Transcendental Ghosts (Issue 556)

In which we learn from an America philosopher a question of discovery

We sat at a cozy, small table in a warm nook by the restaurant’s front window, overlooking the Lexington town green where, in a little over two months, we will gather to remember shouts and shots fired that began the American war of rebellion in 1775. Our bi-monthly dinner. Two business owners. Longtime friends.

As we surrendered our menus and settled to await our food, my companion stretched back in her chair, smiled, and said, “You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson [the American Transcendental philosopher who lived about 8 miles from our restaurant seats] was reputed to ask his friends, ‘What has become clear to you since last we met?’ So, I’m curious, Mr. Nick: What has become clear to you, these past two months?”

This, you may notice, sets a different conversation than, say, “How do you think the election will turn out?” or “How has your business been?” or even the “What’s new?”

“What has become clear to you since last we met?” Despite having lived 30 years at 4 miles distance from Emerson’s Concord house and walked the very lanes he walked, I had never heard his greeting.

The easy rhythm of his inquiry belies the sharp point of his question.

I laughed, self-consciously, then silently stared at my plate for a minute, playing Emerson’s question over and over. “What has become clear to you since last we met?”

I’ll spare you my response, an insight that would take us down a long path unsuited for our Monday gathering. The following discussion, deep and rich, evolved and turned for almost a half hour. When we’d finished, I took a long sip of water and returned her favor: “And, what, dear Deborah, has become clear for you?”

A ninety minute dinner conversation. Two questions.

We declined our host’s gracious offer of coffee or dessert. Pity, we stopped short of the inquiry’s obverse: “What has become LESS clear to you since last we met?”

Perhaps a discrete choice: There’s more that’s LESS clear to me than MORE.

As bankers, or attorneys, or advisors of other ilks, we seek to understand our client’s journeys – their aspirations, their goals, their capacity for thought and awareness, their discoveries – as context for their challenges some of which we might help them address. Whether we choose Emerson’s path to their less clear or more, our discoveries and opportunities to engage them increase proportionately to their disclosures.

“What has become clear to you since last we met?”


Read more about Ralph Waldo Emerson at

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