12 Books of Christmas: The Profit

Robin Williams had a segment in one show about the questions of a toddler: a spiral of “why” that eventually just explodes in parental frustration. Welcome to life I suppose, because the argument for Agnosticism that I find most compelling is that at some point the answer to “why” is always “just because, okay?”. Because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t need science: we’d know everything, we’d have absolute knowledge and absolute power. So in the meantime, we’ve all got questions for which we don’t know the answer and we all turn somewhere in the hopes that someone else does. Going beyond the simple practicalities, you reach spirituality. If we can’t explain the world in purely mechanistic deterministic terms, and we can’t quite, you might as well call the left-over bits spirituality. True spirituality is about understanding the deeper meaning of the world, and hence your place – your insignificance – in the world. Is there more to life than the merely material? What are the deeper mysteries and how do we use those to live better lives?

Which is not exactly why I used to invite Mormon Elders into my house, but it was, I think, why they were there to be invited in. Those poor little bastards weren’t exactly well equipped for real theological discussions. I don’t think any of them felt more enlightened when they left my house, but then, my motives weren’t exactly pure. Those poor kids are sent out into the world with a sketchy understanding of their own religion, or how it fits into anything else. It must be a lesson by fire in believing what you’ve been told, against all odds in pursuit of that ultimate “just because, okay!”. For all that the foundation texts for Mormon purport to provide answers, in real terms they always seem to need a good deal of explanation and contextualisation. Perhaps you can follow Mormon’s prescriptions without an understanding of the enlightenment, Luther’s theses, the divide between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the historical split between Sunni and Shia – but if so, the world is a lot simpler than I think it is.

I’m not immune from asking questions about what it all means, but the difference between me and those poor mormon saps is that my book genuinely does have all the answers you need. I’m not sure how it came into my life but I like to think a divine presence placed it onto my bookshelf to guide me to true spiritual enlightenment.  This wisdom is contained in a slender volume that’s been “illustrated by the author with twelve mystical, hard-to-understand drawings”: The Profit.

Unlike other religious and philosophical texts, The Profit just spells out the day-to-day practical wisdom that you need to understand your place in the world. Everything in it is indisputably true, and explains all you need to know about the world. Consider “friendship” as a topic. I’ve spent countless hours trying to untangle my friendships, to understand what someone means to me, or me to them, and as my beard has greyed I find myself more called on to answer the questions others have. But The Profit could have saved us all that effort by explaining the whole thing:

Even the best of friends cannot attend each others’ funeral.

There’s definitely a game you could play with all such snippets – is it The Art of War, the teachings of Confucius, an aphorism from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the word of Buddha, or The Profit? My rule of thumb is that if it makes sense to me, it’s from The Profit. All other texts seem to be explanations that themselves require copious explanations, prevarications, and so as foundation stones seem awfully precarious.

The reason it makes sense to me is that I began by positing the foundation of spirituality as the unanswerable question, and Albran just points out that’s silly. There’s lots of things that don’t make sense, based on what we know, or think we know. The point is to ask the questions – the point is some kind of rationality, absurd as that inevitably turns out to be. Instead of using your interpretive energy and powers to process a religious text into a useful place, why not just begin with your own experiences? Why take as a starting point something produced by a different culture, for a different world, with different requirements in every way? The Profit is smarter than that.

Albran, Kehlog. The Profit. Los Angeles: Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers, 1973.

Gowers, Bruce. Robin Williams: An Evening at the Met. Documentary, Comedy, 1986.

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