If at first you don’t succeed, punt!

One of my favorite James Thurber Cartoon has one man speaking to another who looks shocked.  The man speaking says: “That’s my first wife up there.  This is the present Mrs. Harris.”  He gestures to another woman to his left.  It’s such a bizarre cartoon.  And its strangeness is one of the things I love about it.  But what I really love about it is that Thurber always claimed that its current form was due to an accident.  Thurber had bad eyesight (he was blind in one eye) and his drawings sometimes didn’t turn out as he expected.  His cartoons were relaxation, and he didn’t spend much time on the actual drawing.  In the case of this cartoon, he had intended for the first Mrs. Harris to be crouching atop the stairs to the second floor.  Apparently he got the perspective and lines all wrong, and, instead of doing another drawing, he turned the stairs into a bookcase. 

Grab a look at the cartoon as it appeared in The New Yorker:


Clearly the finished work, which is very strange indeed, and which sticks with you is much better than the original concept would have been.  It makes me think of the Latin phrase felix culpa (fortunate fault) used of Adam and Eve’s sin, which led to Christ coming to redeem humankind.   Without that original sin, there would have been no redeemer (and no need for one, which one might argue would be better).  Here, though, humanists and theists, Christians and non-Christians, can agree — this was indeed a fortunate fault. 

It also makes me think of the old adage — “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”  That phrase, which smacks of the Puritan work ethic, seems to suggest you try x, and because you failed, you keep at it until you get it.  This works for some things — all those hours of practice help you get the hang of cursive script [oh, wait, I still don’t have that].  In this case, I’m glad that Thurber did not go all Puritan here and keep at it until he had a decent staircase, atop which to place the first Mrs. Harris.  I would say, he punted.  He took a situation that didn’t work, and through some other means, made it work, and made it better.  In making it better, he did not fix the staircase (try, try again), but transformed it into something else.  At the Bluford library, where I work most days, I maintain we are good at punting.  Things (computers, procedures, etc.) often do not work.  Often, rather than trying again and again, we’ll figure out some other way — at Bluford, we’re good at punting.

I’d like to argue that punting can be an important tool in spiritual development.  I have known people who were miserable in a particular church or church setting.  Figuring that somehow they had to make it work, they kept at it, to great personal hurt.  In a way, their religious path had not become so much a path of discovery, as a prison of containment.  In those cases, try, try again is not the best choice personally, or for the larger group.  A cycle of hurt and blame, of frustration, not liberation, sets in — that cannot be the way to an ultimate truth.  That does not mean that one’s spiritual path has no difficulties, but there is difference between fighting hard for the truth (like MLK did) and suffering the pains that go therewith and fighting within your beloved community.  Because of the love and support he felt within his community, MLK could take the fight elsewhere.  It gave him the strength to withstand all the troubles he faced, and the patience to work with others who were hateful towards him.  Such efforts would have been very difficult if he had to fight within his churches. 

What are the essential ingredients for punting?  1) Don’t be so sure of your path that you don’t see what’s around you.  This is the same as having blinders on — blinders may help focus your energies, but also help to foster a rigidness of approach and belief that, even when it seems to be successful, keeps one from real development.  2) Listen to your partner in the enterprise — this can be a wife, husband, significant other, or larger community.  Thurber was successful in this particular cartoon because he allowed the detour to take him someplace he had not originally intended — he listened to something within that took him off course.  In this case, the detour took him to a much better place than his original plan would have.  3) Follow the rules of good improv —  listen to your partner, but also listen to your inner self and what it’s telling you.  Both have to be in place for it to work — allowing others an opening does not mean giving up your own autonomy.  In the case of Thurber and this cartoon — he allowed the mistake to take him to a better place, but I’m sure there were instances where similar mistakes turned out to be dead ends — those cartoons ended up in Thurber’s wastepaper basket.  4) Step up and join — Thurber’s cartoons, Thurber claimed, were primarily his means of relaxation.  He was quite willing, though, to enter the fray with them.  If you look at The New Yorker cartoons of Thurber’s period, Thurber’s cartoons are technically the least proficient.  Often, though, they have a power behind them, despite the technical deficiencies.  One of the great features of UUism is that each is invited to develop his/her own religious path.  This is the dangerous road to heresy to some people (Roman Catholicism comes to mind).   In other words, spirituality is more than a spectator sport — with our blessings and failings we have to engage in an ongoing dialog with the universe. 

There may be more on this later.

I think that punting is often a good strategy in life too.  There are times in a marriage where try, try again is called for.

1 Response to “If at first you don’t succeed, punt!”

  1. 1 John Blevins
    March 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks again Bernie.
    The phrase “spiritual practice” kept running through my mind as I read this.

    Is a regular and meaningful “spiritual practice” one of the ways I learn how to be a better punter? Maybe. I think so. But who knows….

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