The Riddle of the Two Miners

February 1999
Later published in Choices: A Chapbook (World Voices, Web del Sol)

In a book on investing I came across a riddle of two miners who emerge from a mine, one with a clean face, the other with a dirty one. The question is, which of the two will wash?

The author offers three possible answers:

  • The dirty one.
  • The two miners will look at one another, and, seeing his partner’s clean face, the dirty one will assume that his own is clean, and vice-versa. So the clean one will wash.
  • It’s a bogus riddle, based on a false assumption; it’s impossible for two men to be so differently affected by the same experience.

In my experience the correct answer is none of the above; rather, the clean one will wash his face because his appearance coming out of the mine reveals his commitment to cleanliness.

I learned this (or learned that this is what subconsciously I believed) from the former employee communications director of a major corporation. When he was forced to golden-parachute and became a consultant, he made a list of all the major corporations whose employee communications were, let’s say, “dirty” — that is, in need of great improvement. He approached the managements of all these companies and did not get the first job. So then he turned to the “clean” companies, those whose internal communications were so good, they didn’t seem to have any need for his services. Quickly he had more work than he could handle.



The image used to illustrate this very short essay is by a National Geographic and Vietnam War photographer, the late Gordon Gahan. (Photo of coal miners in Nova Scotia; National Geographic Stock.) More than a decade later I came across a quote from Gahan on a website:

I hope that my photographs bring to the reader what my work brings to me: questions, more questions and a fascination with history. A grower of taro roots in French Polynesia put it this way: “What you want to know nobody knows. What you want to see cannot be seen.”

Around the same time I also re-encountered the riddle in a book of essays, Death’s Following: Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature, by Williams English Professor John Limon. (Limon’s source: University of Chicago Philosophy Professor Ted Cohen’s Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters.) In these texts, however, the story is not presented as a riddle but as a joke about Jewish logic (and the dirtying place is a chimney rather than a mine). A scholar poses the who-washes question to a student who comes up with three answers. These cover a sufficient range of possibilities, but all the answers are rejected by the scholar, whose final words are, “Go and study. When you know Jewish logic, come back.” You might say that this brings us to the Zen story I discuss in The Master. But the Zen story takes the next step, with the abused student finally learning a lesson (and perhaps the lesson) and shifting from abused to abuser. Whether this has anything to do with “Jewish logic,” I leave for readers to decide.

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