The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Intelligent inaction

Just as I was logging into this site and one other, the fire alarm went off and our part of the building was evacuated. The very long line waiting to be served their morning coffees, just outside our evacuation area but same building, never moved. This time, at least, there was no fire -- in the recent past we have had everything from basic blackouts to explosions with 10-metre flames -- but those in the line did not know that.
I stared morosely at Bernard. "Bernard, is there anyone else in public life who is quite as spineless as our Foreign Office officials?"
Bernard was surprised. "They're not spineless, Prime Minister. It takes a great deal of strength to do nothing at all."

- from Yes Prime Minister
In times of crisis, it seems to be far more important to us that something be done, anything (although increasingly of late, by someone else, not by us). Something in us does not seem to recognise the choice not to do anything ("intelligent inaction") as either action in itself or choice. Instead, we often seem to prefer a poor choice of action over any form of non-action: at least something was done.

It seems to be right up there with it being easier to hear what was said than what was not said; or who was there rather than who was not.

Perhaps our urge to do is the end result of millions of years of evolutionary instinct -- when in doubt, act, lest ye be acted upon -- with anything related to patience and caution and non-immediate outcome a relatively recent outblooming of a recent "civilisation". Yet patience and caution and non-immediate outcome are very much aspects of the natural world too, and not among the least evolutionarily suited. Consider the anemone, for example, or the entire photosynthesis-based plant world for a broad example, or the ratio of tracking/stalking to actual physical activity in the act of successful hunting among more "active" predators.

Perhaps it is simply too easy within our perceptory schemata to confuse non-visible action with lack of action. What, after all, visibly and immediately differentiates the wait to undertake "appropriate" action (and thus the attempt to avoid "inappropriate" action) from complete non-action? Still, while the temporal reference point grants us a baseline against which to evaluate, it gives nothing of relevance for the immediate here and now. Even as it can be far too easy simply to act for the sake of acting, it can also be too easy to delay needed action based on current uncertainty of outcome, waiting always for a closer approximation to perfection: and that asymptote can potentially be achieved ... given infinity in which to choose. Within our more limited moral coil we can make guesses, possibly even "educated" guesses, about what might be, and weigh the odds against current action accordingly: but the past exists as pattern only insofar as our cognition makes it so, and the future is never certain. (There remains some uncertainty as to whether or not the drive to perfection in a "best estimate" world is a predictor of depression: something which may also depend on whether the drive to perfection is self-oriented, other-oriented, or socially oriented.)

Ultimately, any choice to undertake an action, at any point, must always be an act of faith in the future as here-and-now.

For all our apparent human urge to do, we are torn: action as need to resolve; action as infinite choice compressed within temporally practical parameters; delaying of action translating into action as approximating perfection of outcome; how many other translations of action I did not even consider here and would not have thought to do ... and the sheer irony of the whole thing is that so many of those who recognise the need for one aspect thereof seem to consider that aspect the entirety, and stop there.

I begin something new here today: from this post onward, I will always end with a smile of the day -- at least, something that I consider quirky. It may have moved a couple of times since these words were originally written, but you can now find the permanent link in the sidebar.

Call it my act of faith in the human joyful ridiculous.


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