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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

The $64,000 questions of life

The rules of this game show were and are simple enough: answer 15 questions correctly in a row, win a million dollars. After five or 10 correct answers, you have a “safety net” of $1,000 or $32,000 respectively, ensuring that you leave with at least something as long as you don’t flunk out on one of the early gimme questions. But answer any of the questions incorrectly, your game is over, and you either lose everything or fall down to one of those safety nets. Any fan of the show knows the chills contestants get on the million dollar question, deciding whether their gut instinct is good enough to risk losing $468,000 of their half-million if their answer is oh-so-tragically incorrect. The ever-perennial light show only adds to the tension, as does the soundtrack with a pulse-like rhythm and chromatic elevation with each question that won its composers a spot in the ASCAP Hall of Fame. 

I write, of course, of the smash-hit quiz show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. As one of the last children of the ‘90’s, Millionaire peaked in my formative years. That timing could not have been more providential. At least in some small part, I attribute my early aptitude in reading to that show. After all, the late great Regis Philbin always read exactly what was on the screen, and trivia of the sort Millionaire tosses up on the regular tends to feature hard-to-pronounce words. Similarly, my first numbers weren’t one, two and three; they were 100, 200, and 300 — though admittedly, this plan of relying on Millionaire for a basic math education did backfire just a little bit. Imagine my shock upon learning that 64 plus 64 does not equal 125.

As dubious as relying on a quiz show for early reading, writing and ‘rithmatic may have been, Millionaire did (and still does, thanks to Jimmy Kimmel’s revival) have a number of useful life lessons to share, and in this column I seek to point out the most important one. See, when a contestant hits that all-important $32,000 milestone, the mood of the game changed. The lights got darker, the music became more foreboding and the questions most certainly got tougher. But I always found this more than a bit ironic, since the $64,000 question was perhaps the least tense big-money moment on the show. Every single contestant who ever got to that point would say “final answer” to at least something, since — and this is the critical point — even if they answered that question incorrectly, they would leave, at least, with every single penny of the $32,000 they already had. But other than a slightly higher pitch to indicate a question further up the money tree, the atmosphere between the $64,000 question and the million dollars is almost exactly the same! (Yes, the million dollar soundtrack is thematically different from the others, but since that background music subverts the ongoing motif, it’s anticlimactic, which only furthers my point here.)

But that’s just the thing. In life, sometimes we are handed $64,000 questions. Opportunities come our way that, by the grace of God, we are able to grasp with little or no risk. With these sorts of things, you can’t lose — if you miss out on whatever opportunity is knocking, you don’t lose anything you already had. And even in situations where you do need to put something on the line to go for an opportunity that presents itself, you’ll rarely, if ever, find yourself with absolutely nothing on the other side of that decision. As the old cliché on the show went, “$32,000 is still a lot of money.”

But to leave this column at that would not only underserve you, the reader, but also underserve my byline, and that would be a tragedy. This recurring column isn’t called “Law, Life and the Lord” for nothing, and here’s how it all connects: on Millionaire, Regis always went to significant lengths to remind contestants of exactly how much they stood to win or lose if they answered a particular question. Life, on the other hand, tends to be much more uncertain. The good news, though, is that in real life we have a much more reliable narrator than even Regis Philbin, and his name is Jesus Christ. Not only can Christ show us what we have to gain or lose in our discernment, but He also has all of the answers in front of him the whole time, since Christ is always the answer. And if that’s not enough (as if it ever wouldn’t be), we have literal lifelines too; we can always phone a friend.

So whether you’re internally debating what classes to take, whether to go to the next SYR, or how to not bomb your next law school cold call, just remember this: sometimes, these questions are more like $64,000 questions than million-dollar ones, and in any case, God’s got the answers right in front of him the whole time, answers He is more than willing to share if only we would stop for a moment and listen. So go to the Grotto, the Basilica, the Law School Chapel, or wherever else suits you, and take the time to listen to the voice of God in prayer. After all, at the end of the day, He is the “final answer”!

Devin is a member of Notre Dame Law School’s class of 2023. Originally from Farwell, Michigan, he is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College. In addition to serving as a teaching assistant at the law school, in his free time, he sings with the Notre Dame Folk Choir and discusses the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. He can be reached at or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.