This being my last column, I have chosen to share something not tree-related, but rather offer something I wrote several years ago, but which has recently much on my mind. Here it is.
I recently read a New York Times editorial written by David Brooks about the growing lack of civility in public life – and all of modern life, for that matter. I am an engineer by training and experience, my specialty being civil engineering. The strange juxtaposition of my supposed expertise all things civil, and the noticeable lack of it in our culture started to bother me. I used to joke about what I do being related in any way to civility, but I think I am beginning to see the connection.
David Brooks suggests, and I agree, that the fundamental problem we have with treating each other with respect and kindness stems from our lack of personal humility and modesty. We have recently been taught to push our personal failures into the back of our mind and focus on convincing ourselves that we are both highly capable and armed with the truth. But thinking – no, knowing — that I am right (and you are wrong) requires a confidence in my own intelligence and knowledge that may not be warranted. In civil engineering, I have learned this lesson many times, and in the hardest ways.
Once, when replacing an aging waterline, I was faced with determining how to connect to the existing 18-inch diameter line. The fitting, to which I was connecting, was fastened to the ductile iron waterline behind it with four threaded steel rods. Without boring you with more complexity, I had to determine if those rods would hold (which is why they are there) or break under the water pressure behind them, a simple math problem. You determine the strength of the steel, line up the conversion factors – pressure times cross-sectional area, multiply by four, and what-do-you-know, no problem. The fitting had plenty of support, and I went to lunch with those four steel rods holding back all that water under pressure. Except that a failure of this type does not happen with all four rods breaking suddenly and simultaneously, as anyone who really thinks about it knows. One rod fails – tightest one, which is carrying most of the load. Then another fails. You can easily imagine what an 18-inch waterline failure, under 100 pounds/square inch pressure is like, a flood of water throughout downtown Gresham, angry shop owners, my co-workers’ comments. Suffice it to say, it was a lesson in humility.
When I design and build something, it is for those who will come after me. Whether it is privately owned or managed by some government, I am charged with honestly and carefully serving the needs of others. And interestingly, the best way to do this is to work with others, and not people who will just tell me every thought I have is perfect and complete. The best results are from a team who vigorously and thoroughly, but respectfully, look at all possible views of a problem. The diversity of the team is its very strength. We all just have our own viewpoint and experience – not the whole truth. We must never forget how easy it is, with only our own thoughts, to completely miss something important.
How does this best happen in the civic life, between Democrats and Republicans, loggers and professors, those with much and those with very little? I don’t really know. Maybe that is for each of us to work out in our own way. I encourage you to do that – with civility, and humility. Brooks closed his editorial with this quote, which I also recommend to us all:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. . . Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe, as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness”.Reinhold Niebuhr