Consequences of Conformity, Compliance & Obedience

Understanding human behavior is a complicated venture. Additionally, behavior can be impacted by social roles because social roles bring a degree of expectation to human interaction (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 768). These roles and expectations can result in conformity, obedience and/or compliance. This paper explores the question: how has research on conformity, compliance, and obedience informed us about these factors in real-world situations. The paper tackles each phenomenon separately, showing the effects of each respective behavior and their consequences. The conclusion expands on the importance of understanding such behavior and its real-world consequences.

Compliance

Compliance can either be explicit or an implicit request. One way this can be achieved is by manipulating individuals feelings (Ciladin & Goldstein, 2004, p. 592). As Whatley et al. (1999) demonstrated in their experiment feelings of shame and fear could result in public compliance while the feeling of guilt and pity can equate to private compliance (as cited in Ciladin & Goldstein, p. 593).

Additionally, there are several techniques that can lead to compliance in the real world. One is thats-not-all technique. The target is presented with an initial request, which is followed by a deal that sweetens the initial request, complying to which can result in additional benefits for the target (Ciladin & Goldstein, p. 594).

Another is the foot-in-the-door technique. This is when a salesperson gets an individual to agree to a small request and once this agreement has been made, the salesperson introduces a larger request (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 787). Lastly, lowball technique relies on a commitment from the target and then, hidden costs are revealed and by that point, the target is already committed (Weiten & McCann, p. 787).

The last two sales techniques rely on individuals self-concept. People have a strong need to enhance their self-concepts by behaving consistently with their actions, commitments, and beliefs (Ciladin & Goldstein, 2004 p. 602). However, individuals whose cultures place less emphasis on self-concept positivity and related maintenance may be less susceptible to tactics that exploit these motivations (Ciladin & Goldstein, p. 605).

Conformity

Conformity could be seen as the act of changing one’s behavior to match another (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 606). There can be an informational conformity motivation where the individual desires to form an accurate interpretation of reality. Also, normative conformity motivations where the goal of obtaining social approval from others is the reason for conforming (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 606).

Another view on conformity is the dynamic social impact theory. The likelihood of conformity increases if the group is less diverse and when there is a correlation of attitudes within the group members (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 608). The similarity of thinking can result in an individual conforming to poor thought patterns (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 608). Hence, why an accountable and salient environment can result in individuals who make independent decisions (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 607).

However, there are moments when conformity could be required, for example, when there is a need to follow rules and regulations (Smith & Bell, 1994, p. 192). Traditionally, such conformity is thought to be a result of warnings and punishments (Smith & Bell, p. 192). However, the harvesting experiment produced contradictory evidence (Smith & Bell, p. 192). Two experiments were tested, in which excessive harvesting was to be met with punishment (Smith & Bell, pp. 193-193). The results showed social information and conformity to implicit group norms played a larger factor in whether or not the individual followed the rules than did the threat of punishment (Smith & Bell, p. 196-197).

Additionally, as Martin & Hewstone (2001) demonstrated, if the individual had a strong attitude against the incoming message, they were less likely to conform to outside pressure. While, if the attitude was moderate in strength, it increased the chances of conformity (as cited in Ciladian & Goldstein, 2004, p. 607).

Conformity behavior also suffers if the individuals’ self-concept is strong (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 611). Tying with the notion of self-concept, Walker & Andrade (1996), demonstrated a possible reason why conformity decreases as age is lowered could be due to the lack of concern young children have for peer approval (Walker & Andrade, 1996, p. 369). Also, it was noted that increasing an individuals confidence and intelligence could result in lowering conformity (Walker & Andrade, p. 368).

Additionally, collectivist countries, more so than individualistic countries, were more inclined to conform to groups (Ciladian & Goldstein, 2004, p. 610).

Obedience

Obedience could be seen as the result of authority derived from one’s position in a hierarchy (Ciladian & Goldstein, 2004, p. 595). One of the most famous experiments on obedience is the Milgram experiment. Milgram demonstrated how easily a civilian can be persuaded to give lethal electric shocks to a random person (Slater., et al, 2006, p 1.). However, ethical issues have been a barrier to studying obedience (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 772).

The advancement in technology has opened up different avenues to study obedience. Slater., et al (2006) took advantage of this trend by replicating Milgram’s paradigm in a virtual world (Slater., et al, 2006, p. 1). Participants sent “shocks” to a virtual individual every time there was a wrong answer, this virtual individual protested as the “shocks” grew in intensity (Slater., et al, p. 6). The participant’s heart rate and perspiration were measured during the task and as the intensity grew, so did stress indicators in the participant (Slater., et al, p. 7). However, not once did the participant stop even though it was made clear that there would be no punishment for stopping. So, as the participant showed clear signs of distress, he or she continued the experiment. This could point towards obedience to authority (Slater., et al, p. 9). This potentially opens avenues for studying obedience without violating ethical guidelines (Slater., et al, p. 9).

The importance of studying obedience cannot be overstated for one of the consequences of organization obedience in the past has been the murder of innocent people during the Holocaust (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 595).

Conclusion

The effects of conformity, compliance, and obedience come with real-world consequences. Salesmen often use techniques that are meant to gain compliance from their targets. Individuals give into explicit or implicit needs to conform in order to get along with others or to gain some kind of advantage. Additionally, obedience without limit can result in horrible tragedies, the kind that was seen in the twentieth century.

Whether it be group factors, individual self-concepts, self-esteem issues, environmental makeup or some emotional cause that leads people to behave in such a manner, it is of importance to understand each phenomenon. Without knowledge, there is a chance a person can be manipulated. This can entail simple matters as purchasing a product that the individual did not want, to changing how an individual thinks, to following orders that lead to horrific consequences.

 

 

 

References

Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-622. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015

Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., … Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PLoS ONE, 1(1), 1-10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039

Smith, J. M., & Bell, P. A. (1994). Conformity as a determinant of behavior in a resource dilemma. The Journal of Social Psychology, 134(2), 191-200. doi 10.1080/00224545.1994.9711382

Walker, M. B., & Andrade, M. G. (1996). Conformity in the Asch task as a function of age. The Journal of Social Psychology, 136(3), 367-373. doi:10.1080/00224545.1996.9714014

Weiten, W., & McCann, D. (2013). Psychology: Themes and variations (3rd Canadian ed.). Toronto, ON: Thomson Nelson.

The Painted Bird & Thoughts On Human Behavior

The Painted Bird is a novel by Jerzy Kosinski and the story is set during the Second World War and it takes place in Eastern Europe. The story follows a young boy who is either a gypsy or of Jewish descent as he travels from one village to another constantly being tormented and mistreated largely due to his social status. Although fictional, one cannot help but learn certain aspects of human behavior through the interaction of groups and communities with the main character. There is truth in the fictional words, scenes, and action, and one truth is how easy it is to behave cruelly towards another human being if that human being is looked at like an outsider.

