How well do you want it fixed?

In the early 1960s, I dislocated my left shoulder. After many subsequent dislocations, I decided to see if I could get it fixed. I went to team of doctors who were said to have a lot of experience with athletes. That one piece of information should have prepared me for unusually fine questions, but it didn’t. I told the doctor what was wrong with my shoulder and asked if he could fix it. He moved it around a little with his hands and then asked a question I had never heard before and that I want to think about today. He said, “How well do you want it fixed?” [1]

I long time friend recently characterized me as “buoyant.” I took it as a compliment, of course, but I think what she meant was that I revert quickly to the question the surgeon asked me. I wonder how good something needs to be to be good enough.

I hear people say that they “didn’t get enough sleep last night.” I know what they mean and I never ask, “Enough for what?” It is what I always think, however, and it is what I ask of myself. I don’t sleep as deeply or as long as I did when I was a young man, but the amount of sleep I get is a very acceptable match for the “work” I need to do that day. [2]

So I ask myself, when I am trying to decide whether to get out of bed, “Have I had enough sleep?” I pause, at that point, and consider two things. The first is what I need to be able to do when I get up. The second is, how soon after that could I go back to bed if I really needed to?

Consider these two scenarios. I have something really exciting to do. I feel the stimulation of this “meeting” just in the anticipation of it. I am confident that when the meeting begins, I will be filled with energy and possibly even, depending on the meeting, with creativity. If I am trying to decide whether to get out of bed using the standard, “Have I had enough sleep” on the day of this meeting, the answer will almost certainly be Yes.

Notice that that calculation has nothing to do with how much sleep I got or with how I feel at the moment. The “enough” standard, matches how I feel to how I need to feel. Is that being buoyant?

This way of thinking about whether I have had enough sleep makes it plain that what looks like a property is actually a relationship. I always feel as if “sleepy” were a condition of my body, but that makes no sense at all if the same amount of alertness is good enough for some things and not good enough for others. Think about it. I have had enough sleep to attend a stimulating meeting of my peers but I have not had enough sleep to attend a dreary make-work meeting called by my superiors. Clearly, we are not talking about the same meaning of “enough sleep.”

But consider the implications. Do I need to be taking sleeping pills so I will get enough sleep? No, I need to engage in more engaging activities when I get up. Do I need to be taking stimulants when I get up? No, if I am doing things that stimulate me, I don’t need chemical stimulants. [3] If “enough sleep” is, in fact, a ratio between how I feel and how I need to feel, then altering either side of the equation will work equally well.

The second question I posed above has to do with how long I need to be alert. This is a sort of fail-safe provision. If I can get up and do what I need to do and then go back to bed, I can take that into account when I am getting up. If I can go back to sleep after the meeting, then I can hold it together during the meeting.

It turns out that “How well do you need it to be fixed?” is a question with quite a few valuable connections. Do I need to order from the most exotic menu I have ever seen or do I need to order from a menu that has interesting and nutritious food on it? Do I need a bike that will take sustained speeds over rough terrain or will a bike that does everything I want to do be enough? In my recent (now fifteen years ago) trip into the world of dating, I had to get clear in my mind about just what I was looking for. I was looking for a woman who was “good enough” on the whole host of criteria that are featured on dating shows and truly excellent in the few things that will be important in our life together over the years. [4]

Again, not “traits” but “ratios.” It is not hard to make that case, but it is really hard to keep it at the center of your attention, where decisions get made; it is hard to feel it, when your reasoning is accustomed to thinking about traits.

This is really important to me as a man who lives in an old body. Note the careful phrasing. It is easy to say that all my systems—cognitive, affective, behavioral—are fading. Nothing works as well as it used to. On the other hand, nearly everything still works well enough to do the things I most want to do. “Fading” needs to mean that I am no longer able to do the things I need to do. Again, note the careful phrasing. “Need to do” is not the same as “used to do.”

It’s a ratio and I am free to choose the other term. If I remember. Does that make me buoyant?

[1] I didn’t know what he meant. I said, “I’d like to be able to play basketball.” He said, “Industrial league?” He was a sports doctor.
[2] Ursula LeGuin created an anarchist society in her book, The Dispossessed. In preparation for setting up this culture, the founders invented a new language because they understood that the values of the culture would be embedded in the language. For that reason, they invented a verb that meant both “work” and “play.” Tedious, meaningless activities, to distinguish them from both work and play, were called kleggich. I feel that same way: “work” and “play” are pretty much the same thing to me these days.
[3] Or what they are now calling “energy drinks.”
[4] I have written recently about the importance I placed on the kind of marriage I had in mind and the true necessity that we both be willing to do the work necessary to sustain it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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