Douglas Adams, Jackie Robinson, and the Meaning of Life
I have written several versions of this post over the years and never really liked any of them. I think the problem was that I was trying to use an impartial, pseudo-academic voice for something that is very personal.
I am talking about my favorite number.
If that last sentence makes the first paragraph sound like a joke, I suspect you’re not alone, but I urge you to read on.
Douglas Adams, of Course
My favorite number is 42 and if that makes you think of Douglas Adams, you’re in the right place, but you’re not entirely correct.
42 is my favorite number not just because it’s the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, but because of how it relates to the question. If you recall the Hitchhiker series, people built a big computer to figure out the answer. It was 42, so they built a bigger computer to figure out the question. Shenanigans and hijinks happen and the next thing we know, our hero is on prehistoric Earth pulling Scrabble tiles out of a bag to find the question.
The question, of course, is “what do you get when you multiply six by nine?” which is significant in two ways.
The first is that it’s an utterly vacuous question that has nothing to do with anything, let alone everything. It asks nothing about the human condition, nothing about the nature of matter, energy, or any of the other natural wonders that abound in our universe. It’s a simple question of mathematics.
The second way it’s significant is that when you multiply six by nine, you do not, in fact, get 42 unless you’re using base 13, which we aren’t. Nobody is.
To put it impolitely, the question is stupid and the answer is wrong.
I love this because it’s the height of arrogance to think any single question—let alone a single answer—can apply to something as vast as life, the universe, and everything. It can’t even apply to all the people on Earth—there’s seven billion of us, after all—let alone all the animal and plant life on Earth, whatever life there is on other planets, and all the non-living things that exist.
Every religion, philosophy, or self-help guide that promises the answers to everyone is going to fail most people. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything cannot be told; it must be found by each of us in our own time and in our own way. We have a great deal of control over what our lives mean and we rarely exercise it.
And that brings us to the other half of the reason 42 is my favorite number. This space is my outpost in the geek world, but I also live in the baseball world. In that world, the number 42 is retired across the game to honor Jackie Robinson, the man that broke baseball’s color barrier.
He pioneered the fight for civil rights long before the Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t do it by protesting or fighting unjust laws in court. He did it by being unapologetically black in a white man’s world. He wasn’t just there, he excelled there. His actions made it clear that black men were just as good as white men, sometimes better.
As you might imagine, he got every ration of shit the racists could spew. He got it from random strangers, fans of his team, players on other teams, and even players on his own. He fought back by playing better and harder than they thought he could.
He could have quit. His life would have been easier. But he didn’t. He woke up every day knowing he was going to face some of the most hateful bullshit imaginable, and every day, he chose to be his best self. He chose to make the world better not by advocating for change, but by demonstrating why it was necessary.
He chose to make the world a better place and with our destinies in our control, we can do the same.