One example of this is seen at the beginning of the novel, shortly after the boy leaves his initial village and enters a “foreign” community, where he is tired, terrified and starving, the boy lays down in the middle of the road. Instead of being helped, the villagers gather around him and slowly increase their rate of violence, first starting from simply poking the boy to then jabbing him with rakes to eventually hurling rocks at him. His relief comes when a villager stuffs the boy in a burlap sack and takes him to be his servant. The boy is viewed as an animal, perhaps even an object to use, instead of a person to be helped. Kosinski uses the word “mob” when he describes this scene, the mob mentality showing how cruelty towards a child in need can quickly come to be accepted.

Group psychology is often separated between ingroups and outgroups. An in-group is a group with which an individual feels a sense of membership, belonging and identity. Outgroup, on the other hand, are groups with which an individual does not feel a sense of membership, belonging, or identity. Acts of racism, prejudice, and discrimination are often associated with this view where an individual comes to see those out of their group as different, as an “other” and even less than human if one takes this concept to the extreme. In fact, people favor ingroups over outgroups in order to enhance their self-esteem, this is known as the social identity theory.

The idea of the mob or the group mentality is visited throughout the text. The title of the novel is explained in the fifth chapter where the story of the painted bird is told. The idea being, if there is a flock of birds of the same color and then you introduce the same type of bird but this one has its wings painted, the original flock will see it as a threat to their cohesiveness and ability to “blend together” and kill the bird rather than let it join the flock.

Essentially, one who stands out from the group gets killed.

Another truth of the novel is that although our own behavior, thought pattern, and action all play a role in developing our self-identity, this identity is also influenced by the opinions of others. The boy comes to believe that he is possessed by an evil spirit because others believe that he is and punish him for it. He also comes to see that everything bad that happens to him is because he is bad, that it is his fault because others constantly blame the boy for any mishap. Later on, the boy believes that the beatings he has suffered throughout his life were because he had not prayed enough. This idea is implanted in him by the priest he encounters.

This idea is later explored when the boy is saved from his misery by the Red Army. He views his saviors as gallant, brave, courageous, all the positive aspects he could think of and begins to identify himself with these people. Soon he starts to feel a sense of pride with his new group. When he wears his groups uniform he feels good, when he hears stories of his group winning, he feels as if he is winning. When the group does good, he does good.

Another aspect of human behavior that is explored in the text is the idea that a group needs someone to blame when bad things happen otherwise it will turn on itself. People always need someone to blame for their misfortune and when that someone is presented, all that hate is focused on them and this displaced attitude brings people relief for a moment. A scene that depicts this notion is that of the rats in the bunker. Alone, the rats eat each other but when a man falls into the bunker, the rats direct their hunger towards the man and begin to eat him for the time being.

Although the novel has a happy ending, the boy finds his family again, it is hard to consider the story to be a happy one. The damage suffered during his adolescent years will impact his cognitive and physical growth and also how he interacts with others. This aspect is not explored in the novel but one can infer that the boy will live a troubled life, which is another truth about human behavior. One cannot simply block out their experiences. The experiences build upon one another, intermingling with that individual’s genetics, to produce a human being’s psychological state. The boy will be damaged as were the real individuals who participated in the Second World War either voluntarily or involuntarily. The group dynamics impacting the war as it impacts much of societal makeup.

 

Short Story: A Hero’s Welcome

The falling snow slowly drifted side to side with the help of the wind, coming to a halt on the ground where it first covered the footprints of men, women, and children that had gone before him and after that, it melted, wetting the stairs which he climbed towards the open doors of the Branchwood community center.

Once inside he handed his coat to the boy working at the front desk who quickly went in the back and through the glass window in the wall, he saw the boy deposit his coat into a locker and came back with a red slip in his hand with the number twenty-two written on it. He thanked the boy who stared at his uniform and the patches on his right arm with wide eyes barely acknowledging his words for the uniform spoke louder.

The boy said ‘you’re welcome, sir.’

As he stepped through the main door of the hall, his ears were filled with the sound of drums and a saxophone and the deep voice of the man singing in the corner of the room. No one was on the dance floor yet except for little children dressed in their Sunday best. They looked like little grown-ups and not by their choice. The open hall was lit by the various chandeliers and also by candlelight, one candle placed in the center of every table around which people gathered, drinking and conversing.

Before he could take another step into the hall a hand reached out towards him and he shook it. The man introduced himself but he quickly forgot the name. He was mesmerized for a moment by the man’s thick grey mustache as he thanked him for his service and said something about how proud he had made them all. The attention drawn by the mustached man caused a small queue of people to quickly surrounded him. Some of them wrapping their arms around his shoulders as if they were long-lost friends but his friends were all long lost. He looked over the head of the little black-haired man who owned the butcher shop to see where his mother and father were. He spotted them standing beside the Mr. Felmond the president of the community. They saw him and waved. His mother’s tiny hands were kept warm by the gloves, she always suffered badly during the winter. 

He excused himself from the others who were still surrounding him and made directly for his parents. Before he could get to them, he found his path blocked once again and this time the touch was gentler and the perfumed scent of cherry wood brought back memories of his sister and he remembered he had one and he embraced the woman tighter.

“How have you been?” He asked her as he took her in. She wasn’t a girl anymore but to him, she was too him. She wiped her eyes, green like those shattered trees broken into pieces by bullets and artillery, their evergreen branches sticking out of the snow-covered crowd, limbs of wood, limbs of flesh and the green of the trees reminded him of his sisters eyes at first but slowly he had forgotten those eyes and now they were staring into his own. She mumbled something trying her best to hold back her tears and he simply nodded as if he understood her. He hugged her again and together they went up to their parents. 

“Oh!” he heard his mother say before she buried her head in his chest.

“Let me get a good look at him.” His father said and his mother reluctantly let go. “You’re a man know aren’t you. Look at you.” His father studied him from head to toe as his mother and sister stood side by side. He wore the black boots that were given to him when he first entered the service, they were only to be worn during special occasions which came far and few during the war but now that was all he wore because ever since the war ended he had been chaperoned from one dinner to the next. His pants were simple and navy colored with no a crease on them for he had ironed them himself and under his uniform, he wore a button up that was too big for him and the coat was too big around his shoulders as well. He stood with his hands behind his back holding his officer’s hat, his thumb tracing the brim of the cap, his hair neatly parted to one side. He tried his best to smile and for once he didn’t find it difficult for his father and mother were there in front of him. His sister was taller than his mother now, he had missed so much. His father grabbed his shoulders and squeezed them, the man was old but his grip was still strong and his father laughed, as his eyes grew brighter. He looked away and wiped his eyes.

“He’s a man know.” He said again this time to his mother who nodded in agreement. “It’s good to have you back.” The two of them shook hands awkwardly. He hadn’t known his father to be emotional. When he left for Europe three years ago his father had shaken his hand then too and told him he was proud of him. It was the first time he had heard his father say those words.

“You made us all proud.” He said as he let go of his hand.

