“How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”

~ Valentino Achak Deng

“What is the what?”

A confusing question, isn’t it? This is the question of an ancient African myth, as told by a Sudanese man named Valentino Achak Deng. He co-wrote the book What is the What with author Dave Eggers, telling the fantastic story of his journey across Sudan as a boy. Let’s dive into the novel for a moment and hear what he has to say.

The Creation

“When God created the earth, he first made us, the [Sudanese]. Yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky….and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land.

“Yes, and when God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, God asked the man, ‘Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature which is called the cow.’ Yes, God showed the man the idea of the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent. They were in every way exactly what the monyjang would want. The man and woman thanked God for such a gift, because they knew that the cattle would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every kind.

“But God was not finished. God said, ‘You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.’

“But what is the What? Yes, yes. That was the question. So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. ‘What is the What?’ the first man asked. And God said to the man, ‘I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.’

“Well then. The man and the woman could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle were God’s most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cattle, and that if they helped the cattle eat and drink, the cattle would give man their milk, and would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What. So the man chose cattle.”

So what is the What?

The question is explored extensively in the novel by Dave Eggers. But it is never given a single answer, a solid response. There are mentions of love, of guns, of religion, but in truth, that is not the purpose of the book or of the question.

The What is the unknown.

The Crossroads

All of us face a choice at some point in our lives, just as the monyjang man and woman did. Do I stay or do I go? Do I attend college or start a family? Do I stay in this relationship, or do I walk away? Do I take the well-traveled path, or do I take a risky chance?

It’s so easy to stay where we are, continue on the path we know. But don’t be too quick to dismiss the unknown.

When faced with a crossroads, the first questions to come to mind usually run along these lines: What if it’s the wrong choice? What if we fail? What if we lose everything? These are valid questions, of course. But allow me to add a few more: What if it’s the right choice? What if we succeed? What if we gain more than we ever thought possible?

It’s a state of mind. Humanity is blessed with an inborn sense of curiosity. We want to look beyond the four walls of our homes for meaning and purpose. But we are conditioned to look at cons more often than pros, to follow in the footsteps of those gone before.

Why don’t we change that?

The Change

What is the What, the unknown, but a path that needs to be explored? Think of Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare. These people saw the norms of their day and decided to step off of the well-traveled path. They chose the unknown.

They chose the What over the cows.

Try it today. Choose the What. Don’t follow the crowd.

It could be something as simple as having anchovies on your pizza, or as large as accepting a scholarship in another state. Whatever it may be, take your chance. Do something different. Do something you.

Change your pathway today. Choose the What.


Don’t go yet! Check out Dave Egger’s What is the What on Amazon, and see his other works here!