Some Thoughts on Preparedness

I know a good man who has some serious health problems that were sadly predictable. He worked for a long time in a very dusty environment. He knew that was a health risk and whenever his son helped him he made him wear a respirator. He had the equipment to protect himself and he had the knowledge that it was dangerous. But for whatever reason, he did not make use of those things.
You see that a lot. There are people who know that smoking is dangerous but only get serious about quitting after they get lung cancer. There are people who know that that tree work is dangerous but only become serious about safety after their brother is killed by a falling limb. It is human to know something, to have no real doubt that what you know is true, and yet to still fail to act on it.

The book of James mocks those who profess to have faith and yet fail to act on it. The same sort of logic can be applied to knowledge. We all dam ourselves by what we say we know and being flawed as we are, we can never totally avoid it. But it is worth making an effort to avoid condemning ourselves by what we say we know.

This is a particular danger for me because I am a very judgmental man. I look at the middle class in Lebanon and wonder how they can be crying in the newspapers about how they losing all their savings. Didn’t they realize they were living in a country that is a byword for instability? How could they have money in the bank but no food in the pantry? I feel the same way about the middle class panic buying in the shops in South Africa because they are afraid that the riots might cause supply disruptions. You live in Africa and you are not prepared for the stores to be empty for a few weeks?

I don’t have trouble being kind to the poor and down trodden. When times are good they eek by and when times are bad they go hungry. It is just how it is. But if you have the money to be a two car household, go on vacation, and own a home, but you would go hungry if the stores were empty for a few weeks, then it is hard for me to avoid the feeling that you priorities are out of whack. Particularly when you are living in a country that you know is unstable.

But it is even more dangerous to judge other people then it is to know things. How stable is our country really? And given what I say about the country I live in and what I claim to know what should I be doing differently? I judge people who go out and buy a brand new truck because the bank says they can just afford the payments but then complain to me because they don’t have money when unexpected expenses come up. Is it too much to expect people to understand that “unexpected” expenses are really quite predicable? But am I really any different if I define being prepared for the “unexpected” purely in terms of having money in the bank?

Since I am lazy by nature, there is an easy answer. After all, I am just a powerless individual. There is nothing I can do to protect myself from the social forces or the forces of nature that are far beyond my ability to do anything about. And besides, even though I might have a comfortable life, I am not so rich that I can prepare for anything without having to give up on some comforts. So why make all the effort and bother when it probably will not make any difference anyway?

But I know all these excuses are lies. When the fear strikes people for real that the stores might be empty, they go through all sorts of contortions to do things that would have been easy to do earlier. And I know that I am no different in that regard. If I knew really bad things were going to happen next month of course I would be doing things differently. It is only when bad things are a very real possibility but not a certainty that I try to convince myself that there is no point in doing things. But here again I only reveal myself to be a hypocrite. I carry insurance and make sure I always put some money away just so I can deal with the unexpected. How is preparing for shocks to the system any different?

There is another excuse that is more subtle and has the virtue of possessing some truth. And that is a pretend virtuous aversion to putting my trust in the things of this world. I hear people being into prepping say that they do it because it makes them feel “safe” and when I hear that I can’t help but feeling that they are just asking to be struck by lightning or something. I know that you are a fool if the things of this world make you “safe” but at the same time I know the temptation to try to make myself safe that very same way is very strong in me. I want to be smart enough to use my resources to build myself an ark that would protect me from all the bad things to come even though I know I can’t do that and would be a fool to try.

As I said earlier, there is truth to this excuse and it is worth keeping in mind. But what makes it an excuse is the failure to apply that same concern to my entire life. Is the way that I live my life really the result of someone who truly knows that each day is a gift and it all can be taken away from me at any moment? Do I really act as if I am someone who knows for a fact that I will lose everything when I depart this life? All too often we only agonize over our motives when we do things that are unconventional. Store up money in the bank and you are being rational in the world’s eyes and so you have no need to justify it morally. Store up food in the basement and you are being paranoid in the world’s eyes and so suddenly it becomes this huge moral question.