It was Mr. Felmond’s turn now to touch the man of the hour. He had turned to expect a handshake but instead found Mr. Felmond’s arms wrapped around him.

“Welcome home, welcome home.” Mr. Felmond said. “You look too thin. What were they feeding you over there.” He smiled looking around at his parents. “Don’t worry now, son, you’re going be begging us to stop feeding you by the time this nights over.”

He merely smiled and nodded. His throat was dry. The shot of whiskey he had in the car had left him desiring more and he could feel the weight of his flask in the inside of his uniform and also the letter. His father had never seen him drink so he felt guilty doing it in front of him. Even now, after all that he had been through, he could not gather the courage to reach inside of his uniform and take out the flask so he stood there as Mr. Felmond and his parents talked about how proud they were of him.

“Are you hungry?” His mother asked.

“I could eat.” He replied.

“I’ll show him where the food is,” his sister said driving her arm in between his right and holding him tightly in fear of losing him again and he liked that. She led him away from their parents and Mr. Felmond.

“That Felmond still talks too much.” He said and his sister laughed.

“Would you mind grabbing me a plate? I wished to listen to the music a little while. Its been too long.” She left as he sat down near the band. Even mediocre sounds sound wonderful once deprived of music. His ears were used to the shouts of his commanding officers, the untimely cries, loud claps that mimicked thunder, whistles that impersonated trains and the unsilenced silence.

He preferred the old man who sung now over anything he had ever heard. To him he was as good as it gets. He hoped that at night it would be this old man’s voice that meets him in his dreams but those hopes were shallow ones for he knew what awaited him when he closed his eyes.

He reached inside his uniform and turned his back to everyone that was looking at him. Watching the man play the saxophone he took a deep gulp of his flask and the whiskey washed down his throat and his thirst subsided for now. He put away the flask and closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them again his sister was there with her green eyes and a plate of food and a cup of juice.

“I saw something very interesting while I was over there.” His sister said.

“What might that be?” If his father had said those words his mind would have jumped to the flask and he would have felt guilty having his father see him drink. His sister was different. She would understand but at the same time, he didn’t want her to see either.

“That Jessica Owens can’t keep her eyes off of you.” He slowly turned around and glanced at the table where four women sat in the center was Jessica Owens who quickly looked away when she saw him looking and then slowly brought her gaze back to him and hesitating for a moment before waving. He turned his back to her and went back to his food.

“What’s wrong?” His sister asked. “Go over there and talk to her.” He was used to taking orders but for once he didn’t have to follow them.

“What’s the point? Besides I’m not in the mood.”

“Not in the mood! I thought you liked her too.”

“That was years ago.”

“What’s so different now?”

He quickly drank his juice and stretched back watching the drummer play with his eyes closed as he saw through his fingers and the tips of the drumstick. 

“Tell me about the war.”

His sister was leaning in towards him with her chin resting on the palm of her hand. “What did you see? How pretty was France? I always wanted to go there. Did you go to Paris? Is the Eiffel Tower like the pictures? I bet its even better in person right? I can’t wait to see it.” She stopped to take a breath and waited for his response.

“Only saw Paris briefly and yes the tower is better in person.”

“I’m so jealous. I wish I could have gone too.”

“I didn’t go there to see the sights.”

“I know but they were there. I bet you’ll never forget them.”

“No. I’ll never forget.”

He felt a hand on his shoulders and heard Stephen Cornberry’s voice. He shook hands with the man he had known before. Stephen lived on the same street as him when they were kids and the two had grown up together.

“It’s been too long.” Stephen took a seat beside him. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting.”

“No, not all. You two catch, for now, I’ll have him later.” His sister said rising from her chair and leaving the two of them.

For a moment neither of them said anything. 

“How have you been?” Stephen broke the silence.

“Good. And you?”

“Can’t complain. I work for a bank now you know, as an accountant.”

“Is it good money?”

“Can’t complain about that either.” He looked the same as he did before but just taller. Stephen adjusted his glasses and swiped the hair on his forehead to one side. “Man I wish I had a drink right about now.” He said.

He reached into his uniform and pulled out the metal flask and handed it to Stephen who let out a short laugh. “You always had the answers.” He said before undoing the top and taking a swig.

“Later some of us guys were going to go out. You should come along.” He took the flask from Stephen and looked to see where his father was and when he saw him talking to his sister he took a sip himself and put the flask back inside his pocket. “What do you say? It’ll be on me. I know you can’t turn down a free night.” He smiled and patted him on his leg as if the two knew each other.

“I’ll think about it.” He said.

They sat in silence. Stephen’s foot tapping along with the beat of the music. There were a few more people now on the dance floor and Jessica Owens was one of them. The two of them caught eyes once more, her eyes, her lips, her look, her hips, all calling him to come join her.

He looked away again.

“Heard about poor Barry. His parents are here somewhere.”

He clenched his jaw, watching the windows behind the drummer fog up, it looked like mist.

“What was he? 19? 20?”

“18.”

“Terrible. So young. A good boy I guess, good man I should say.”

He stayed quiet.

“I always envied the two of you. Here I was sitting in a classroom while you and Barry had an adventure of a lifetime a real mans journey you know. Nothing like it can be duplicated from inside a four-walled room with some old man teaching you about numbers you know what I mean?”

“Suppose so.”

“You’re braver than I’ll ever be that’s for sure. I could only dream of going over but you and Barry did.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t call me brave.”

Stephen raised his eyebrows and sucked in his lips. “Whatever you wish.”

The music played and people talked and laughed around him and he watched the snow fall.

“How was it over there?” Stephen asked once the music stopped the players took a quick break to rest their hands and throats. A waiter brought them each a drink on a silver tray and the people dancing also rested their feet with a slight glisten of sweat on their foreheads and back of their necks. “I mean…how are you really doing?”

“Fine.”

“Good. That’s good to hear. I met another veteran on a business trip not too long ago and to tell you the truth he seemed a bit off if you know what I mean. It was his eyes really. They were hollow. Drawn in. Lost.” He noticed Stephen was staring at the cloth that was spread over the table rather than looking at him. “Even the way he talked was different.”

“I’ve seen it too.” The same eyes stared back at him each morning. “It’s different now for them. For us. Things are different but they’ll get used to it.” Used to the beds and the food and the peaceful sounds of life.

“Yeah. Come out with us tonight then. Get back to the normal. We’ll show you how we do things now.” He patted him on the shoulder.

“I’ll think about it.” He said again.

“Anyways,” Stephen let out a belly full of air as he got to his feet, “have to make some time for the wife before we go out.” He said. “It was nice catching up and make sure you think about it okay?”

He nodded and the two shook hands and Stephen left.

