Consider ye the speed bumps of the road

Well, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the “big waste of time” that was Senator Ted Cruz’s 21-hour speech in the U.S. Senate finally ended shortly after noon today. In case you have been hiding under a rock, the point of the long speech was to rally support to block the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act–i.e. Obamacare. One wonders if Harry Reid also found the filibuster of Wendy Davis in Texas to be a waste of time, given that Governor Perry called the Texas legislature back in session shortly after her successful filibuster, and the legislature passed the very measures she had attempted to block.

But this is not a blog post about Obamacare. Or abortion.

This is a post about whether it is truly a waste of time to fight bravely in what seems to be a lost cause. To fight knowing that you will lose. To be a speed bump, as it were.

I would like to suggest here, contra Harry Reid, that there is indeed a great dignity in obstruction, in fighting honorably and consistently in what appears to be a lost cause. It is admittedly a virtue without a name (though as Aristotle would tell you, that is by no means uncommon). Yet decent human beings do intuitively recognize the excellence of noble obstruction. The beauty of the virtue accounts for the enduring popularity of historical figures such as Hector, Vercingetorix, and Robert E. Lee.  On some level, we all know that it is never a waste of time to attempt do what is right, or to attempt to refrain from doing what is wrong.

The philosopher Robert Spaemann has written of this with great eloquence:

“There is no reason to become fatalistic, even when we figure that resistance finally will lose out and that what can be made will be made. Slowing things down provides time for reflection on what is going on. One of the universal laws of development in a fallen creation is formulated in the second principle of thermodynamics: that entropy tends to increase. All processes opposed to entropy, including all of life, tends to fail. All forms of the good life in history are finite and tend to corrupt. Resisting corruption, delaying destruction, is one of the basic forms of human activity, stretching from the work in the garden or around the house to leadership in church or state. Whoever would want to stand always on the side of this world’s victors would always be standing on the wrong side. No one knows that better, I should think, than doctors. They have chosen a profession which in the end always loses; since, in the end, death always arrives. But those who have chosen this profession have chosen to serve life.” See Robert Spaemann, “Genetic manipulation of human nature in the context of human personality,” in Human Genome, Human Person and the Society of the Future, ed. Juan de Dios Vial Correa and Elio Sgreccia (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999), 350.

Now that you have been given such an elegant exposition of this idea, allow me to return to my own homier way of putting it: it is good to be a speed bump.

Speed bump made of asphalt

My favorite–soon to be one of yours (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like all young men, I once abhorred speed bumps. All they did was get in my way, slow me down, cause my CDs to skip, and cause my car to bottom out. I swore at them, I hatched schemes to destroy them, and I raged at the hypocrisy of them. I was sure that none of the authorities who inflicted speed bumps upon my driving allowed any such obstructions in the streets near their own homes.

Then I had kids. And I finally understood.

The speed bump indeed does fight a losing battle. It cannot stop the cars; it only slows them down–and in doing so, it is slowly worn away and destroyed itself. Everyone hates them. Everyone tries to avoid them. But I know the good they do–the difference between my son being alive and being dead, if he makes a break for the street, is the second of reaction time gained for me by that speed bump. Everyone is distracted, everyone is driving too fast, and no one expects a toddler to suddenly dart out into the street chasing a butterfly. The speed bump slows the cars down just enough that I have a chance to haul him back.

We can take a lesson, then, from the lowly speed bump, or the mighty Hector, or Juror 8 in 12 Angry Men, or the long-winded Ted Cruz. There is a dignity in “gumming the works,” in slowing things down a bit in the service of what is right. Don’t worry when people tell you that you are wasting time, that “it is going to happen anyway,” that your protests are a vain gesture. Whether they acknowledge it or not, you are doing your fellow men a service by testing their resolve and the ability of their cause to persist.

After all, if these things are so inevitable anyway, then what’s the rush? And, every now and then, even a lowly speed bump succeeds in breaking the axle of a car.

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5 Responses to Consider ye the speed bumps of the road

  1. Christopher says:

    I agree with statements, but they seem to be in opposition with the Just Way theory outlined in the Catechism which states in paragraph 2309 that “there must be serious prospects of success.” What are your thoughts, how do you reconcile both positions, does the comparison even apply?

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks so much for the intelligent question!

      I think there is a categorical difference between war (which involves the loss of human life) and any other form of “strife” (political, artistic, verbal, moral, etc.). This inclines me to think that the aspects of Just War theory in the CCC are directed exclusively toward the question of war, and not towards other sorts of conflict. For example, I can’t imagine a good Catholic priest telling peaceful pro-life protesters outside an abortion clinic to go home because they have no “reasonable chance of success.”

      But, as you noticed, I did cite as examples of “noble obstruction” some military figures from the past, so you are right that I see a place for noble obstruction in the context of war as well. However, I would admit that the disproportionate power of modern weapons of war might necessitate a change in the way we think about such things, leading to that criterion in the CCC.

  2. Maura says:

    Thanks for this. I think also of Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

    As a teacher, all too often I feel like I’m fighting a lost cause with so many of my kids.

    And as a Catholic, I feel that way as well about talking to others who really don’t understand / are angry with the Church. Really, I do something I almost never do – I briefly joined a conversation at that thoroughly depressed me and made me wonder if “dialogue” is ever worthwhile. People don’t care about what’s true.

    Being a literature person, however, imagery helps me – and I will recall the “speed bump” when I face these things again.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks for your kind words–and for reminding me about “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”

      I know what you mean about your HuffPo experience. I once attempted a thoughtful exchange about abortion online . . . oh gawd.

  3. Pingback: In Veritate Fortitudo

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