a weekly column by
vol. 1, #25, February, 1996
WE HOLD THESE (SMALL) TRUTHS
TO BE SELF-EVIDENT (TO US)
Like I said, I have no grand unified field theory to explain life, the universe and everything. In fact, I'd be kind of disappointed if a place as rich and strange as our world COULD be explained by just one little theory. But I do have a few small truths I live by, and they work well for me:
- Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Throughout human history, stupidity and incompetence are simply far more commonplace than conspiracy.
Of course, a lot of things that look like stupidity are really perfectly logical actions, IF you firmly believe what those commiting the actions believed. Take Waco, for instance. Here you have the testosterone culture of the FBI versus the spiritual (or delusional) world view of David Koresh; the just-do it guys versus someone who thinks the apocalypse is not only inevitable, but a nifty idea to boot. Of course it was a disaster; there couldn't possibly have been a meeting of minds because none of these guys were looking at the same universe.
- If you go through life prepared to be amused, life is NOT going to let you down. Cats and young children already know this, that all the world's a kitty toy [kiddy toy]; the sad thing about growing up is that we sometimes forget this. But in a world in which a cigarette company orders a recall because one batch of its cigarettes might cause scratchy throats and coughing, and a shoe chain advertises that it only sells the right shoe, and France(!) aims to be the moral leader of the western world, what can you do but sit back and enjoy the show?
- If you don't like the answers you're getting, maybe you should be asking a different question. This is something all librarians know. You might come up to us, wanting to know if Richard III was anywhere near as bad a guy as Shakespeare makes him out to be; you think that maybe there might be an article about this, so you come up to us and ask "Where's the Readers' Guide?" A hurried, or incompetent, librarian, will point to the green books. The rest of us will try to find out what you actually wanted to KNOW, and we'll steer you to some good historical references, or maybe even to Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.
So much that goes wrong in our attempts to solve social problems is a result of asking the wrong questions. The War on Drugs seems to result from two questions: "How do we stop the drugs from coming in?" and "How do we punish the people who sell drugs?" As far as I can see, the more basic question is, "Why are so many people's lives so empty that they can't get through each day unless they're stoned?" Until we figure out the answer to this one, the answers to the other questions won't help us very much, I'm afraid.
- If it's broke, fix it. This means first that, if you screwed up, admit it, apologize, try to make amends, and don't ever do that again.
It also means that, when you are given shoddy service, or crappy products, don't put up with it, and walk away. As a public service person, I know that the hardest customers are the ones who vote with their feet and walk away without telling you they were unhappy. If you don't know that something's wrong, you can't possibly fix it, and you'll probably keep on offending people until someone has the courtesy to tell you what you're doing wrong.
Of course you have to do this politely, with the assumption that most people are, in fact, trying to do a good job, and that they were probably unaware of the problem. Criticisms that begin with "Look, dorkface!" rarely accomplish your goals.
But it should be equally true that, if you are delighted with the quality of the service or product, you should take the time to let them know it. I strongly believe in 25% tips for really good service, and thank you notes, and even notes to that person's supervisor. If a thank you note makes my day, it probably makes someone else's day better too.
- I believe in the spontaneous generation of crap on flat surfaces. I don't know why it happens, or how it happens. Everyone around you will swear they had nothing to do with the mysterious piles littering your household or desk. Nonetheless, the desk you cleaned off at 8 a.m. will be covered with junk by noon; the rate at which this happens varies in direct accordance to the number of people who have access to it.
I used to believe my life would be organized if I only ever had enough bookshelves. But as I have bought more and more bookshelves, and the crap continues to accumulate, I have become resigned to the inevitability of mysterious piles. My goals have become more modest. I now aim only for symmetrical piles.
- Cats are the true owners of any home they inhabit. They graciously allow you to share their home, and to supply them with food and a lap and an occasional scritch. But they do not hesitate to remind you, whenever you wish to read a newspaper, type a column, knit an afghan, or eat your own food, that they must first fully explore the possibilities for feline amusement in those activities. If there is anything to the theory of reincarnation, selfless people who have devoted their entire lives to others, will get to come back as pampered pet cats. (Mother Teresa gets to come back as one of MY cats.)
- Listen to what people tell you. Remember it. Act on it. Believe that they believe it to be true, even though you may think they're dead wrong. To me, paying attention is the most important act of love. An awful lot of arguments and divorces have started with the anguished cry "But I TOLD you!"
So, there you have it, my philosophy of life. The Allegory of the Caves it's not, nor is it ever going to be required reading in any philosophy course. But it's a useful set of working principles, and it gets me through my life.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.