Now maybe I am wrong to say “we.” Maybe most people feel that ether preparing for society’s failures is rational or it is not and there is no need to worry about its moral dimensions. But I think it is right ponder the moral dimensions of everything. It is only a problem when you apply a different moral standard to what is unconventional then you would to something conventional. It is true that “building bigger barns” can be sign that you are placing your faith in this world stuff. But then again, it can be true that living a conventional life means that you are placing your faith in this world.

Speaking for myself, I think I can clearly see how “prepping” is often the result of an unwarranted faith in the things of this world. But I can clearly see how people who sneer at prepping often have an even greater faith in the things of this world. And while I can clearly feel the temptation of the “prepper” the faith of those people who sneers at the “preppers” is fully alien to me so it is easier for me to judge them then it is the preppers. For myself, the only temptation to be anti-prepper comes from a cynicism that masquerades as wisdom that says that nothing that a prepper does will make any difference in the end. After all, I could never eat while others I cared about were going hungry and even if I could the government or local gang would likely come and take the food from me anyway. At least, that is what my cynical self says when it is trying to convince me that it is not worth making the effort.

The cynicism that says that nothing we do will make a difference is in sense irrefutable. We all die in the end and everything we care about will end as well. Therefore, taking the path of least resistance can have the appearance of wisdom. Why put a lot of effort into anything if nothing is going to matter in the end anyway?

I think root of this logic is anger at God that the fruit of our efforts is not in our hands. We can save up money for retirement only to see it evaporate in medical bills that we would not have had to pay if we had no financial assets on record. We can go walking for our health every day only to be hit by a car. There is no guarantee that our efforts produce the fruit that we want. Therefore, cynicism tells us that the path of wisdom it to bury our talent in the dirt rather than try to make use of it because we have a hard and capricious master and if we try to make use of that talent odds are we will not reap any benefit out of it.

The bottom line is that when I examine a lot of my cynical “wisdom” it boils down to two basic fears. First is the fear that somebody else might benefit instead of me from all my efforts. And the second fear is that there is no point in setting aside a few loaves and fishes when I know they can’t solve any major problems. I don’t consider either fear to be particular virtuous. Of course, that begs the question, what is virtuous?

In my case, I can’t help but feel the answer is pretty simple. I have always been a daydreamer and a thinker. I don’t naturally want to do things. And when I do consider doing something there are three basic motivations that come into play and they are my laziness, my fear of appearing the fool, and my sense of responsibility. My laziness always votes for doing nothing. My fear of appearing the fool sometimes compels me to action depending on the circumstances but in the case of prepping it is against any action. It is only my sense of responsibility that pushes me towards preparation.

My sense of responsibility has always driven to tackling problems that other people feared to deal with or did not think that it was their responsibility. In a way, this has benefited me. I have made a career out of tackling issues that people were ignoring for a long time because they were too hard to resolve. In doing this, I have brought a lot of stress on myself and come close having things blow up in my face in major way. But at least in terms of my career, I have been rewarded pretty well for being this type of person even though there did not seem to be any kind of reward in tackling those issues at the time.

I am not saying that this sense of responsibility is completely a virtue. A lot of times my sense of responsibility creates a lot of anger in me towards other people for not feeling the same sense of responsibility as I do although I think this has as much to do with my laziness as it does my sense of responsibility (if other people would only be responsible I would not have to do as much is how that works). But regardless if it is right or wrong, I have never been able to see problems and not think they are something that I need to try to take care of.

If I was not so certain that bad times were coming, this would not be an issue. But since I am certain, it triggers my sense of responsibility. The way I think is if you know there is an issue, you should try to do something about. Nobody says you have to succeed but to just throw up your hands and not even try seems to me to be an abdication or responsibility. I certainly judge people for not even trying in all other respect so how can I let myself off?

So for this reason I have been trying to overcome my laziness and fear of appearing to fool so I can quite my sense of responsibility. Since I am lazy and afraid of being (or more accurately, appearing) a fool, I have been trying to go about this in way that is the least effort and the most “rational” that I can. But in the end, I am afraid there is going to be no way of going about this with costing more effort and damage to my sense of dignity then I would like.

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