Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Go ahead, you can laugh all you want, I've got my philosophy..."


Being involved in some sort of Boy Scouting program from ages five to twenty, I grew up with many slogans and mottos that helped cement my idealistic view of the world. "Be prepared" and "Do a good turn daily", along with the Scout Oath, Outdoor Code, and the twelve points of the Scout Law, were so drilled into me that I truly have tried to live my life to my best moral ability. I can't say I've always succeeded, but those who know me well will hopefully attest to my strong efforts.

Oddly, to me the most important of all of these seemed be "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." Around the age of ten when I first heard this phrase uttered, and long before I was a photographer, I knew it could also be understood on a deeper level. Not only does it provide a perfect visual to convey having a low impact on your physical environment, but the sentiment also works quite well for interpersonal relationships.

Whether one calls it a "butterfly effect", "six degrees of separation", or the military's often quoted "shit rolls down hill", the concept of our actions affecting more than just our immediate present is a universal concept. Even most religions and governments have at some level a foundation in a policy of empathy, treating others as you would like to be treated. Unfortunately, several of those also have a "thou shalt smite" clause as well, but that's a topic for another time.

The thing that is constantly on my mind, and I wish it were for more people, is that the effect our actions have on others, and what words we use to communicate ideas to others, can have lasting consequences. I'm not going to lie, the amount of effort it takes can be fairly exhausting, but I still try every day.

I know that if I talk to someone with low self-esteem and use the wrong words, I am often making their concerns worse. I also know that if I don't act immediately or with the proper enthusiasm with some people they will take it in a negative way, sharing that negativity inevitably with others. Yes, though I'm aware that its not my job to boost the world's ego or make everyone on the planet feel special, its also important for all of us to not add to the negativity out in the world. I honestly think that the lives we touch, and how we touch them, affect others, and those lives, others. What a wonderfully simplistic and idealistic notion it is that if we can take an extra second to think before we acted or spoke, we could create a better sense of harmony in our society.

I've written before regarding my disdain for speaking out of anger or hurt, and sadly we see it every day. Someone honks and flips you off while driving, which in turn makes you get upset and defensive. By the time you get to work you're holding a grudge, making your work environment testy and your coworkers frustrated. Then they take that mood home and it spreads exponentially. We've all been on both sides of this kind of story.

I'm not perfect. Thankfully, though there have been many people in my life who have convinced me that the effect I've had in their lives was exceedingly positive, the people who stand out most in my memory are the ones I failed. Whether through forethought or not, my actions, inaction, thoughtless words or deeds failed them in some way that had more of a consequence than I would have ever hoped or expected. Some of those things only came to my attention months or years after, as so often happens, and for some reason the time and distance never lessens the guilt or regret I have felt.

Again, yes, I realize these are "navel gazing" notions written from the perspective of someone who lives in a fairly comfortable life in a fairly comfortable middle-class world. I'm sure in Uganda or Zimbabwe I wouldn't have a second to be able to think this way. Still, a guy can hope.

When preparing for a long weekend Boy Scout hike, my dad always used to give us advice on loading up our backpacks, knowing we'd have to carry everything in and everything out over the course of miles on our developing shoulders. In discussing how heavy to make our packs, he'd always say "Worry about the small things, the large things will take care of themselves." Yet another slogan. To this day, I focus on the small things I think I can have some kind of effect on and let the large, out-of-control things take care of themselves.

Maybe the moral of this story is we should all take some time and go through a Scouting program. Then again...maybe not. Or, maybe we should all just listen to Ben Folds Five's "My Philosophy"...

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