President John F. Kennedy’s soaring oratory had memorable lines, but some did not make much sense. For example, in his inauguration he famously said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” I immediately wondered whether that was right. In suggesting that it was a one-way street from me to the government, Kennedy sounded like an authoritarian. I could have imagined Stalin saying something similar, that a good citizen first must serve the government. I had memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and I remember his phrase that our government was “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” I like Lincoln’s vision better. We are the government—“of the people.” We need to work to govern ourselves—“by the people.” And one purpose of government is to serve us—“for the people.”
Thirty months later, JFK made his let’s-go-to-the-moon speech, which was filled with nonsense, bombast, and a questionable metaphor. In explaining why we should commit to having men land on the moon and return, he said, “Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept. One we are unwilling to postpone.” It sounds inspirational unless you try to parse and understand it. He continued, “And therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure that man has ever gone on.” Set sail in a rocket ship? And if it weren’t hazardous, it would not have been dangerous, but were the superlatives even close to being right? What about those people who crossed the land bridge from Asia to the Americas? Or Christopher Columbus or Magellan, who actually did sail? Or those who followed Moses in flight from Egypt or Genghis Khan or took part in the Crusades?
But perhaps what is most remembered from the speech was this: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Even as a teenager besotted with Kennedy, I could not help thinking how silly this was. Many things are hard—pounding nails with my forehead, for example. I would not choose to do them because they are hard, and I could not believe that a government should ever do something simply because it was hard. We might pledge to accomplish something that was the right or valuable thing to do even though it was difficult but never simply because it was not easy. Although I only learned of it later, I was adopting the aphorism of Thomas Aquinas: “Not everything that is more difficult is more meritorious.”
People have sometimes told me to take the hard road as the right choice even when an easier one is available. Sometimes they are right, but I decided that unless I could see some great harm in it, I would first try the easier choice and find whether it suffices. Several examples from my life will demonstrate.
Baby bottles, for example. As a new parent, I had heard all the advice about gently warming it and testing it on the wrist and so forth. I started out doing that, of course also trying to obey the stricture of not heating up the formula too much. But one day I said to myself, Let’s see what happens if I don’t warm it. Baby-caring gurus had indicated that the baby would not drink it, or worse would launch into a tantrum that would be hard to soothe. I filled a bottle with the refrigerated liquid and gave it straight to the kid who sucked it up with sounds only of contentment. Maybe it’s different for different babies, but this one did not need or even seem to want the bottle to be warmed. This was not the most important discovery of my life, but when the baby is crying in need of a bottle, it can seem a very, very long time warming it up. It was much easier on the nerves to deliver it almost instantly. The easier road worked just fine.
I have houseplants. I am not much of a gardener. Most of the houseplants are travelers. During the summer, they are outside. I have a reasonable amount of light in my Brooklyn apartment, so I take the plants into it the winter, but I do little beyond watering and sometimes rotating them. I don’t do the pruning, for example, that I am told is necessary. Perhaps they would look somewhat better under someone else’s care, but they survive just fine. When I first started wintering the plants, I did not have enough “good” places for them. I put them on a shelf under a cold window. I was told I could not do that and have the plants survive. Worse, I put plants—six or seven of them—on top of radiators. You can’t do that, I was adamantly told. The alternative was to buy or construct plant stands. If that is necessary, I thought, I will do it but first let me see whether that effort is necessary. The plants have thrived in those locations others commanded not to use. The easy route worked just fine.
I make bread. I have a sourdough starter. Sourdough starter, I have been told, must be cared for frequently and diligently. Once a week, it must be fed, that is, flour and water added, and half the starter thrown away. I have seen on a cooking or travel show a sourdough cult in Scandinavia where “sourdough hotels” exist. These are something like a kennel for pets; they will take care of a sourdough starter while a Swede goes off to Madeira or the Riviera for a few weeks. Taking care of the starter is not a big deal, but it does require that I pay attention to it, and I don’t put the task onto a calendar. Instead, I again have decided to try the easier route first. If I kill the starter, big deal. I will just get the bacteria or whatever it is going again. It’s not hard to do. My starter goes weeks, sometimes even months, without attendance, and the present strain has been alive and increasing in strength for over a decade. I am quite happy with my laziness.
I am not trying to suggest that easy route always works. Last year for the first time I left a car parked outside for the winter. One friend told me that I should disconnect the battery for this storage. Another friend said that he often left his vehicle during the winter and it started just fine in the spring. Disconnecting the batter is not a big task. I have done it before and at worst have only banged a few knuckles, but I chose the easier route. It’s spring, so I recently tried for the first time to start the car. It didn’t start, and I will have to get the battery charged. Next year, I will disconnect the battery when I leave the car for the winter. Sometimes the easy route is not the right path.
This discouraging result, however, will not get me to change my pattern. I will try the easy route first without automatically adopting the harder path suggested by others.