Not even a block in to my 5 block walk to host our weekly Shut Up And Write session
, I felt a familiar sensation - my leather dossier, slung over my back, had opened. Every once in a while, the clasp doesn't quite catch, and the jostling of my quick-pacing walking gradually jars it to the point that it opens up. It's well designed, so nothing falls out right away. Usually it's a quick stop to close it up correctly, and then get underway.
Today the problem was a different one. The leather buckle feeding into the metal clasp broke. It detached - tore away - from the clasp. There's no closing that bag at its usual (and only) juncture anymore, at least for the time being. Everything else on my dossier is in decent condition, so doubtless we will be finding some fix to get in back into commission. It's definitely not the end of the world. It's not even a major inconvenience - though at earlier points in my life, I would certainly have felt it to be one!
As I walked the rest of the way, holding the bag closed, I thought about how central a piece of equipment that particular dossier is for my work, teaching, and even leisure time. That spurred a host of other reflections, and I thought they might prove of some interest if I were to set them down.
Things Break At Their Weakest Point
It really should be a truism, when you read it, right? Despite our efforts, desires, and plans, things inevitably break down. And where else would they break down? At their strongest points? Somewhere in the middle? No - it will almost invariably be at the weakest point.
If we know - or at least can predict - what the weakest point of something breakable is, then we can take steps to prevent, or at least put off, that breakdown. We can harden, reinforce, or protect it. We can deliberately place less stress at that spot, whether through caution, moderation in use, or displacing that stress somewhere else. When we start to see components fray, we can repair or replace them. But we often lose sight of this.
It is easy in the course of an active life, to take all sorts of matters for granted. This is particularly so when it comes to the weakest points of material things, persons, processes, organizations, the places where stress is going to sooner or later take its particular (and predictable) toll. Without meaning to, we ignore those weak points. After all, day-in-day-out nothing happens at those spots. With a past of such consistency, why shouldn't things keep going on the same way into an indefinite future?
In the case of my dossier, eight years of hard use have taken a bit of a toll. Plastic piping shows - and is broken at one point - where the leather wore away along the edges. Small points of the cloth parts have become a bit threadbare. That's all minor wear and tear, and doesn't affect main functions of the bag - not the way that buckle and clasp does
Had I given it much thought - as I did the very first time that, overstuffed with class materials and a bulkier laptop, the clasp opened while I hurried across campus seven years ago - I should have expected this particular breakdown would inevitably occur. After all, that is the weakest point.
All too often, we discover these vulnerabilities to the normal processes of the world, only once things do break down, and we find ourselves at a loss. No surprise there. One of the more interesting insights Martin Heidegger develops in Being and Time
runs precisely along those lines: we don't register the equipmentality of our equipment - including their materiality, their capacity for breakdown - while we're using them effectively. It's when they break down that we actually pay closer attention. And that's when people engage in a vast range of responses - often a mess of thoughts, feelings, desires, words, and actions.
Gratitude When Things Break Down
I'm not naturally a calm person who takes everything in stride and thoughtfully arrives at the optimal response to setbacks, obstacles, or breakdowns. In fact, the reason why I originally got into researching - and then eventually writing on, speaking about, and coaching clients with - anger management is because I turned to ancient philosophy for resources to help me with my own too-quick temper. My general temperament is one that in earlier times would be termed "choleric," "thumotic," or "irascible," and I still struggle with my impulses and inclinations towards anger.
Things breaking down - especially when I'm already short on time, stressed out, or am barely managing my own responsibilities - can prove a trigger for irritability, frustration, and then full-blown anger on my part, when I'm not careful. I have worked for years to analyze and undo those otherwise automatic responses on my part, using resources drawn from a number of sources. Sometimes I'm successful in how I deal with matters. Sometimes not.
Dealing with my broken dossier today definitely goes into the "win" column. I actually feel a sense of "second-order" or "meta-" gratitude - that is, gratitude about feeling gratitude
- about the thoughts and feelings I experienced as I made my way to the coffeehouse for Shut Up And Write. And the reason I feel that second gratitude is because in the past it has not been my normal reaction to things breaking down. Anger - unreasonable anger - at life, at the item itself, at whoever suggested solutions, that's more often been the case for me. Totally unproductive, somewhat understandable but frankly unreasonable - that's the case for anger at things breaking down.
Today I felt grateful instead. Grateful that, although the clasp broke early on in my walk, I only had a few blocks to go, rather than the 10+ block walks to and from the campuses where I teach. Even more grateful that I wasn't in the midst of travel - what if this clasp had broken while I was quite literally taking planes, trains, and automobiles on my recent trip to present at Stoicon in London
So much of our reaction depends on maintaining proper perspective - assuming of course, that we had a reasonable perspective in the first place! The breakdown of the clasp means that the dossier doesn't stay closed, and I need to hold it as I carry it. That's it. Those are the only thing that have changed. It hasn't stopped performing its main function - containing my computer, cords, books, notebooks, student papers, and a few granola bars. The strap hasn't broken. It still looks more or less the same. It just doesn't close. And that's something that can be fixed.
I also thought about the years of service this leather dossier has given me. I don't go as far as the personification of objects that Marie Kondo advises in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
- you thank the items you're letting go for the service they've rendered you - but I did remind myself that I've owned this particular Coach dossier for eight years. I'm a big guy, and hard on the equipment I use, and I take it nearly everywhere, so that bag has definitely done its time with me.
When things break down at their weakest points, gratitude is not only a better response than any of those encompassed within anger's spectrum - a more reasonable and productive response - it also feels better, not just in the moment, but through the rest of one's day.
Dealing With Our Dependencies
One approach that people adopt for dealing with the vulnerability to breakdown of those myriad things upon which we come to rely is to attempt to dissociate oneself from them. Reducing our dependence on things that possess weak points eliminates our own psychological weak points - or so that line of thinking goes - so that when the inevitable does occur, we are not disturbed by it. That's not unwise council, and you find movements from ancient times down to the present, and across cultures, proffering similar solutions.
One can go too far with that approach, I think. Minimalist excesses of ancient Cynics were already criticized by others for that in ancient times - to where its effectiveness in one area actually makes a person less effective at living in the world in others. There's also plenty of people who talk the free-from-attachment talk but don't walk that walk (and once they lose their temper over some item breaking down at a bad moment, even their words change too!). But on the whole, approaching the material objects, processes and platforms, even the technology upon which we are inevitably dependent with realistic sets of expectations is a prudent - a practically wise - course to take.
It would be inadvisable to be mindful or attentive about every single thing that we are dependent upon, and which could break down at weak points. Given the kind of existence we have at present, that would be an impossible task. But that doesn't mean that one couldn't devote a bit of time, thought, and attention - perhaps each day - to the things upon which we are particularly dependent, considering or even checking them at their most vulnerable points.
Until today, I'll admit, I hadn't even thought about just how dependent I myself am on that one leather accessory - more dependent than I am on my three pairs of shoes and boots (since, after all, I've got three) - really, about as dependent as I am on much more sophisticated items like my phone or laptop. I've lugged that dossier practically everywhere - classes, lectures, coffeeshops, overhead bins, my car - filled it full of needful things, and tossed it around, all the while expecting unreasonably that it would simply remain the same faithful piece of equipment over time.
I assumed it would hold up in every way, not even stopping to think about its weakest point. But of course, that's precisely where things will break down. It's a matter of when
- as well as how
one deals with those breakdowns - and that in turn depends. Depends on what? How we take stock of at least some of our own dependencies.