The Riddle of the Sphinx

David Cowles

Apr 5, 2022

What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? Of course, by now we all know the answer: human beings. Babies crawl (4), adults walk (2), seniors often need a cane (3). But there’s more to this riddle than meets the eye.

What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? Of course, by now we all know the answer: human beings. Babies crawl (4), adults walk (2), seniors often need a cane (3). But there’s more to this riddle than meets the eye.


Humans live life in 3 stages: I call them ‘learning, doing, reflecting’. The length of each stage varies from person to person, and the boundaries between stages are murky. We are all learning, doing, and reflecting all the time. But that said, there is a distinct flavor of consciousness associated with each stage.


Consider radio. We all listen to music, to talk, to news – but usually not all at the same time. We tune in different frequencies at different times depending on our needs. It is the same with consciousness. We learn, we do, and we reflect – but usually not all at the same time.

Initially, we are all shipwrecked sailors, washed ashore by the ‘tides of time’ (39 weeks to be exact). Our ‘project’ is survival, pure and simple. Job one: be cute so other people will tolerate your existence. Job two: do what others are doing. Don’t stand out; don’t make waves; fold into society. Obey your caregivers, imitate your peers, and above all, don’t stand out. Monkey see, monkey do!


Consider language. There is no reason why any one person should learn to speak any one language. I could just as well have learned to speak Mandarin as English. For children, language is not a lifestyle choice, it is a crucial survival skill. From day one, we desperately try to communicate with our ‘hosts’: we cry, we babel, and eventually, we write Paradise Lost.

We learn the language of our hosts. Why? Simply to get our needs met, to convince our hosts to let us live, and to negotiate our way through rough patches (“I’ll be good, Daddy; I promise I’ll be good!”). “Please don’t spank me” is shorthand for “please don’t kill me.”


Initially at least, we don’t love our parents. We depend upon them utterly for our survival. That is why it is so easy to rebel against them when we enter the second phase of living: doing.

Learning, we absorb the world as it is; doing, we change that world. We get jobs; we have children: we write “Thoughts while Shaving.” We inherited a world not of our own making, but we seek to leave that world better for our having been in it.


And then, phase three: reflecting. This is what we take with us from the experience of living. We inherit a world, and we change that world. That is what being is. Now we are able to reflect on what we are and what we’ve done. Reflecting does not necessarily change the world…but it does change us!

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