The snow fell sideways now as the wind picked up causing it to slant away from him as he stood near the footsteps of the community center with his jacket unzipped so that his uniform was still visible in the middle. The smoke of his breath mixed with the smoke of the cigarette and together it drifted towards the dark skies before being cut through by the wind. The mist leaving him and not crawling, inching towards him. One thing he liked about the war was that at night he could see the stars. Standing outside now he couldn’t see anything but the pale that fell and the dark that blanketed them. He used to count the stars when he was on gunner duty at night. He would count them over and over again distracting his mind so that it would not hear the mercy cries of the soldier wounded in the middle. They cried not for help or rescue but for simple death.

He had gone over wishing that he would make it back with stories of grandeur. Then he wished to simply stay alive, then he was content with his passing as long as it was a quick death, then he prayed for a painful one and now for a simple one.

Beside his flask, he felt the letter he had written filled with false excuses of why he didn’t make it. But the look of disappointment on his mother’s face formed in his mind as he wrote the lies and he couldn’t bear to let her down. He had come after all but now he wished he hadn’t because each time he heard someone praise him he saw the suffocated face of Barry Andrews.

The door of the community center opened and he turned his head to see who it was and he found himself surprised to see Jessica Owens in her red dress the same as her lips and her black heels that clicked on the wet concrete the clicking soon stopped as she stepped on the thin layer of snow at top of the final step where he was standing smoking.

Am I interrupting?” She asked.

He let out smoke from the corner of his mouth away from her.

“No, ma’am. Just getting a little smoke. Would you like one?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Oh.”

They stood there, as snow fell away from them neither talking both waiting for the other to say something. He just wanted to smoke in peace but even that was taken away from him.

“Aren’t you cold ma’am?” he said looking at her bare arms.

“Its Jessica. And no. Dancing always makes me hot.”

He nodded, confirming her statement.

“Can I ask you something?” She said.

“Sure.”

“How come you didn’t come talk to me?”

He was glad that he had his coat on. His uniform would not have hidden the redness around his neck.

“Was I meant to?”

“I suppose not. I guess it must be difficult getting back into the norms of things because from what I know when a pretty girl smiles at you it usually means she wants to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry. I guess we’re talking now.”

“That we are. So, ask me how I’m doing. That’s the normal thing to do you know.”

“How are you doing?”

“Not well for a while but better now that I’ve finally got this man’s attention.”

He finished his smoke and dropped the last nub on the ground where she crushed it with the heel of her shoe.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?”

“I’m not much of a dancer.”

“I can teach you.”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Its nothing. I teach kids and I’m sure you’ll be easier than a five-year-old.”

“I think you’ll be surprised.”

She laughed. He managed to smile to and for once it didn’t feel forced.

“You know I am getting cold now.”

He made to take off his coat but she stopped him.

“No, it’s all right. I’ll be going inside now and I expect my dance Mr. hero.”

He didn’t say anything.

She leaned closer and kissed him on the cheek. She wiped the red lipstick stain left behind with the palm of her hand before walking back. The clicking sound returning and for a brief moment the muffled noises grew to coherent tones and the door closed and with it, the muffled sounds returned.

She was sitting with her friends and the band was playing a new song. Faster than the one before. He looked around for his mother and father. He spotted Stephens talking to a woman who he assumed was his wife. Beside them was a little boy, their son he thought. He found his sister with a group of girls chatting and drinking wine. At last, he spotted his mother and father. For the first time, his parents were alone. They were seated in the front of the hall under the bright lights of a chandelier eating steak by the candlelight. He was making his way towards his mother to let her know he wasn’t feeling well and that he had to leave when he heard his name called. He turned to see where the sound came from and when he did see, he felt his throat close up. Mr. Andrews called for him, and his wife Martha was there too. Without willing, his feet carried him towards the old married couple. Mr. Andrews’s white hair was neatly combed to the right and his black suspenders were visible underneath his white shirt over which he had his unbuttoned coat. His wife stared at him through her large glasses and Barry did too for the mother and son both shared the same blue eyes the ones that he saw the life fly out off but not the accusation. She had a sad smile on her face as she leaned on her walking stick having broken her hip a month before or so his mother told him over the mail.

“How are you?” Mr. Andrews asked as he sat down beside the tired couple. There was a dark ring underneath Mr. Andrews’s eyes.

“Very well sir.” He said staring at the flickering candle flame.

“Its good to see you again.”

“You too sir.”

“Samantha and Lenard must be so happy to have you back.”

From the corner of his eyes, he saw Mrs. Andrews raise her wrinkled hand to her face.

“What are you planning on doing now?”

“I haven’t thought much about it, sir.”

“I hope you’re still reading son.” He had once been his English teacher in another lifetime.

“I’m afraid I have fallen behind. But I’ll do so now.”

“That’s understandable. You always had the eye for a good sentence.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“If you need anything you can always come to us.”

“Thank you.”

“Barry wanted to be a fireman.” Mrs. Andrews said softly.

“Yes dear. He did.”

“He would have been a good one too.”

“Yes dear. He would have.”

He swallowed hard the spit in his mouth and it hurt going down his dry throat. He wanted his flask and whatever was left inside.

“You know he was given a medal for his service.” Mrs. Andrews said proudly.

“I know ma’am.”

“Was he a good soldier?”

“Come on dear. Don’t ask such things.”

“I just…wanted to know.” He saw her raise her hand to her face again. Mr. Andrews took a deep breath and asked him how the roads were coming here and he told them they were fine.

“He was a good soldier and a brave one too ma’am.”

The elderly couple lamented over those words. He was sure they rather have the boy here with them and be called a coward instead of being buried in a nameless grave on some piece of dirt in France with a bravery tag to his name. But in the end, they had to find contentment somehow and if it made them content that their boy was a good and brave then so be it.

“Is it still snowing?” Mr. Andrews asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh dear, maybe we should leave before the roads get any worse.” Mrs. Andrews said.

“Would you mind walking us out to our car? I imagine those stairs are awfully slippery and Martha with her hip…”

“It’s not a problem.” He stood up and without looking at Mrs. Andrews he helped her to her feet and the old woman clutched to his right arm as she walked with her walker in the other. It was a motherly embrace he had known of it from his own mother and he dared not look at either one of them.

“You know we always liked you, son.” Mr. Andrews said. “Barry did too.”

He wished they would stop calling him son.

“When we heard that you were coming back we were so happy. Tell him, Martha. We were happy weren’t we?”

“Yes dear, very happy.”

The elderly couple got their winter coats from the front desk. The wind was harsher now and he carefully helped Mrs. Andrews down the steps and over the slippery sidewalk and the wet parking lot floor to their black Volvo.

“Be sure to come by now.” Mrs. Andrews said squeezing his hand and he stared at the black shinning concrete ground and nodded.

“We are your family too okay? Don’t forget that.” Mr. Andrews said through the open window of his driver’s seat. “Come by anytime.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you hear dear he said Barry was a good soldier and brave too.” He heard Mrs. Andrews say once the old couple was inside.

