Nickels and dimes

When we make choices in this life, do we make them based on knowledge, or something else? While reading a book lately, an image came to mind which perhaps underscores the importance of a continued study of Life, since we are always in a position of making choices, and how we make them can often alter our lives permanently-for better or for worse.

Imagine a closed room with two piles of coins. To your left, one million dimes; to your right, one million nickels. Between the two is a man who tells you that can choose either one or the other. Whichever you choose will be deposited into your bank account immediately-all taxes paid, and no fees attached.

Which do you choose?

A stack of ten dimes is about half an inch high. A row of ten dimes is seven and a half inches long. One million is 100 x 100 x 100, or five inches tall by seventy-five inches square. That’s almost a half-foot high, by over six feet square.

A stack of ten nickels is just under three-quarters of an inch high, with a row of ten being eight and three-quarters long. For a million nickels, that’s two-thirds of a foot by seven and a third-foot square.

To a child, which of the piles appears more valuable? To a five-year old, the bigger pile (the nickels) obviously seems like “more money”, because it is more money in the sense that it represents a larger weight in coinage.

If the man between the coins asked the child which stack he wanted, he would probably pick the nickels. Even if an adult were to tell him that the dimes were worth more, would he believe it? And if he then happened to make the right choice-because he trusted the adult-would he understand why? Wouldn’t his heart still be torn? Wouldn’t there still be a fear that he may have made the wrong decision?

An adult would never choose the less valuable pile, because it would be foolish to do so. There is no reason, if the money is being given freely, to choose the lesser amount. Further, when the adult makes his or her decision, it will be bereft of fear, because the adult has no doubt that he or she is making the correct choice based on sound, mathematical reasoning.

This, I believe, emphasizes the difference between: (a) ignorance, (b) knowledge that has been told to us, and (c) knowledge that has been validated through true understanding.

In the first situation-that of the child who has been given no assistance-the basis of the child’s decision is determined by outward semblances: because the nickels appear larger, they must be worth more.

In the second, after the child has been warned, he has still not yet discovered the reality of the adult’s knowledge. Without a proper understanding of monetary values, the child is uncertain whether the adult is correct, even if the child knows in his heart that the adult “knows better”; the child has no way of verifying the adult’s knowledge. Such verification will only occur later, after the child has gone through school and learned these things for himself.

In the third case, the adult is in possession of true knowledge because there can be no doubt. Dimes are simply worth more than nickels.

It is my feeling that we in this world most often fall into the second category. This is not necessarily a bad place to be because it is the domain of Faith. After our deaths, perhaps we will graduate to a higher state of being where all things will become “known” to us.

On this earthly plane we are told that sometimes the larger pile, even though it appears more valuable, is not really so. The smaller pile is worth the larger amount (in this case, twice as much!).

We are told this, and we read it, and we can repeat the words. But does it become true knowledge? How can we verify it?

Twenty-three hundred years ago the Greeks believed that a man will never choose evil: only ignorance makes evil actions possible. I think that, in the context of this example, they were speaking of knowledge in the third sense: that of an adult who knows properly the value of things.

If we understood the value of a spiritual life, maybe our decisions would bear the same character. We would not choose what is clearly less valuable, because there is no reason to.

But to “understand” is the key word. As long as our choices do not reflect pure knowledge-and I am not sure that they can, unless God grant such knowledge-then we must strive ever to improve our understanding of Faith and of Life, endeavoring with our utmost to recognize the true value of things such that we can act accordingly.

In the example, this is represented by the child’s progression toward the understanding of the adult. Whether they have been told that dimes are more valuable, or not, isn’t the issue. The key is whether they have truly understood the meaning of that knowledge. Without such understanding, the information is little more than a disconnected piece of learning, requiring much effort of willpower on the part of the child to obey it.

But adults make no such effort of will when it comes to choices like these. Their hearts of free of apprehension when it is a choice between nickels and dimes. Perhaps it would be the same for us, religiously, if we were somehow able to integrate those profound principles into our everyday lives. I am not so sure it can happen in this life. Perhaps that is what makes this the world of choice. In the next world, perhaps things will be so clear that we would simply never choose differently from what God chooses for us.

That, to me, is the challenge: to trust our Father, even though our hearts may fear that the losses we apparently sustain are not the gains He promises them to be.

It is our duty to do one of two things, either to ascertain the facts, whether by seeking instruction or by personal discovery, or, if this is impossible, to select the best and most dependable theory which human intelligence can supply, and use it as a raft to ride the seas of life-that is, assuming that we cannot make our journey with greater confidence and security by the surer means of divine revelation.1

  1. Plato, Protagoras↩︎