THE MUDDLE FACTOR
Saturday, August 23, 2014
A cousin recently wrote me, suggesting that the terrible news from around the world seemed to offer little hope for the future.
The tone of her letter gave the impression that she needed a thoughtful reply, not a stock phrase intended to reassure.
Fortunately, my wife and I just returned from a tour of Eastern Europe, during which we were subjected to immersion in the troubled history of the area, revealed to us by residents who lived through it.
An experience during our visit to Belgrade, capital of Serbia, was an example. Noticing my conversation with the clerk of a bookstall, a group of locals of various ages saw an opportunity to practice their English, a compulsory course in Serbian schools for decades.
Starting the dialogue, one in the group said: “Belgrade has been invaded 114 times—with you, it is now 115”. With chuckles all around, the conversation launched into various topics, including the aid sent to Serbia in the wake of WWII by a President largely forgotten by Americans, Harry S. Truman.
A Captain in the American Expeditionary Force in WWI, Truman was opposed, among others, by Josip Broz, an officer of equivalent rank in the army of Austria-Hungary, an ally of Germany in that war. In WWII however, Truman became an accidental President, while Broz commanded an army of Partisans so lethal to the German occupiers of the Balkans that our allied forces could concentrate on the drive to the Nazi heartland. Not only that, but Tito’s (Josip Broz’ adopted name “Marshal” Tito) forces blocked the Soviet army, poised to fill the vacuum left by the departing German army, from partisan-controlled territory, later to become Yugoslavia.
In appreciation, Truman sent shiploads of wheat, corn meal, dried milk and eggs to Yugoslavia’s starving citizens, conspicuously marked with the legend: “a gift from the people of the United States” with a printed U.S. flag on every box, sack and crate. As their contents were utilized, the sacks themselves became shirts, pants, table-cloths and headscarves, the flag and its message on display everywhere in Tito’s realm for years afterward.
The lesson here is, how do people survive all the challenges which their central position in Europe throws at them throughout history while keeping their humanity? My impression is that the skillset needed is simply to be an expert at “muddling through”.
A “muddle”, according to Webster, is: “a confused mess” which in this case would mean a willingness to try anything to get through the day, whether that took a perilous escape from harm, finding food or water, or improvising shelter from the elements for the night. The other part of a survival strategy is to have a “back-up plan” to kick in when the first idea didn’t work.
Sadly, many who live comfortable lives in today’s world tend to be dependent on their “gadgets”, unable to engage with others toward useful goals—dissipating their energies on pleasure-seeking and amusement. Those who live the perilous lives so many experience on the fringes of society are likely, because “survival” is always their focus, to be better at dealing with the unexpected.
Back to the answer to my cousin’s letter. I explained to her that humanity had survived so far, not by inspiration or genius, but by managing to “muddle through” whatever came along. As long as we can do that, we’ll make it through to the end of our allotted span of years, but not without a few scrapes along the way.
I hope that helped.
FUTURE CHALLENGES–CAN WE COPE?
THE MUDDLE FACTOR