I've learned that what is practical sometimes can be the enemy of what is good.
"You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful."--Victor Hugo
One reason we grandparents tend to be more responsive to our grandkids than we were to our own children is that we've learned that spontaneity, like opportune moments, may strike only once.
In Praise of the Impractical
Last week I attended a funeral in Dallas for a man whose children I was close to over 25 years ago. For my part, I'm glad I went. I received the satisfaction of honoring a man I had long respected, and I caught up on the lives of some dear friends with whom I had lost touch. For my friends' part, they seemed genuinely honored, surprised and supported by my presence.
Yet ten years ago I would not have gone in person. I would have sent a card, maybe flowers, and possibly made a phone call instead. And everyone would have understood. After all, it's just not practical to drop everything and preempt a busy schedule for a couple of days.
Midlife has changed my perspective. Though I still believe in being practical--I think it's a virtue--I've learned that what is practical sometimes can be the enemy of what is good. Let me explain.
the opportune moment
Some opportunities come at inopportune moments, such as a funeral in the middle of a busy work week. Sure it's practical to group activities together (by waiting until I can combine several objectives, I can maximize trips to Dallas), but such may not allow for opportune moments, moments that come our way only once, never to be repeated.
Midlife has taught me the importance of these once-in-a-lifetime events, such as funerals, weddings, anniversaries, graduations and reunions. Sure, sometimes we simply can't turn out for all of these in person, and then a card will have to do, but it's not the same, something we all know when we've been around for half a lifetime.
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo introduces a pious bishop who is challenged by his housekeeper concerning the bishop's habit of devoting part of his garden to beautiful flowers instead of the more practical vegetables. "Here is a useless plot," says the housekeeper. "It would be much better to have salads here than bouquets." The bishop replies, "You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful."
The wise old bishop had learned an important life lesson. To be healthy the human soul must be nourished along with its body. Vegetables feed the latter; flowers, the former. Sometimes our best gifts may seem impractical.
In 1979, humorist Erma Bombeck, then in her 40s, was asked what she would do differently if she had the opportunity to live her life over. Among other things she wrote, "When my child kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, 'Later. Now go get washed up for dinner.'"
Bombeck has hit on a final enemy of the practical: the spontaneous. One reason we grandparents tend to be more responsive to our grandkids than we were to our own children is that we've learned that spontaneity, like opportune moments, may strike only once. A child who wants to give you a hug may not still have the urge when you're ready to receive it.
Making plans is a good thing, but only if we hold them loosely. For if the practical excludes surprise and spontaneity, it excludes much of the joy of life itself.
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