The door opened and the unavoidable fellow walked into the office. Not that I hadn’t heard him coming long before he reached the door. In his youth his ankle-joints had cracked and now his knees and hip sockets did too, while he walked.
I offered him a seat and he took it, though not where I expected. He perched on the big conference table, resting his back against the bare brick walls of the office space. This was his first visit to me at my new job, a new office. He seemed quite curious about it as he was looking all around, noting the furniture and files, but he asked no questions. Only nodded to himself; everything, unfortunately, was as he expected it to be.
“Very nice situation,” said Mr. Edwin Nathanael Dowdley, leading us off at last. “Very nice place. Very nice painting.” A painting of a large ship, with a wide-eyed sailor at the helm, hung on the wall just above his head.
“Thank you. Brought it out of storage to break up the monotony of the fortress walls, as it were.”
His starched collar crinkled as he turned up his head to look at it, his shoulders still resting on the brick. “You don’t mind that fellow’s rather probing gaze?” he asked, referring to the aforementioned sailor, who might have been straining to see rocks through the storm. It was as though he was looking right at you but couldn’t yet see you. “I find it reminds me to stay focused on my work.”
“Ah. Very nice.” Repeating himself.
He spoke up again; “I suppose you enjoy it in here.”
“Well. It’s funny, I tell everyone I don’t, but actually I do. I really did like working outside, but to myself I must admit I like this better.”
“Pish, I can do better than that. You may have appreciated construction in a moral sense. People you admired preferred it. You knew you had it coming so you ate your potatoes and told yourself it was good for you. But you never enjoyed it.”
“I don’t know, you may be right, only partly though. There were points about it that I really did enjoy.”
“Well, don’t you enjoy this as well?”
“That’s just it. It certainly is more convenient. It pays better than anything I’ve done. The environment is clean and orderly, the industry on the rise, the people professional. And it seems more in line with my gifts to be working with my head instead of my back.”
“Sounds too easy, then, is that it?”
Here there was silence, as I continued to stare at the floor, raise my eyebrows, and think.
“You’re just never happy, are you. If something is hard, you complain that it’s hard. If it’s good and satisfying you worry that it’s too easy.” He swung his lower legs as they dangled off the conference table, and from inside his two trouser-legs came the unmuffled one-two popping of his knees, crick-crack.
“I don’t know. The problem is ideological. I see the country dying of complacency, mediocrity and materialism. Instead of a few thousand pioneers we have three hundred million people who always take the path of least resistance. And here I kind of feel as though I’ve gone and exemplified the problem. In construction I was forced to confront my weaknesses. It added weight to my character. This new situation, I feel, plays more to my weaknesses of preference than to my strengths of proficiency.”
“You say it added weight to your character, but it only made you different from everyone else.”
“But that ought to count for something. Everyone has an office job.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Well in any case, what the country needs is, someway-somehow, we have got to get back that pioneer ethic. People need to attempt something big, you know; trans-generational. People have to get back to that sense of starting over from scratch, where the odds are long and the work hard, but the opportunity limitless for those who come after. Those who come after – we have to remember that we are not in this for ourselves, Mr. Dowdley.”
“If you think taking this job was a betrayal of all that, and I’m not sure I see how it was, then why did you take it?”
“It’s complicated, but only because I try and justify it to myself. But I can say this: these people do seem to genuinely need my help. And if I left I don’t know how they could fill the gap without a lot of extra trouble.”
“That ought to be enough right there – why think about it any further!”
“Because if you turn your back on your ideals you run the risk of becoming a moral vegetable.”
“You want to know what I think?”
“I know what you think.”
“I know I want to believe you, therefore I refuse to believe you, so you can talk all you want, but I’m not listening.”
“Your problem is that you think too highly of yourself.”
“Yes, it would make everything much easier if I told myself nothing I did really mattered in the long run.”
“Ah now, wait—” holding up one finger: “It’s all well and good to think of the example you set for those-who-come-after, but you’ve gone further than this. You’ve created a guiding principle based, on well, nothing really, and you imagine it’s up to you to lead the way for everyone else. And this you would not have done if you had a sensible perspective on yourself.”
“If the principle is correct than all of this is irrelevant.”
“If the principle keeps smacking your face into a wall then shouldn’t that signify a problem with the principle? If a map takes you down a dead end, is it a good map?”
I had to admit he had a point there. This particular rule of thumb was even nearer to my heart than the pioneer thing. Hadn’t I been smacking my face into the wall, so to speak, for two years? I was at a crucial season of life; I didn’t think I could spare the time for more dead-ends.
“Well, you may have something there, but you know, part of the difficulty in proving the principle is that it calls for the sacrifice of short-term gain and does not even promise success within one’s lifetime.”
“You want your life to count for something after you are gone. I can understand that. Why you think you must hand-hew your own set of ideals for doing so is beyond me. The pioneer ‘age’ is gone and there is no use trying to bring it back. It would be out of place. The pioneeers worked not for their own happiness but for their posterity. And you, the posterity, have turned them down on it.”
“But this is all very grandiose,” he continued. “I repeat what I said earlier, that you think too highly of yourself. You are really not concerned about sticking to your philisophical guns. You’re just worried that you’ll miss your greatest potential. Only give some thought to helping others hit theirs, and stop this navel-gazing.”
“Actually, I’d be happy if I could just avoid ending up—” …but my eyes met his, and his sparked of thin mischief.
“How close can you steer toward the rocks and still miss them, eh? Ha ha ha!” Cracking of knuckles. “Not knowing – that’s half the excitement.”
He was getting up off the table now. “You know, your life is extremely exciting. You watch all these elephants fighting in the sky, worrying what will happen when one or the other of them falls on you; and when they do, so far from crushing you, they hardly even make a mark in the grass. You ought to be grateful.”
Well, I am; very grateful. But not about that so much.
“Preserving health by too severe a rule is a worrisome malady.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)