The morality of detail

If one is shown a better way to change a flat tire, one tends to adopt the better way. One listens closely, weighs past actions in the mind, gives it a try. This is true of almost every practical affair, from positioning a ladder to slicing an onion. We are glad to learn of a better way. But in human dealings - the most practical and far-reaching of our activities - we don't really listen to anybody. We seem to know it all, even though the results are not to our liking. The minute there is a breath of doubt about our knowledge in human affairs, we run up the jib of our egos and tack into safe old harbors.

Why is it that we are so sensitive to advice on these matters? Is it that each of us is so convinced of his own adroitness in human affairs? If someone suggests that I bring my wife a rose, take my children to the ball game, or drop in on the new people next door, he risks, at the very least, a more austere relationship with me. After all, don't I know what's good for my family, my neighbors, myself, better than anyone else?

Possibly. But it may also be that because we all strive for success in these matters, such advice becomes no longer a matter of reasonable practicality, but an evaluation of our worth as persons. Somewhere deep down we feel our past way of living has been brought into question. We turn our backs, and go on with the way we have always been doing things. We will not experiment, no, not for one day, not for one hour. When we have fixed a tire, stopped a leak, learned to slice an onion without losing a thumb, we have reached the end of experimentation. Our minds grow hard, and we recede from the better way.

And yet all the serious questions of life ask precisely about this way. Morality, after all, addresses simply the question how to live, but I am afraid we have been done in by absolutes and flustered by finalities. We are too much concerned with verdicts and not enough with preliminary trials. The poet William Blake once observed: ''If you would do well by another you must do it in minute particulars; all general good is the refuge of the flatterer, the scoundrel, and the fool.'' A similar idea has been expressed by the modern writer Eric Hoffer: ''It's easier to love mankind than the guy next door.''

A response to particulars would seem to be what matters, both in practical and moral concerns. How surprised I was to learn from a carpenter that tools to scrape paint had to be sharpened, not every month, or every week, but about every ten minutes. How the paint chips flew when I learned that! A simple detail. I was equally surprised when my twelve-year-old son said: ''Don't tell me to watch the ball, I'm watching the ball. Tell me something I can use. Tell me to keep my racket head above the net on the volley.'' Simple detail. When a friend of mine, confused by the calendar, brought a dozen long-stemmed roses to his wife a week before Valentine's Day, she said: ''Gertrude Stein's phrase is simply inadequate to describe this experience. A rose is not just a rose.''

As in changing a tire or scraping paint, a concentration on detail can lead to better results. There are choices to be made everywhere between the proven and the possible. To make these choices is the nature of life. When Socrates asked his mentor Diotima about the nature of love, she avoided definition and pointed to a person. ''In order to love the good,'' she began, ''begin with the particular.'' When I got my first flat tire I was told something similar: ''Loosen the lugs before you lift the car.''

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