Wednesday, May 25, 2005

WHERE YOU ARE IS WHERE IT'S AT, or THE RANDOM WALK PROBLEM

George Polya, a Hungarian mathematician, liked to take walks around the local park. During this circular route he kept bumping into the girlfriend of a colleague of his. The colleague, quite understandably, was more than a little peeved; he thought Polya was tricking to pick up his woman. Polya thought: Well, wait a minute --if I'm walking around the same place enough times, and she's standing still, it's inevitable that we'll bump into each other.

Thus was born the Random Walk problem: If you walk around enough in an infinite grid, you will return to the same point over and over again.

(The above anecdote was found in a book review of a new mathematical book atwww.bostonglobe.com, which, in turn, was found via the always interesting www.artsandlettersdaily.com.)

Sounds simple. I guess it is simple.

But western culture is obsessed with moving on, moving forward, gaining some form of 'closure'.

Eastern culture (if there is such a monolithic thing) is much more, well, adaptive and inclusive in its sensibilities.

I'm reading a book called FIRE IN THE LAKE: THE VIETNAMESE AND THE AMERICANS IN VIETNAM, by Frances Fisher, and it raises an interesting point. (One among many.) Part of the reason why the U.S. got their butt kicked royally during the Vietnam war revolved around this notion of karmic inevitability, if you will. (And I'm hoping you will.)

The Vietnamese, being an ancient culture, saw minor conflicts and major wars as being an inevitable part of the cycle of history, a recurring phenomenon that was as unavoidable as it was volatile. The U.S., being a relatively young and anxious whippersnapper of a country, fretted incessantly about the 'domino theory' of communism; they were obsessed with stopping the onslaught of a vague, ominpresent threat that had very little relation to the Vietnamese reality. The Vietnamese were willing to be sly, and patient, and unbreakable; they had inhabited that land for thousands of years, and would do so for thousands more, and they would not yield to America's collective military force. They understood that they could (metaphorically, if not literally) wander their land for hundreds of years, but conflict would always be there, war would always be there -- if not for them, then for their sons and daughters, and grandchildren, and their heirs. There was no sense being impatient; karma's wheel would spin again and again, sometimes stopping on death, other times on defeat, but spin it would, regardless of communism and democracy, Ho Chi Minh and Lyndon Johnson. They would wait it out.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying: Perhaps Polya was right. If you walk long enough and far enough, eventually you'll end up where you started from. Maybe not physically, no, but physical journeys are only a fraction of the myriad travels we embark on. Who we are, and what we pass on, derives from what we do, and where we go. But the starting point and ending point is so blatantly obvious that we all too often overlook it in our necessary search for the 'other' and the 'destination'.

Perhaps all of our voyaging, all of our shipwrecks, have a larger, cosmic pattern, one that leads us away from our identity and yet somehow, at some point, tempts us back into a new yet archetypally primitive version of who we always were.

In the end, after the trekking is complete, we can only arrive at ourselves.

1 comment:

Muktuk said...

Reminds me of the human collective - human conscious. We are only ever exploring ourselves.