His neatly combed hair was stuck to his head as the melting snow lay wet on it and he could not feel the tips of his fingers or the top of his ears for the cold came harshly now that his mind was no longer concerned about the old couple. He reached into his uniform for warmth and found it as his hands wrapped around the cold metal of the flask and the warmth spread through his mouth down his throat and reached even as far his toes as he placed the empty flask back in his uniform. He felt the letter beside it and took it out. Here was the clear evidence of his cowardice. The reason why the medals that were given to him or the officer’s cap did not belong to him. Why bravery was a term left for the dead for the likes of Barry Andrews. He crumpled the page in his fist and threw it aside and watched it get wet as the snow fell on it.

He made his way back up the concrete steps, wet and slippery so he had to use the railing to carefully climb them. He wanted to tell everyone what had actually happened. What he had actually done over there. He had to tell someone.

As climbed the last step the hall doors opened.

“Oh, here you are, my man, we been looking for you,” Stephen said putting his arm around his shoulder. “Did you think about it yet? We’re all going now. Come on man, join us.”

He looked at the faces of the other two men who were with Stephen and he knew the men but he could not remember their names.

“It’ll be like old times. You, me, Abe and Marshall together again. Just come and have a drink with us.”

Abraham Donovan was a tall man with broad shoulders and his tie was loosely hanging around his neck. “We won’t take no for answer.” He said smiling his toothless smile. The front tooth knocked out when he was thirteen and he broke his fall with his mouth outside of Stephen’s house. Since than Abraham had left it broken because he preferred the way he looked in the mirror.

Marshall Hannigan, on the other hand, had his shirt neatly tucked and his tie properly worn and he took off his glasses and wiped them using the brim of his overcoat and put them back on his face. “What do you say? Old times sake.”

“Hell Marsh is even coming and you have no idea how hard it is now to get this old man out of his house. Or should I say his wives house.” Stephen and Abraham laughed and before he knew it he was walking back down the steps that he had so carefully climbed moments before along with the three men.

“I should tell someone that I’m leaving.”

“I already told Anne,” Stephen said. “She said to take it easy on her brother and I told her I can’t promise nothing. So don’t worry about it.”

He was trapped. On one side Stephen held his arm and on the other Abraham. Marshall led the way down the sidewalk as snow swooped sideways crashing into the side of their faces and all of them walked with their heads tucked slightly looking to their right. Marshall flagged down a cab and they all jumped inside. Marshall sat in the front beside the driver and told him where to go.

“Things have changed mighty since you left,” Abraham said when he asked them where they were going. “We’ll take you to a nice little spot a bit outside the town. Don’t worry. It’s great.” He winked at Stephen who smiled and looked outside.

“Tell us something then, how many Germans did you kill?” Abraham asked.

“Don’t ask him things like that,” Marshall said from the front seat.

“I don’t know.” He answered.

“But you killed some right?”

“I guess so.”

“Goddammit, I knew I should have gone too. You got no clue how boring this town is.”

“And you got no clue how horrible war is,” Stephen said.

“And you do?” Abraham said.

“No, but I’m no fool either. Hell, I rather be here than be there. Don’t be delusional Abe because if you went there you wouldn’t be here.”

“Enough about that already,” Marshall said.

“You’re right. Instead of asking him about killing we should really be asking him about the French women.” Stephen nudged in the side with his elbow. “Are they as beautiful as the pictures?”

“Depends on the picture.”

“HA!” Abe slapped him on the knee “there’s the old boy we knew. You still go it.”

“They must have been throwing themselves at your feet. Hero from far away lands come here to save them and all.”

“It was nothing like that.”

Stephen failed to hear him. “You’re a lucky dog, my man. If only we had what you and Barry…”

The cab fell silent and the slight patter of wet snow hitting the windows could be heard.

Abraham cleared his throat and asked him if he saw Barry pass and Marshall protested once more to Abraham’s questions. 

“I did.” He said.

“Was it peaceful at least?”

“It was not.”

“Yeah.” Abraham shook his big head. “We read about Ypres. The gas. How awful. Damn those German bastards.”

Stephen mumbled something that sounded like what Abraham had just said.

“I have killed only one man who I know of and probably others too but with all the shells flying I could never be sure if it was my shot or someone else’s that made the boys across from me fall. Damn the Germans but they were no different from Barry and I and damn them and damn us and damn the whole thing.”

“I hear that,” Abraham said looking out through the dark window.

“You think much about what’ll you do now that the wars over and done with?” Marshall asked.

“Yeah, some.”

“We’re always looking for new workers at the mill,” Abraham said.

“I don’t think I’m much suited for that.”

“Come work with me at the bank,” Stephen said. “Good job. Good pay. Respectable. Besides I’m sure I can get you in.”

“Yeah maybe.”

“No one is going to deny a veteran. Once I tell Mr. Pressfield everything you did overseas and your promotions and the medals you won I’m sure he’ll be begging me to get you.”

“Yeah? I’ll think about it.”

“We’re here.”

In flashes came the memories of that night as he climbed the wooden staircase led by a woman who held his hand. Everywhere he went they told the bartender who he was and what he had done and they were all given drinks on the house. He had failed to take out his wallet at all the whole night as the other men at the bars offered to buy him shots and he could not refuse the offers for it helped him forget why they were buying him the drinks.

The woman smelled nice and he heard others downstairs talking. They came upon a hallway and he passed a door that was still ajar and he saw Abraham inside it with another woman. He felt hot. Snow fell as he passed a darkened window. He saw himself taking his uniform off to show the shrapnel scars on his left arm to a group of men crowded around the dim light of the Irish pub. That had gotten him enough drinks to forget that he had ever stepped foot in France.

Whatever this place was it smelled heavily of perfume so much so as if it too was hiding its true scent, masking it with a false aroma. He heard Stephen voice through a closed-door and he called out for his acquaintance. Right in here, sweetie, he heard the woman tell him and he followed her hips inside the room. I need to take a bath he told her and she made no protest as if she had been asked such services before. That’ll be extra she said and he didn’t know why a simple bath in his home would cost him money but the headache erased any thoughts of protest.

“Come right in here General,” the woman said, “and take off your boots.” He took them off and then his socks and he felt the coldness of the bathroom tiles and he heard the tap squeal and rush of water drain into a white tub.

She undressed him. First taking off his uniform coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. After, she proceeded to untie his tie and unbutton his buttoned shirt. Both went over the coat and he wanted to tell her that’s not how his uniform is meant to be put away but the soft touch of her lips on his made him forget everything he was thinking. She twirled her finger around the crisscrossed pattern of the shrapnel scar left on his arm and she asked if it hurt when he got it and he nodded. Very much he said. She got on her knees and began tugging on his belt and he told her he could do the rest but she batted his hand away. Not every day do you get to service a war hero she said smiling and for a moment her red lips reminded him of Jessica Owens and he asked her if she was Jessica and she said she can be whoever he liked. He asked her if she can be his mother and she hesitated before replying. I didn’t take you for a man with such requests but can’t say I haven’t had that one before she said. Mother, he called out for her, as he stood bare in the middle of the bathroom. He looked himself in the mirror and noticed how frail he looked. He held his mother’s hand as he carefully stepped into the bathwater that was lukewarm and slightly steaming. The warmth spread this time from his toes to his neck as he submerged himself up to his ears. Mist rose from the bath. He saw the red lips moving but only heard muffled noises until he sat up.

