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Through a glass darkly

I am raising two small children. The oldest is three, and like all children, he is learning quickly at this age. He gets excited about new things —his bedtime story earlier this week turned into an hour-long Q&A where he wanted to know everything I know about electricity. Starting with Ben Franklin to the stuff from my electrical engineering classes (which was often sleep-inducing to me during summer school) to how the stop-motion video for his trains works (see below), he just listened with wide eyes and asked tons of questions. Even with my weekend chores and our play time, he wants to know the hows and whys when he's helping. (Surely most parents are familiar with the question "Why?" 30 times in a row.) He asks all kinds of questions without shame or a preconceived notion about what the answer should be.

As a parent, I'm glad that he's interested in knowing how things work, and that he gets excited about learning how to do those new things. The play is fun, but learning how the new activity works is important so he can play and learn and ask questions when I'm not around. Teach a man to fish, as they say. And it's not just my son — all little kids like learning new things.

Which brings us to the title line, which is from Corinthians and is something my wife really enjoys. It talks about how we did things differently as children, yet now our knowledge remains incomplete. We see through the glass darkly. We don't question things, nor do we seek out new knowledge in its own right like our kids do. That's why my three year old can pick up my phone and show me how to do things I never dreamed it would do. I suspect if we thought more like children do, for knowledge itself, the glass might be a little clearer.

The people we read about in history books are the ones who weren't afraid to ask questions and then look for the answers. Of course, you're not always going to get the right answers. In many instances, you're probably not even asking the right questions.

In my work as a patent lawyer and a trial lawyer dealing with medical issues, I run into two types of people. First, there are the people who question how a product or medical test works and how it could be made better. They may try new designs, tests, or treatments. Some might not work, but usually these people wind up figuring out a creative answer that is an improvement on their practices. These folks are the innovators, the reason we have advancement in technology, science, and medicine.

Second, there are people who are resistant to things they don't understand, or don't bother to learn about new things. I've seen businessmen refuse to consider that their tech business could be displaced by the next best thing. I've also seen doctors refuse to consider strong empirical evidence of effective new tests in favor of decades-old tests with half the diagnostic resolution. Without asking questions, how do these folks know what they're doing is ultimately helpful to their customers, clients, or patients? If only those who see through the glass darkly would merely begin with the question, what if I'm wrong?