cistercians at Tarrawarra Abbey.  I was meditating alone in the church after attending the 4am Office of Vigils and in passing noted that, in that setting, stilling the mind seemed to be unusually easy.  As I was leaving, I stood for a few moments facing the altar and had a powerful mystical experience.  As I left the church into the predawn glow its significance and relevance to issues that had been on my mind hit me and this sense increased as I reflected further in the Guest House.  I had a wonderful sense of blessing and a completely new understanding of some spiritual issues and could hardly wait to receive communion after the 6am office of Lauds. The whole thing was completely unexpected but it was interesting for the purpose of this thesis that I did note just beforehand how unusually stilled my mind had become.


This sense of blessing I experience whenever I have received a gift of Grace is just the same as the sense of wonder I have when I am inspired or discern an elegant solution.


So I’m postulating that Grace, Inspiration and Elegant Solutions are part of a continuum, all obeying the same laws and all coming from the same source.  An amazingly large part of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is taken up with assurances about God’s Gift of Grace, and its characteristics.  It seems to me that we have for too long kept it locked up in purely religious pursuits whereas it seems to apply equally to secular aspects of life as well. 


To me several things follow from this:


There has been a long-held view in many cultures that being in sacred places enhances the experience of Grace – they are seen as “thin” places where the separation between the material and divine is minimal.  To me this means that we should preserve and foster such places – limit the use of churches to spiritual activities and not turn them into “multi-purpose” halls; and set aside at home places which we use only for our devotions.   


Perhaps the churches should start talking about Grace in broader terms that include all inspiration, and hence enhance the churches’ beneficial impact on all of humanity’s endeavours. 


Perhaps too, the well-recognised existence of inspiration could be seen to be one of the best manifestations of the existence of the transcendent:  what, in our tradition, we call God.

[1] Einstein A Life, Denis Brian, Wiley 1996


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