“I never slept with a hero before. The closest I ever got was this one man who said he saved his nephew from a fire but I don’t believe him.” His mother stroked back his hair.

“I’m not a hero, mother.”

“Of course you are dear. You’re mommy’s little hero.”

“No. No. No.”

“Don’t be so stubborn. Of course, my boy is a hero.” She felt his scar on his back this time. “Proof right here. Here too.” She touched his arm.

“No. No. No.” He shook his head each time. “I’m just a coward, mother.”

“You’re friends told me that you’re a general or something.”

“Captain.”

“Well, would they make a coward a captain?”

“They did.”

“Here sit up straight so I can wash you’re back.”

He did what his mother asked him.

“I need to talk to God.”

“What’s that dear?”

“I have to talk to someone. Make a confession of my cowardice.”

“There’s a Church not far from here. The old Priest comes in here every now and then trying to save our souls as he puts it.” His mother laughed. “Never leaves until we save his first.”

“Is he coming in today?”

“Who knows. Maybe.” The palm of her hands made circles on the mid of his back. Soft hands for what she was. The hands moved up his back and caressed his neck.

“I hope he comes. I must confess.”

“Confess to me, dear. I am your mother you know.” He tilted his head back and saw her red lips grow as she bent down to kiss his forehead.

“Okay.”

“Tell me what you wish to tell God.”

“You remember Barry, mother?”

“Of course dear.”

“I saw him die.”

“Well, that doesn’t make you a coward.”

“I saw him die because I was too cowardly to die myself. I took his, no I stole his mask I had to please believe me I had to. The mist was coming and he was going to die anyway. A had been struck in the stomach and in the leg and maybe the shoulder too. He was going to die anyways but why should I die too? Those bastards shot my gas mask and forced me to do it. Please understand. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But the mist was coming.  We needed the masks and Barry had one. He was going to die anyway. Why should I die too? I took his. I pried it from his hands. He begged, mother, he begged for his life and I begged for my own and he was hurt, bleeding bad, the green around us stained with his blood he was going to die anyways mother please believe me. I took the mask from him and he crawled towards me and I crawled away from him and he clawed at my boot and I kicked him away. He kept staring at me as the mist came towards us and he still stares at me at night and I need God’s forgiveness to make those blue eyes close and the pain behind them go away, I need him like Barry needed that mask when the mist took us. Those pained eyes grew larger still and he clawed at his throat this time trying to breathe. I should have shot him but remember, mother, I am a coward. Useless. He was going to die anyway he was bleeding worse now. He scratched open his throat and I see it mother, at night I see it again I see it ever since. He talks to me each night but he can’t talk no more for his throat is closed from the chemicals but his eyes talk still. Disappointed. Coward. Murderer. They call me but he was going to die anyway, mother. Please. Make him go away.”

The water was cold and his mother had left him long ago. He was alone with the sound of his tears dripping into the puddle of water his drip creating a small ripple that he watched grow and disappear just for another one to take its place. His knees were stuck to his chest and his arms wrapped around it a babe lost and scared looking for his mother waiting for her to return.

Outside the snow drifted silently with the dead wind gone. It buried the pathways and the roads and the prints of those that came before. A fresh blanket but underneath it was the same grey streets.

He got out of the bath and dried himself. He got dressed and left the money on the dressing table for the woman was asleep in the bed. The church bells rang. Snow fell on the brim of his officer’s hat and on his uniform and he walked until the sound of the bells died away. There would be no sleep tonight but he hoped for some one day.

Stoic Lessons: Epictetus On Progress

How do you know if you have made progress?

Epictetus viewed progress by what you have put into practice. Someone who is able to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. It doesn’t matter if you have read books on impulse control or on avoiding desires. Rather, are you less impulsive than before? What desires have you successfully avoided? This is where the measurement of progress can be seen.

While books can show you the way, one has to put into practice what that way is and not simply stare at it, being content at having learned about something which will soon leave them. As all things do when not consistently practiced. But once that learning is put into practice, through repetition those lessons learned become engrained into your movements, into your habits and one gets a deeper, a more innate understanding of those lessons. Thus, progress is made.

Progress is seen in someone who attends to their character, cultivating it and improving their character. Someone who understands the limitations of their control and what is under their influence. Someone who lives with their ideas from the moment they wake up to when they go to sleep.

Or, one can think of it this way, what would be considered a lack of progress?

For Epictetus, the attitude like “poor me” where one pities themselves and blames external circumstances for their position in life is one clear sign of a lack of progress. If nothing else, avoidance of such an attitude maybe progress.

Stoic Lessons: Epictetus On What Is In Our Power & What Is Not

In the course of life, an individual faces many obstacles. Financial hardships, relationship problems, disruptions in set plans, moments of weakness, environmental barriers, cultural barriers and many more.

To Epictetus, almost all of these disruptions fall into the realm of things that are out of one’s control. Except for moments of weakness, we have influence over such a thing because Epictetus believed that we have the power to control our positive and negative impulses. The power to make good use of impressions. Impressions being things that have an effect on the mind.

The ability to reason allows us to controls these impressions. With reason comes judgment about what is good for us and what is bad for us. Reason allows us to plan a course of action that is the most beneficial for us. Reason can also halt any negative temptations, for we always know what the right thing to do is, while the right action is what can be troublesome and can cause moments of weakness because the right action can be difficult. However, reason can show us that it is the correct path.

Reason is twofold: It can analyze other objects but it can also analyze itself and see whether or not we are applying the correct reason or if decisions and actions based on reason are correct. Because reason can correct itself, it is considered to be one of Man’s greatest gifts. For Epictetus, the ability to reason is superior to other abilities like writing or music for example, because words cannot tell you if it is a good thing to write them or music cannot tell you when is the proper time to play an instrument. Reason, on the other hand, can analyze itself and tell you what the proper use of itself is.

Reason is one of the few things under our control and hence, it requires our attention. Rather than worrying about things we have no influence on, one must dedicate their thinking to what they can control. Namely, reason, as well as their attitudes and their will.

Attitude towards the hardship one faces in life can be the difference between moving forward or allowing the hardship to break you. Death and your dying are not under your control but your attitude towards it is. One can face their mortality by either being weighed down by the inevitable or by making use of the limited time they have. It’s an attitude towards life and time that needs to be practiced.

Epictetus referred to this practice as the practice of what is necessary. What is necessary is the use of reason, control of one’s emotions and molding an attitude towards life. Practice is the key term here. By using such a word, Epictetus puts forth the notion that one needs to develop, hone and enhance the things under their control. That one is not innately born with the ability to make use of what is in their control. Hence, one has to use life and the obstacles it presents as opportunities to improve upon their reason, attitude, and control.

