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118 If it isn't right, fix it [4 June 2021]

Two perspectives

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. --Proverb
If you don't like what you see in the mirror, change it. --Cher


It takes keen insight to change only the proper things. Does change mean to remove, to add, or to modify by way of correction? Any of those cases seriously involves the feelings of others. One person might cling to the familiar. Another might agitate for whatever change is suggested. What bothers one person might be just the quirk that satisfies somebody else. We must perceive with sensitivity.

Remove

Does change mean to omit? When unnecessary steps become habits, we start to regard them as required. Consider complex recipes that somebody shortens to fewer steps. We can expect some holdouts who prefer the old methods. Some years ago, when an American visitor offered to help an elderly Swiss woman do her laundry, the volunteer was surprised to find out that the chore began with chopping firewood to heat the wash water. Even the automatic washing machines in that region were programmed to bring the water to or close to boiling.

Add

Does change mean to supply what is missing? When I was young, the church congregation provided a set of bed sheets to a woman who likely needed to refresh her bedding more frequently. After a trial period, the recipient brought the sheets back because laundering them frequently was more work than she intended. Her familiar norm was her comfort zone, and recommendations to do otherwise hurt her feelings.

Modify

Does change mean to alter an established pattern, essentially replacing it with something different? Modernizing involves a learning curve, not the least of which is adjusting to new results as well as to new means of achieving them. When we propose the desirable "after," someone may harbor an attachment to the "before." The definition of improvement varies vastly throughout the populace. Article 39 tells of the community that was enthusiastic about a proposal to install a sewer system until they heard rumors that the neighborhood clean-up campaign would include penalizing residents who did not clean up personal property. When people had to live the change, it became too much for them.

After deciding to fix it

Along with deciding what to change and how to change it, we must ask who should change it. Is there ownership of the "it"? If you think an empty space invites putting something into it, just try building a shed in a public park. Alternatively, try to beautify a feature (of the land or of someone's face) whose natural beaty defies improvement by cosmetic meddling. People do not want changes of the landscape around them any more than they want changes to their own bodies. Sometimes they call for site beautification or muscle building training, but the landscapers and trainers are stymied until the prospective clients sincerely want the changes. Often people feel they own that which is familiar to them. Someone who uses a nearby traffic light as a timer for cooking eggs is likely to be upset if the signal is moved out of zir view. Private feelings range from eager anticipation to rage. Citizens welcome a time-saving traffic reroute, but the world was horrified by Taliban destruction of 1,000-year-old Buddha statues. Decisions by individuals and small bodies have enormous repercussions. Consequences impact personal and world peace. When there is an agreement in favor of change, there are still details to work out: who should do what, and when. Unenthusiastic participation dulls any success. Engaged individuals will appreciate progress.

When you see the need

Article 56 referred to Ernstraud Magazine for a story about the tree that fell across the road in front of my house. Five volunteers cleared the roadblock before the city was aware of the problem. This efficient response depended on the residents' ability to perceive what was wrong and promptly fix it. A young religious teacher was trying to teach lessons to a group of Native Americans. Early in his service, he was on the way to a meeting when he noticed a fallen fence post along the road. Fortunately, the young man had grown up in ranch country, and he knew what to do in this situation. He was familiar with the unwritten ranchers' code that required passsersby to stop and repair fencing wherever they saw it before the cattle escaped. By the time the young man finished, a local chieftain rode up on his horse and expressed his gratitude by welcoming the teacher to come visit his tribe.

Caveats

In both stories there is no question of ownership of the property. The universal understanding is that anyone owns the problem who is aware of it. The rule is that if you see what is wrong, you fix it. You can't beat that approach for timely efficiency. However, there is also a caution here: awareness. If nobody else thinks a condition is a problem, perhaps it is not something for me to fix. For example, if I think you are misaligning your TV antenna or planting your garden all wrong, the problem is more likely my (lack of) awareness, not your construction or garden.

Additionally, we keep our expectations reasonable. If a car goes out of control, we jump out of the way. We don't try to stop it with our bare hands. If the house next door burns down, we don't show up the next morning expecting to rebuild it. It is all right to need help when we are overwhelmed. Nevertheless, we are never justified for using the magnitude argument as a reason for not caring. Enter the concept of cooperation!

Perceiving together

Our cooperation is most effective when we see things together. If I am the only person in town aware of a homeless man living under the bridge, I have some publicity to do if I expect help fixing the problem. Bringing the man a meal every day I could do by myself. On the other hand, addressing the principles that underlie homelessness is beyond my individual capacity. Since I can't cop out with a magnitude argument, I have to find a path that expands my awareness to the community that can take action. In this story, I am the first person to see the problem. Therefore, it rests on me to start the process that fixes it. This is a moral duty because there is a society around me which I am obligated to inform.

Consider a levee at the edge of the river. If in my visits to the homeless man I am the first to notice an impending rupture of the levee, I cannot escape a social duty to spread the alarm. There is no option to look the other way. I use care how I validate and spread the alarm, but I do not shirk my duty.

Now we are considering what it means to be a civilization. Social contract binds us humans together not just for survival but for the quality of life we have from being hard-wired for collaboration. The distinctively human capacity is that through collective attention all of us can survive as long as our bodies are capable. Being a contemporary human comes with that shared obligation. I am born to this responsibility to the whole. By the same reasoning, we are all born to have the same opportunity.


Image by Barbara Radisavljevic from Pixabay

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