I don’t know how the Boy Scout manual came to reside on one of my shelves, but there it was. I had never been a Boy Scout, ever, at least not in any official capacity, although as a child I would have qualified to be called a Good Kid, at least by my mother. I don’t remember how old I was when I read the manual, but I recall finding it interesting, filled with all sorts of practical stuff. Among the least interesting bits though was the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.”
Then as now I found the motto curiously vague and uninspiring. (As mottos go, you have to give the NYPD extra points for its passionate Fidelis ad Mortem— faithful unto death, especially when compared to the LAPD’s rather pedestrian “To protect and to serve.”) What did those Boy Scouts, icons of purity and knots, mean by the admonition to “be prepared”? It seemed so obvious; why wouldn’t anyone want to be prepared?
The targets of the admonishment were Boy Scouts– not Men Scouts. Boys, left alone to their characterological insouciance would not likely think about preparation. They don’t even make their beds without being threatened. If they did, you might consider a referral to a local head-shrinker.
I guess the idea that we need to be told to be prepared is based on the assumption that everyone comes out of the uterus fundamentally lazy. We need the guidance of grownup men in shorts to learn how to get off our butts and do our homework. Undoubtedly, the man scout founders of the Boy Scouts, unfazed by their organization’s very initials, didn’t grow up in a New York Jewish ghetto in which the failure to do one’s homework would clearly be the gateway drug to bad grades, which meant you were stupid, not really Jewish, probably adopted, and going to end up in a place called hell which didn’t exist for Jews but for you there would be an exception.
Pilots too have their dictum to be prepared, appearing in the form of a regulation requiring them to be familiar ahead of time with everything required to minimize surprises. The rule is taken dead seriously by those pilots who don’t want to end up seriously dead. Pilots need to prepare by, among other things, knowing the amount of fuel required plus reserves for each flight, predicted winds and weather, the weight and balance of their ships, alternate airports and the services available at each, and must be careful to check that the route they are traveling has not been temporarily restricted because the president and his overly expensive airplane may be nearby.
But preparation has its limits, because sometimes life comes at you so sideways that even the best peripheral vision can’t catch it. A few years back, I thought I was doing as much as I could to keep myself healthy: eating well, losing weight, hiking almost daily (at least in August) and doing yoga. So when I had some minor symptoms I had no difficulty believing the symmetry that minor symptoms were symptoms of something minor. I was pretty surprised, as you might imagine, to learn that I was suffering from stage IV metastatic cancer. Despite doing my best efforts to stay fit, I suddenly found myself—as pilots would say, “behind the airplane.”
I would argue that there are times when preparation can be overdone. In the course of presenting papers at conferences, I discovered an inverse relationship between preparation and audience interest. In the old days, it was customary to write a paper and simply read it, but that practice has become effete and audiences now expect to be entertained by spontaneous displays of wit and wisdom.
The more prepared I was for a presentation, the more attached I became to saying what I had rehearsed, resulting in a loss of spontaneity, so my presentations became stiff and boring. Nowadays, I prefer to create rough outlines ahead of time and then try to wing it as much as possible. It doesn’t always work, usually because I am verbose and it takes me a half hour to get through the planned first five minutes. Spontaneity certainly has its drawbacks, but generally, when it comes to most speaking engagements, as long as I can stay focused it tends to work out well for me.
In most cases, the Boy Scouts probably have it right. It is hard to imagine being over-prepared for a flight. Yet, an essential component to preparation is the preparation for a surprise, which may seem like an oxymoron, but I don’t think so. As a family therapist, I always used to tell my students that one should always have a plan before going into a therapy session, but to be prepared to change course at any moment. “Be spontaneous!” goes the paradoxical mantra, which I take to mean that while we set out on a path to a destination, we remain so connected to the moment that we are willing and open to shift course at any time.
As a grown boy, I don’t know if I would make my bed if I didn’t have someone else do it for me. In all likelihood I wouldn’t. Nor would I do the dishes shortly after I used them. After all, sinks are made big so that they could hold a lot of dirty dishes. Maybe if I had been a real Boy Scout, instead of just reading the manual, things might have been different.