Perhaps get to the point where one is like Agrippinus, who was well aware of the lack of control he has over his life and so, was not bothered by things which were out of his control. So much so, that he would often say that he did not add to his own troubles. Which is the right attitude. Life will add many troubles, it doesn’t need your assistance.

And so, one should learn from Agrippinus and try to emulate his reason and behavior for he had this to say of his exile and eventual death:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.

 

Short Story: Senior

The day of the promotion Junior felt a surge of excitement which he had not felt in a long time. Last time might have been when he was accepted into his college program, which he still hoped to complete one day. He still kept the acceptance letter in his desk drawer at work, occasionally taking it out and reading it over again, thinking about how it would have felt if he had been able to graduate. Now, however, he had another letter, one that informed him of his promotion. He carried that with him in his breast pocket so he could show his father.

He knocked on his father’s door and waited. No one answered at first so, he knocked again. This time he heard his father’s footsteps which fell upon the floor with authority, whose verdict he heard under his own boots, as he felt his father come closer. The steps were not hurried. They were always in control. The door sprang open and his father stretched across the gaping door. Junior could tell his father had dressed quickly for he simply wore his robe with no undershirt and he could see his father’s broad chest and specks of grey hair that covered it. Junior found himself lowering his head as if he were bowing, a natural reaction in the presence of his father.

“Is it Friday already?” His father voice was deep and his lips barely moved. There were hints of facial hair on his father’s chin.

“No pa, it’s still Wednesday.”

“Of course I know what day it is, you think I’m that far gone?”

Junior smiled, embarrassed at taking his father’s question literally. His father often joked and asked questions that didn’t need answers but he found himself answering them anyway.

“I thought you only came to see your old man on Friday’s?”

His father stepped back, allowing Junior space to come inside. Junior squeezed past his father who closed the door behind them. His father was a big man, Junior had to look up to speak to him. His shoulders were still strong for someone his age, his chest still stuck out further than his belly even though men his age often had a fuller belly. But his father had always taken care of himself. His father pulled him in for an embrace. There was a musky smell to him as if he had just been exercising. His father let him go and like a little child, Junior found himself staring up at his father.

“So, what’s the special occasion?” He asked.

Before Junior could answer his father started for the kitchen and Junior hurried to keep up with his father’s long strides.

“I was just making some coffee. You want some?”

“Sure.”

“You like sugar in it?”

“Two teaspoons.”

“I don’t have any. The doctor said to lay off so I’ve been having it black. It might be too bitter for you.”

“I think I can handle it.” He said.

“You sure? I guess you’re a grown boy now.”

Junior sat down on the kitchen table and watched his father pour two cups of coffee. He felt for the letter in his breast pocket and waited for the right time to show his father.

“How’s Emily?”

His father joined him at the table, placing a cup of coffee in front of Junior.

Junior felt the warmth through the mug as he lifted the cup to his lip. His father was not lying when he said the coffee was bitter but he could see his father watching him so he took another sip and acted as if it was good.

“Better now, she’s almost over her cold,” Junior said, lowering the cup down to the table.

His father spread out on the chair and faced towards Junior. Junior felt as if he was back in school, in the principle’s office having to answer for something he did wrong. That feeling quickly passed but before he could bring up the letter, his father spoke.

“I have been meaning to thank her for letting an old man like me stay with you for those few months.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to thank. It was the least we could do.”

“I must have been a real nuisance for you to get rid of me so quickly.”

His father smiled before taking a sip of his coffee.

Junior could not meet his father’s eyes as he stared at the table top where his coffee cup was, watching the steam rise. Although his father had been a difficult house guest for he needed so much attention, Junior could never bring himself to tell the truth to his father. Instead, he had told his father that it would be better for him if he had his own place, a sense of independence. Of course, his father must have seen through the partial lie as he often hinted at the truth.

“No, it was never like that.” Junior’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper, it was as if his father’s gaze could change his tone, manipulate his words, cause the letters to come out quickly, in a hurried manner as if he were out of breath.

“Come on, I’m only joking,” his father’s strong hand struck Junior on the shoulder, “we can joke with one another, can’t we? That’s what men do. Your mother never understood it but I told her that it’s all play between us.”

Junior replied with a smile and a soft, “yes,” that was barely audible and sounded more like a deep exhale.

“But I must say, I would like to see my boy and his bride more than once a week, you know, I’m an old man now, not much left for me in this life, if I can’t even get my blood to come to see me, what am I still doing here?”

The truth in those words could not be ignored. They were true because they were Junior’s own thoughts. He had often felt as if he had not been doing enough as a son. His father had done so much for him that he felt a sense of debt to his father which he was not sure he could ever pay back.

Junior always felt the burden of his father’s shadow. He carried in his heart the notion that he had failed to live up to his father’s sacrifices. He had watched his father slowly change as he lost his youth, working, taking care of Junior, waiting for the day Junior would be able to take care of him. But that day had taken too long and in the meantime, his father had become wasted. He still recalled the day when his father got sick and could no longer work. He had a bad heart and the doctor told him he needed long periods of rest. Junior offered his help, he felt obliged to do so after all his father had done for him. Junior understood his father’s hesitation to quit his work. How could his boy run when he had never even learned to walk?

Which was why the new promotion meant so much to Junior. With the new promotion, he felt as if he had finally arrived in life. He had concrete proof that his father’s sacrifices were not for nothing. More so, it was proof that he could do something good with his life. He had often wondered if he was capable like his father if he could work as hard as his old man, for he had never been much of a worker. It was a comfort that his father had provided him. In such comfortability, he felt softened. Such thoughts had plagued Junior’s mind for a long time.

“I know pa, I’ve been meaning to come more often but work’s got us busy—”

“Ah yes, how are you liking my old job?”

“About that—“

“Do they still talk about me or have they forgotten about the old workhorse?”

“They remember, pa, how can they forget someone like you?”

“What good is a horse if he can’t gallop,” his father said, his voice flat and toneless as if he were making a statement to himself.

Junior had quickly found work as a manager in a company. It was the same company his father used to work at. The workers often talked to him about his father. At first, they simply asked about his father’s health but as they started to know Junior and get comfortable around him, they would tell him about how intimidating his father was. This often happened once they had a few drinks after work. One of the workers, George, even said that his father had made him cry one day. Many recalled his father’s stare when the work wasn’t done properly. The workers were glad Junior was not like his father. However, Junior, upon hearing such complaints felt he needed to speak on his father behalf and he told the workers that his father was just under a lot of stress especially after his mother had passed away.

At work, Junior quickly gained the reputation for working hard, something that he had desired for he was not sure he had such a trait in him. For two years he sacrificed his vacation times and most weekends to put in extra hours at work. He felt as if he owned the company that which had been generous enough to provide him with work when he was desperate. However, such sacrifices came at a cost. His wife had to take a back seat to his ambition. However, Junior felt as if his ambition was not selfish. It was a selfless ambition to make his father’s life more comfortable and also his wives.

