"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Practical Man–Life In The Toolshed With Little Room For Anything Else

There must be people who are both practical and insightful, who can wrestle with existential questions and with water damage, kitchen remodeling, grouting, and insulation, and who are just as at home in the tool shed as in the library; but they are few and far between.

There are many ways that personality is expressed – parsimony, joie de vivre, worry, libertinage, compulsive, reclusive, spiritual, industrious, devil-may-care, boisterous, or lazy – and the dramatic differences in point of view, preference, outlook, and worldview are significant.

Political philosophy alone is a deal-breaker when it comes to friendship.  How can a man who believes in a progressively good human evolution every share a table with one who believes man has been stuck in territorial, aggressive, self-interested time warp for millennia? 

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How can a woman with a profound spiritual faith, a belief in the Second Coming, salvation, and The End of Days possibly be close friends with a radical atheist? An environmentalist with a que sera sera laissez-faire nihilist?

The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator Test is supposedly to help employees understand the very different motivations, behavior, and attitudes of their colleagues.  By understanding that everyone is hardwired into personal categories (introvert-extrovert, thinking-feeling, judging-perceiving, etc.); and that collegiality, cooperation, and collaboration can only be achieved by valuing personality difference, productivity can be increased.

Of course Myers-Briggs allows for no bleeding between categories, no elisions or transference.  One either is or is not ISTJ; but the designers of the test were not after fine distinctions in personality and character.  They could have designed a moral chart which reflects the wide human spectrum in approach to others; or focused more on the subtleties of emotional attachment, ambition, self-confidence, and dependency; but they chose to be down-to-earth, management- and results-oriented.

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Of all these distinctions from political philosophy to work-based attitudes to moral judgment to plain old orneriness, pickiness, and jealousy, perhaps the most important one is missing – practicality vs insight.

The liberal arts are in decline at most universities.  Most students prefer courses in genetic engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, or rocketry to Blake, Milton, Kant, and Cotton Mather.  This is where the rate of return is greatest; and considering the $50k+annual cost at competitive private universities, heavy debt loads, and parental expectations, the choice is clear.

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While students at less competitive and academically demanding universities may be encouraged to pursue courses in women’s studies, negritude, endemic racism, or multiculturalism, the curriculum for success is evident.

In other words, the bias against insight, creativity, and search for meaning and first principles is set early and often. 

This trend is not surprising.  America has always been a can-do nation of entrepreneurs, problem-solvers, investigators, and risk-takers.  Compared to France which has valued intellectual pursuit, excellence in the arts, culture, and philosophy, and a personal engagement in the country’s rich, diverse patrimony; and understood work as only a means to an end, in America work is all.  As Engine Charlie Wilson, former President and CEO of General Motors famously said, “The business of America is business”.

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Even more importantly America grew up on the farm. Broken-down tractors in the yard, old refrigerators on the front porch, car parts in the garden meant that things were fixed not replaced. Such necessity became an ethos.  The American farmer or rancher came to symbolize economic independence and survival. Practicality was not only required but idealized.  There was no time for frivolity.

Sinclair Lewis is perhaps best-known for Babbitt, a satirical novel about the ignorantly bourgeois American.
The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trousers-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeating a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever.
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o practicality and anti-intellectualism come naturally.  There is something immoral or at least not quite right about paying someone to repair a stove, fix a running toilet, trim the trees, or build a new deck when any able-bodied homeowner should be up to the job; and something definitely wrong about doing none of the above.  A man who has outsourced his finances, his yard work, his repairs, and his car maintenance, streamlined his life to lead a life of intellectual leisure, is suspect. 

Adult learning classes in most communities are How To – how to manage your estate, refinish your furniture, repair household appliances, grout the bathtub, unstop drains and toilets, and change the oil on your car.

At best when the practical man forays into the world of ideas it is about politics.  A responsible vote requires work, diligence, and discipline.  Electing the best candidate will enable programs and policies favorable to the voter.  Better schools, lower taxes, a stronger military, and a more rational immigration policy are practical matters with national implications.

‘Opposites attract’ has always been the nostrum to describe the best marriages.  How dull and uninspired a relationship would be if there were no disagreement, no drama, or no challenges. A marriage between a practical woman and an insightful man would be a good thing not a potentially conflictive one. Each would share their perspective and each would learn from the other.

Not so. Of the many possible Myers-Briggs combinations, placement on the social or political scale, or personality tics and quirks; of the many possible differences that could be expressed in a marriage, practicality vs insight is perhaps the hardest to overcome, far harder than ever liberal progressive vs social conservative.

The practical man cannot see beyond his measurements.  His valuation of everything is based on cost, efficiency, and economic return or liability.  Not only that everything he does by matter of course and choice is practical. He likes financial management, home maintenance, landscape improvements, and car repair.  He likes getting estimates, comparing cost and past performance, and vetting contractors. His life not only revolves around the practical.  It is the practical.

The insightful woman is just the opposite.  She pays more at the register to reduce opportunity cost. Time has a higher value than cash outlay.  Pays more for a premium product than spend time comparative shopping.  Pays more for gas around the corner than on a commercial strip.  Pays more at a nearby premium food store because of no-thought, low-risk, high-confidence buying than an outlying Costco.

Not only does practicality bore her, but it is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

Most importantly, it gets you nowhere.  At least with reflection there is a chance for a spiritual or intellectual revelation before it is too late. God gave man his greatest gifts – intelligence, creativity, and insight – and to ignore them for a more settled and controlled life, is to waste them. 

Konstantin Levin, a major character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was obsessed by meaning. How could God have given man reason, intelligence, insight, creativity, and wit and then after a few short years consign him to the cold, hard ground of the steppes?  He could never answer the question, but he never let the practical necessities of farming overwhelm his intellectual life.

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van Ilyich (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich) suffers from an incurable disease.  All his life he has made practical, determined efforts to structure it to allow for no surprises, no intellectual conundrums, no doubts or no illusions.  Yet as he faces death, he is without the only important resource – insight.

The world would fall apart – or never get built in the first place – without practical people.  Yet modern life seems to be obsessively focused on hammers and nails, keeping the rain out; adjusting and comparing; making more space; and refinishing the hardwood floors.  We are losing the art of reflection and the reward of insight, let alone the pleasure of getting there.

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