Sunday, May 24, 2020

How Do You Do “It?”

     Well? How do you? Are you thorough or slapdash? Do you consult the requirements first, or do you “wing it?” Do you plan your work? If so, do you adhere rigidly to the plan, or do you sometimes make adjustments to it in light of previously unaddressed considerations and unforeseen developments? Do you do “it” all at one go, or a little at a time? Do you do “it” according to your upbringing, your community standards, the current state of national opinion, or your personal preferences? Do you have any concern for the preferences of others? If so, whose preferences matter to you? If not, are you prepared for the consequences of doing “it” without first conciliating “them?”

     In the hoary old Curmudgeon Emeritus tradition, I’ve titled this piece to provoke the question “What the BLEEP! is he thinking?” Alternately, “What does he mean by quote-marking ‘it?’”

     Of course “it” as used above is a wildcard. Insert in its place any particular thing you do. Then the inquiry might start to make sense. Might.

     The subject is a tough one to summarize neatly, which is why the preceding is a bit vague. But that’s also part and parcel of the way I do “it.”

     My launching point for today is this mildly satirical article, in particular the following assertion:

     I am aware that the phrase “like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” has become shorthand for “a task rendered useless in the face of overwhelming circumstances.” Well, here’s another phrase for you: “how you do anything is how you do everything.”

     Quite a striking prescription, eh? I’ve seen it in other forms and settings, though the choice of the Titanic, perhaps the most famous of all commercial maritime disasters, makes it particularly poignant.

     There’s a grain of truth to the assertion. “How you do anything / everything” is your style. People’s individual styles tend to be highly consistent. We’re known to others, in large measure, by our styles. They cause some to gravitate toward us and others to be repelled by us. While style isn’t quite the whole man, the notions of the Comte de Buffon notwithstanding, it does express one’s individuality in the fashion most accessible to others.

     However, the desire to maintain consistency in one’s style does not confer an exemption from the priorities of place, time, and circumstance.

     Let’s take that fellow on the Titanic. Imagine for a moment that he had no assigned duties other than tidying up the deck, keeping everything neat and orderly. But the ship is sinking. It’s become evident that the lives of all aboard are in danger. Quick action might save others who would otherwise die in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Was there nothing better he could do with his remaining time on Earth than fiddle with the deck chairs? Did he feel no obligation to his fellow men? Did he not even think to go to the aid of others who might not be able to help themselves?

     Of course, the counterargument could be made that the fellow in question was unable to provide constructive assistance...if that were indeed the case. But if it wasn’t, what then?

     Style is important only when nothing else is. You cannot use style – “how I do ‘it’” – as a justification for ignoring matters of clearly higher priority. If you know your neighbor to be in distress, you are obliged to act. His distress – at least if it’s a non-trivial matter to which you could contribute usefully – trumps your need to adhere to your style in all cases. Only a conscienceless bastard would imagine otherwise.

     But as usual, the most important word in the paragraph above is if.

     As well as his astronomical and cosmological researches, the late Sir Fred Hoyle wrote science fiction. In some regards it wasn’t really good science fiction. Nevertheless, he occasionally made piercing, important observations about Mankind and the behavior of men. Here’s one such snippet from his novel The Inferno:

     A light tapping on the door caused Cameron to awake. Glancing at his watch he saw the time was only 6.30 p.m.
     ‘Yes, what is it?’ he shouted.
     The housekeeper’s voice replied saying there was a gentleman to see him. Cursing that he hadn’t gone to an hotel where they couldn’t find him, Cameron twisted a dressing-gown over his shoulders, and yanked the door open with a vicious pull. He found Mallinson standing outside.
     ‘May I come in?’
     ‘I hope it is both urgent and meaningful, Henry.’
     ‘The Prime Minister would like to see you.’
     ‘Another committee?’
     ‘He has asked you to dinner. I understand there will also be the First Physicist, Sir Arthur Mansfield and Guy Renfrew who is the Professor of Radioastronomy at Bristol University.’
     ‘That the full crew?’ asked Cameron as he started to shave.
     ‘I’m sorry, but your display this afternoon was quite inexcusable.’
     ‘Ah, the poor simple man,’ said Cameron to himself in the mirror.
     ‘And what might that mean?’ [Mallinson said.]
     ‘It means you’d better stop playing the fool, Henry. You’re likely to be dead in a couple of weeks, man.’
     ‘Which makes it all the more necessary to go on behaving in the way I’ve always behaved.’
     Cameron finished shaving and began to dress. ‘There’s something to be said for your point of view,’ he admitted. ‘But it implies you’ve always been doing the things you want to do.’
     ‘Haven’t you?’
     ‘Partly yes, partly no. I’ve done the things which have been open to me.’
     ‘Haven’t we all?’

     Context matters. On the previous day Cameron, a physicist of irascible disposition, announced to a government environmental committee that in light of the recently detected explosion of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy into a super-quasar, which seems to entail the destruction of all life on Earth, all its deliberations are irrelevant nonsense. In other words, Cameron allowed himself some “plain speaking,” to the extreme discomfiture of some “highly placed persons.” His visitor, Sir Henry Mallinson, is himself a “highly placed” person – a Cabinet secretary.

     Mallinson is determined to remain with his personal standards of deportment and the treatment of others. Cameron, who foresees the deaths of billions, probably to include his own, has departed from such standards. Yet while he doesn’t regret his earlier actions, as he grooms himself to go out in public he says to Mallinson that “There’s something to be said for your point of view.”

     Which of them, given the circumstances, has the better case?

     “How you do ‘it’” is of significance under some circumstances. However, it is not a license to ignore higher priorities, at least if one can make a useful contribution to their resolution. Thus, Emily Flake’s epigrammatic pronouncement that “how you do anything is how you do everything” cannot and must not be made into an all-embracing credo.

     Style, while it expresses one’s individuality, is of significance only in those adequately peaceful and orderly contexts Americans call normality. (NB: once more, with feeling: not “normalcy.”) “How I do ‘it’” must always be subordinated to “What the BLEEP should I be doing?” The application to our current Reign of Error is left as an exercise for my Gentle Readers.

1 comment:

Mike Guenther said...

I'm flexible. In my work as a construction superintendent, I have a specific set of drawings to go by. In my work around home...I've built two cabins...I often work by the seat of my pants. I have a vision of what I want for the end product and figure out the best and fastest way to get there, in a safe manner, of course.