I was five and it was the letter “L.” Unlike most kindergarteners today, but like many of my kindergarten compatriots from back in the day, I was unable to read and write when I started school.Which was not to say that I didn’t enjoy books and stories. My mother read to me all the time as a young child, and I loved books truly, madly, and deeply. I just couldn’t pick one up and read it to myself. My mother worried she might teach me incorrectly, and decided to leave it to the professionals. As such, while I could say my alphabet rapidly and correctly, I didn’t exactly know how to string it together properly into words and phrases.
So there it was. The letter “L.” And I had no idea what it was. Mrs. Zenke insisted it was an important part of the alphabet, but if there was one thing I KNEW, it was the alphabet, and L was not a letter in the alphabet I knew. But looking around at all the other kids coloring, they seemed to take “L” as a fact of life. As if “L” was something they all knew, accepted, and could place. With my five-year-old powers of deduction, I realized something: I was the idiot in the room. I had to figure out “L.”
I did the alphabet in my head. “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, ELIMINO, P”¦” I checked the alphabet over the board. There was no compound letter “ELIMINO” in the alphabet. Suddenly I realized that it was four separate letters, and L was merely the first.
And there it was. That light bulb moment. I had seen cartoon characters have it, but didn’t realize that real humans could feel that way, too. It was mind blowing, the idea that not only was there a letter “L,” but it had been there all along, hiding from me, and I had FOUND it. It was more than a light bulb moment – it was fireworks. “L” was real, and I knew what it was.
That was the first light bulb moment, but it wouldn’t be the last. Vectors in physics, relating the graphs in calculus to equations on a page, Azande magic being symbolic of justice, and the Parable of the Talents from the Book of Mark finally making some sense. (It’s not about innate talent, just as I had always suspected. I caught you out on your lazy sermons, various religious figures!)
How many light bulb moments have there been in human history? I’m not talking about the big ones, like the first fire, E=MC2, or the invention of penicillin. I’m talking about little ones, like the boy scout down the street finally figuring out how to build a fire, learning the trick to injecting vaccinations, or understanding that 2 x 3 is the same as 2 + 2 + 2.
Anthropologists and sociologists are still looking for what makes us human, instead of mere animals. If we’re looking for the spark of humanity, I believe this is where it lies, in those cartoon light bulb moments. Not in tool use, not in our ability to build communities, not in language, but our ability to understand something, even if just for a fleeting moment. It’s in our ability to connect information we’ve always known, and go, “Oh, of course!” even if that time of perfect clarity lasts no time at all. In that instant, that split second of perfect understanding, we are at our most human. We are at our best when the light bulb goes off, however briefly.