There’s nothing like a little improvisation in the first minute you’re awake to really get your day going …
This happened to me this morning. Thursday is trash pickup day in our neighborhood, and our recycling can was full to the brim. (Stockton uses a three-can system — one each for yard waste, recyclables and just plain garbage.) But I don’t like putting the recycling can out the previous night, because the local “underground economy” (read: hoboes) tend to go through it if I do. This irritates me because a) no one likes total strangers going through their stuff, even if it is only trash, and b) they don’t always put the stuff they don’t want back in the can, but instead leave it strewn all over the street. So I try to roll the can out early Thursday morning for the pickup.
Only this morning, I slept too late, waking up only when I heard the recycling truck pass my front door and drive away. Whoops.
So there I was with a full can of recyclables, dreading the service call I was going to have to make to Waste Management to get someone to come back by. Until I realized that they hadn’t picked up the recycling of my neighbors across the street. See, if you’ve seen these trucks in action, you know they have a big arm on one side, with a claw on the end that the driver uses to lift up a can, empty it into the holding area of the truck, and set the can back down again. Because it’s on one side, they can only do one side of the street at a time, and have to come back around later to do the other side. See where this is going? So, Plan B — I simply rolled our recycling bin to the other side of the street, set it up there, and waited. And, sho ‘nuf, an hour later the same truck came by, emptied our recycling (and our neighbors’) and off it went.
IT’s a lovely example of what you might call a “work-around.” And it’s a very healthy thing to be able to do.
A “work-around,” to give it a more concrete definition, is a method of doing something, anything, that’s different from one’s usual method, but nonetheless accomplishes the same goal. Usually it comes into play when one’s usual method fails for some reason, and one is forced to try another strategy. Work-arounds show up in almost every area of life — in fact, one could say that almost every advance in human history is the result of a work-around. The ultimate one, kind of, would be Jesus, God’s work-around for redemption and eternal life after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Although that doesn’t really count, since Jesus’ work was intended “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20); Jesus was kind of the Plan A all along. But you get the idea.
Football, for instance, is loaded to the facemasks with work-arounds. The late Bill Walsh’s “West Coast” offense, now a component of every NFL offense (and those of most major colleges as well), began as a way to deal with the San Francisco 49ers’ lack of good running backs. Stuck with a backfield full of Lenvil Elliotts and Paul Hofers (who were okay pass-catchers but not much at running the ball), Walsh replaced much of the running game with short passing, especially the short down-and-in that became a West Coast trademark. Walsh’s Hall of Fame coaching career was essentially built on a work-around. Likewise, most new offensive or defensive schemes are developed because the previous one was rendered ineffective by adaptations (work-arounds) on the other side of the ball — thus, work-arounds beget more work-arounds, in an endless cycle.
But every field of endeavor is full of them — sports, politics, economics, even religion. A system that has worked for a while fails due to either cultural changes or more effective opposing systems or whatever. Something has to give if the original goal is to be reached. So you have to come up with a Plan B.
In fact, the ability to do that, to abandon a previous method for a newer, better one, is a key sign of mental health. Psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie once said that “The measure of (mental) health is flexibility (not comparison to some ‘norm’) … the freedom to learn from experience … to be influenced by reasonable arguments … and the appeal to the emotions … and especially the freedom to cease when sated. The essence of illness is the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns.” When we are unwilling to be flexible, to let go of a method or system that no longer achieves the goals it was intended to reach, we are in essence renouncing our sanity for the sake of perceived stability.
And we see that a lot. In politics, it has led to a situation where my home state of California, unwilling to change its method of creating a budget or to curb spending, is now stuck passing out IOUs to its employees and cutting back important services because the governor and legislature can’t get its fiscal house in order. This hits home for us because we’re on Medi-Cal (the state’s health care program), because the Supermodel works for a charter school (which like all public and semi-public schools depends on state funds) and because we are regular customers of the local library (also dependent on state money) which has gone from being open seven days a week to five. This is, of course, a drop in the bucket compared to the federal government’s $10 trillion-plus debt, a result of over seven decades of largely unchecked deficit spending. That shoe hasn’t dropped yet, but when it does …
In sports, Northern California has two excellent examples of “the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns.” The Oakland Raiders are the laughingstock of the NFL, largely because their owner/operator, the not late but lamented Al Davis, has not seemed to grasp that football offenses and defenses have gotten exponentially more complex since the team’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, the Golden State Warriors have been up and down (mostly down) over the past several years because their coach, the venerable Don Nelson, is still using a largely run-and-gun style of play that was suitable in the ’80s when defense was a lesser concern, but no longer works in a post-Bad Boys, post-Pat Riley Knicks, D-oriented context.
And in religion? Heavens, where do I start? You have Christian congregations whose idea of ministry is based on strict liturgies set up in the 1970s, or 1870s, or 1270s, with little impact outside of their own buildings. You have an emphasis on big events and altar calls, relics of the days of Billy Sunday that are no longer effective in a culture where close relationships are the missing factor in most people’s lives, and thus there is no assurance of support or discipleship after the big event. You have Muslim fundamentalism trying to turn back the clock to a pre-technological, pre-human rights (especially women’s rights), pre-international era (show me where in the Holy Qu’ran it says to ban satellite dishes). You even have atheists (and if you don’t think atheism is a religion … study up, dude) denigrating their opponents and pushing an undirected evolutionary theory that even non-religionists believe will be debunked before this century is out, simply because its proponents are too busy shouting down those who disagree to patch up the weak points in their position. One could say that the entire religious world — theists and atheists alike — is mentally ill, according to Kubie’s definition.
Part of what my Congregational Journey has meant to me is the breaking of links to that mentally unbalanced side of religion. I still believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, not because Pastor So-and-So said to, but because I’ve done my best to examine the historical evidence and believe it to be sufficient to trust it and its contents. I believe in a theistic root of the creation of the universe (whether via evolution or some other method) because I’ve thought about it for decades, and it strikes me that the universe is too well-ordered to not have Somebody ordering it. I’m not afraid to follow evidence where it leads because experience has taught me that truth is always healthier to cling to that even the most pleasant error. I suspect I will question all these views and many more in the future, just as I have questioned them in the past. And I hope that I will only keep the ones that hold up to that questioning. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” because you can only trust what has been tested and proven, whether personally or historically.
And what does Kubie say are the signs of mental health? Paraphrasing the above quote, they are the abilities to adapt to changing circumstances, to learn from one’s mistakes and from others, and to be able to stop when you have enough. In other words, the ability to test ideas, and walk away from the ones that don’t hold up (or don’t hold up anymore). When you lock into a single way of doing things, with no willingness to acknowledge that another way exists or to back off when that way becomes ineffective, you’re crazy. And that’s why people think that the California legislature, or Al Davis, or James Dobson/Ali Khamenei/Christopher Hitchens is nuts. Because according to clinical definition, they are.
We need to be flexible, to recognize other viewpoints even when we disagree with them. We need to be willing to re-examine evidence for our positions when new evidence comes to light. We need to be able to learn more than we already have. And we need to have the sense to stop acquiring when we reach a reasonable point of comfort, whether what we’re pulling to ourselves is possessions, food, or MySpace friends. In that openness, humility and restraint is health — for ourselves and our culture. In the alternatives — dogmatism, closed-mindedness and greed — are the seeds of our destruction.
And that applies to eveything, whether it’s choosing a belief system or just trying to get a load of cardboard and milk cartons removed.