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The Virtue of an Oil Change

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Tue Aug 24, 2010 8:33 pm

It is a shame that, for the most part, we have stopped changing our own oil. I'm not saying thing itself is so important, but rather the virtue that arises from doing such a small, technically simple but high consequence task for one's self. Changing oil is a straight-forward affair, within reach nearly everyone. When it is completed, one is left with the consequences of their own work. If you forget to put on the filter and oil spills to the ground as you re-fill it, there is no one to blame but the mechanic. If the plug comes loose after forty miles, there is no one to sue but the person swearing in the rear view mirror.

He who changes his own oil also comes face to face with his own waste in a manner that is all too rare these days. Dirty oil must be placed in a bottle of some sort, usually the empties your new oil came in, and carried with all its weight and volume to be recycled. It does not magically disappear like when the speedy lube does the job while you drink coffee and watch CNN, but you, the one for whom it was made waste, are responsible for its disposal. The waste is no longer a mental construct but a present, if small, inconvenience in real life. It is not something that disappears but it leaves a mark on the upholstery if we are not very careful.

We need such small practices only because we live so much of our lives divorced from tangible responsibility. Not all to be sure but an ever growing percentage of Americans work in professions where their input is so far removed from the final outcome that it is difficult to measure an individual's impact on success or failure. Even assuming that failure is recognized as such and even assuming we suspects that we bare some portion of responsibility for that failure, the temptation to project blame on some other part of the production stream is ever present and quick to find social support. Someone else can and will be found to carry the heaviest portion of blame, it matters little if it is the union,management, the marketing department or just the other shift; the net effect is the same, the individual ego is freed from their share of responsibility and can carry on unencumbered by self-evaluation or critique.

Once the virtue of self-criticism, which is the only way to improvement, is weakened it impacts the whole of the person and the whole of their life. When we face adversity in our marriages, other relationships, politics or any other part of our life we become less likely to ask the question "What could I have done differently? Or even "What went wrong?" But default to the accusatory,"Who is to blame?" We should not be surprised that people who start with that question rarely discover an answer that points at themselves, their political party, their ideological peers or any other group which includes the person asking the question. Blame is always found on the outside.

Inversely, a small awareness of personal responsibility, fostered through regularly practicing an accessible skill where the consequences of failure remain high, ingrains a virtue of responsibility for doing a job right. Self-critique become less a threat and more a means of avoiding screwing up so badly in the future. In the United States, and the West more generally, we have fostered a culture where it is more important to just do something rather than to insure that we do a thing correctly. Antagonizing this instinct to "just do" is a reluctance to sacrifice or discomfort. When we say someone ought to do something, we do not include ourselves in the "someone." In changing oil we learn that grime does not kill and that contorting one's arm to start the oil filter on a 1984 Buick Skylark is the only way to accomplish the necessary end and "just part of a job." The more time we spend undoing the subconsciously internalized assumption that grime and contortion is work for other people, the more capable we become of undertaking the work that will be required each of us as the challenges of the future become the challenges of the present. When enough people are more capable we will find we have a culture capable of facing the problems before us.

There are no silver bullets to the problems we face. If we are to face them well, however, we will need the everyday virtues that have fallen to disuse during the decades of abundance. We must viscerally connect not only with the possibilities and consequences of failure but also with our duty to contribute to success. We must renounce the vice of reflexively externalizing blame, not that others are not responsible for failures but that even when BP is responsible for a spill that dumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in to the Gulf of Mexico, each of us also remains culpable for our contribution to a society which not only consumes so much oil but also empowers a government which fails in its oversight of a company with so poor a safety record. If we do not also address where we contribute to a problem, we remain part of the problem; perhaps even the driving force of the problem.

Moving into a future of crisis and scarcity we need more than the specialized knowledge of engineers and scientists. We must be a people capable of supporting a society which supports and directs them in our economics, our culture as well as our politics. Virtues can only be built through practice. We become brave through acting bravely. We learn generosity through giving. We learn to lead through following. And we learn about risks of failure and the cost of success by undertaking high consequence tasks for ourselves, even if that task is as simple as changing the oil. Only when we become a nation filled with the kind of people who are willing to risk failure and get their hands dirty can we be trusted to make higher consequence decisions that will form the world inherited by generations yet born.

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Re: The Virtue of an Oil Change

Permanent Linkby Newfie on Tue Aug 24, 2010 8:43 pm

Completely agree, even though I don't change my own. Too much convenience and too easy to have them recycle the waste.

But, not to quibble, your point is taken. We have become distant from the consequences of our own actions.
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Re: The Virtue of an Oil Change

Permanent Linkby Newfie on Tue Aug 24, 2010 9:21 pm

Completely agree, even though I don't change my own. Too much convenience and too easy to have them recycle the waste.

But, not to quibble, your point is taken. We have become distant from the consequences of our own actions.
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