Several weeks ago, the storm that knocked down buildings on Mooresville’s Main Street, toppled a tree in our yard, causing it to fall on, and demolish, our neighbor’s split rail fence. You’ll be shocked to learn the damage wasn’t covered by my homeowner’s insurance. This however, wasn’t the biggest impediment, which was finding split rails 11-foot long. I can now conclusively report, after an exhaustive search, 11-foot rails can only be found in one place in central Indiana, in Trafalgar, Indiana, where I drove this past Monday to buy a dozen new rails.
The elderly man at the split rail fence store asked me if I had ever built a split rail fence.
“No,” I told him, though as a child I had watched two inebriated men build one in our yard. How hard could it be?
“The trick,” he said, “is to assemble the fence, fitting the horizontal ties into the vertical posts, so the posts can move to accept the ties. Then when the fence is assembled, you fill in around the posts with dirt or cement.”
When the tree fell, it hadn’t broken any upright posts, so they were as solid as ever, as rigid as a Baptist deacon. I couldn’t move them enough, couldn’t adjust them enough to make the rails fit, so ended up cutting off the ends of the rails to make them fit. But now the fence is fixed and my neighbor is happy, as am I.
There’s a lesson in almost everything, if you’re paying attention. One lesson I learned is that if I ever build a split rail I’m going to build it in 10-foot sections, since 10-foot rails are readily available. You can buy them all day long at Lowe’s and Menards. The other lesson is that the universe is a study of contradictions, that two virtues often conflict with one another, as was evident when I was trying to fit 11-foot ties into 10½-foot openings. Just when the situation required adaptability and flexibility, I was given steadfastness and solidity.
Adaptability and steadfastness. Two wonderful virtues with much to commend them, though they are often in conflict.
When I was growing up, I was taught the importance of being steadfast, of being resolute and determined, never wavering. My father mostly taught me this. Dad was the resident philosopher, because my mother was too tired. She raised five children, attended college, and worked as a school principal, all at the same time. She didn’t have time to be philosophical. So my father was chair of the philosophy department, with most of his examples rooted in stories of Notre Dame football. He had a sign over his desk in the basement, a quote from Knute Rockne, “Show me a good and gracious loser and I’ll show you a failure.”
Dad was never a big fan of nuance and flexibility.
In some ways, his devotion to gutting it out served me well. When I joined the wrestling team in my freshmen year of high school, I stuck with it to the bitter end, even though I lost every match, a record still unmatched in the annals of Danville High School. Even though I hated losing, it felt good not to quit, to be steadfast. I think my coach appreciated my perseverance, even though at the end of the season he suggested I try out for the golf team.
Now let’s talk about adaptability, the ability to adjust to new circumstances and conditions. We’ve all seen the recent pictures of gun-toting people parading in statehouses, protesting the quarantines governors have put in place to save our lives. As much as the protesters want us to believe they are defenders of freedom, I think something else is going on. I think their inability to adapt, their incapacity to adjust to new circumstances and conditions are driving their anger. They lack the emotional, mental, and spiritual ability to acclimate themselves to a new and necessary routine. I understand that. Change of any kind can be difficult, can make us angry, can make us feel as if we have lost control. But it is our capacity to adapt, our ability to adjust to new conditions that ensures our ultimate well-being. It was Charles Darwin, the British naturalist, who said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
So we find ourselves in life caught between these two great virtues—steadfastness and adaptability.
I wish I could tell you when it is best to loosen your grip on one, so you can exercise the other, but I’m not sure there are any hard, fast rules. It’s probably more a matter of instinct. As that great American prophet and philosopher, Mark Strietelmeier, once reminded us in a sermon, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” We have to know when our lives are best served by our steadfastness, and when our lives are best served by adaptability. I can say this, with some degree of certainty, that whichever virtue helps us be the most loving in any given situation, is probably the virtue we most need to honor in that moment.
I so admire our young graduates. Not just our Fairfield graduates, but all of them. I’ve heard a lot of bemoaning the fact that they can’t attend their senior prom or hold a graduation ceremony, but most of the bemoaning is coming from their parents and grandparents. I understand that. You want to celebrate that moment with your child or grandchild. But interestingly, the graduates I’ve spoken to about it, have been very matter of fact. Just this past week, one of them said to me, “There are worse things.” Adaptability.
You know what I think? I think these young people deserve a better nation than we’ve given them. From what I can tell, they’re determined to improve the hand they’ve been dealt. They’re rising to the challenge of change in a way we, their elders, have not. May their resolve strengthen ours.