His father finished his cup of coffee.

He stared at Junior’s almost full cup, knowing he had been right about his son’s taste. He took his own empty cup to the sink and started to rinse it.

“I can do that for you,” Junior said, joining his father at the kitchen sink.

“I’m not that old yet,” his father replied.

“I didn’t mean that,” said Junior whose voice was drowned by the flow of the tap water. His father shut it off and placed the cup to dry on the side of the cloth placed beside the kitchen sink.

“So they still remember the old bull?” He asked.

“Oh, very much, in fact, Mr. Johnson was talking to me about you just this afternoon.”

“My works got you looking soft,” his father poked Junior in the belly. “Here, look at mine, still solid,” he slapped his own stomach with an open palm, “now you must know how hard I used to work to keep in shape.”

“I guess Emily’s been keeping me too well fed,” Junior smiled.

“That’s no excuse. A man has to stay tight. Softness is an illness to his character. How can you expect others to follow you if they see this belly of yours? You can’t lead men if you can’t even control what you put in your mouth, son.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Of course I’m right, I’ve been doing your job much longer than you have.”

“About that—”

“I saw the doc the other day and you know what he said?” His father didn’t wait for an answer although Junior opened his mouth to reply. “He said I’m in the top percentile of his patients when it comes to my physique. I told the doc I’ve never missed a day of exercising. Every morning I exercise. You should do that too or else you’re gonna fall apart when you become a geezer like me.”

There was a hint of a joke in his father speech and so Junior smiled, weakly. His father patted him on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry, boy, you’ve got plenty of time to straighten up.”

“But listen, pa, I got some good news for you.”

His father turned towards him, leaning onto the kitchen counter, arms folded across his chest.

“What’s that?”

Junior reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter from his supervisor.

“I’m being promoted, pa.” He said, presenting the letter to his father.

His father did not accept it.

“About time we got that position.”

He turned his back to his son and picked out a glass bowl from the cabinet above. “The son always eats the sweet fruit of his father’s labor,” he said, as he poured cornflakes into his glass bowl.

“I am very grateful, pa.” Junior’s arm hung beside him now, his hand still holding the letter.

His father spoke, as he poured mike into the bowl, “I suppose that is what the purpose of being a father is. I lay the foundation, build upon it, make it nice and pretty for you to come and see further than I ever did. Congratulations son.”

“Thank you.”

His father took a spoonful and aggressively shoved it in his mouth, some of the milk dribbled down his chin which he wiped with the back of his hand.

“I was thinking,” Junior said, “this new position can allow me to hire some help to look after you the days I can’t come.”

His father chewed, his jaw flexing and relaxing, his eyes staring right at Junior and Junior’s own shifted back to the tabletop, where his coffee had lost its steam.

“So you’ll be coming to see me even less?” His father asked.

“No, no, nothing like that, pa, I just felt it’ll be good for you to have someone around to talk to and be with.”

“Why can’t that someone be my own boy?”

Junior felt his voice soften. “These past few months I’ve been neglecting Emily too much and I just thought the two of can spend more time together, maybe go on a trip.”

His father did not reply. Instead, he quietly finished his bowl of cereal, the metal spoon scraping the glass bowl after each bite. Once the bowl was empty, he let out a sigh and leaned back into his chair.

“It makes sense, more time for your bride and less time for your old man. Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon, you’ll have plenty of time after that.”

“Please don’t talk like that.”

“All these years I spent working, I only did that so I could see my boy do good in his life. So, I’m happy for you, son and now, if it means to watch you from afar, then I suppose I’ll do that, I’ll clap for you from the stands.”

He stood up, towering over Junior, “you do what you think is best, after all, you’re the man of the house now, right?”

Junior looked down, staring at his father’s strong legs and feeling the weight of his father’s touch as he lightly patted him on the cheek. His father picked up the coffee mug and carried it with the empty bowl to the sink. He poured out the coffee, which was cold now, into the sink and rinsed out the cup before cleaning the bowl as well. He left both the cup and bowl to dry beside the other mug.

He seemed to be waiting for Junior to say something, perhaps apologize, to take back what he had said, thank him for the promotion but Junior stayed silent, his voice caught in his throat.

“Well you must be a busy man these days,” his father said, “I shouldn’t keep you away from your bride much longer.” He started for the door and Junior stood up without a word and followed his father’s strides.

His father held the door open for him and Junior stepped through.

“It was good seeing you.” His father said.

“Pa, listen, I would come more often if it wasn’t for Emily and the work—”

  His father smiled, quieting Junior with his look.

“Your grandfather would not tolerate such words, in fact, I think he would hate you for saying such things. I’m different than my father, I don’t judge like he used to. He would have judged you to be a lousy boy, inconsiderate. He was a hard man from a different time but I still loved him and took care of him because that’s the duty of a son. But I me, I don’t judge you. You do what you think is best and send my regards to my workers and also to Emily.”

The light from the sun cast his father’s shadow upon Junior whose gaze was fixed upon his father’s feet, unable to raise his head and meet his father’s eyes.

“I’ll try to make it work.” He said.

“You do what you like, son, you’re the man now.”

His father closed the door.

Lessons on Routines: From Mozart, Voltaire, Thomas Mann, Haruki Marukami & Samuel Johnson

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey sets out to demonstrate the importance of small daily activities which can add up together to fulfill one’s vision.

I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself and vice versa.

Positive habits which are a result of a good routine can allow one to perform tasks to the best of their abilities. Rather than having to force yourself, trying to make up for wasted time, or hurrying up, playing catch up, a routine allows designated time for each task where one can chip away at their craft, slowly improving, getting closer to their goals.

One’s daily routine is also a choice or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

The book is filled with many lessons. Each individual mentioned in the book has their own routine and their own reason for needing a routine. However, an underlying theme that is present is that many view their routine as a necessary part of their work. Meaning that the routine aids their craft. It allows them to focus, stay disciplined and complete projects.

From the many lessons, the following are a handful that I found useful. Later on, I will do a follow-up post of other lessons.

A lesson from Mozart: Find the pocket of time that works for you and stick to it, without making any excuses. This lesson is drawn from the fact that Mozart was a busy man. He was wanted by many people, his time limited and hence, he would wake up early and compose and then compose for a little while before going to bed. Making time for his craft, rather than excuses.

A lesson from Voltaire: Have a pocket of concentrated work, followed by a break, then more concentrated work, break and so on. Simply stating, Voltaire divided his day into small portions which allowed him to focus on his tasks and then get quick relief in the form of meeting someone, eating snacks, drinking coffee before returning to his work for another period of effort. Such a routine is manageable.

A lesson from Thomas Mann: First, get the most essential work done. For Mann, he would write from nine to noon. In this period of time, no one was allowed to call him, disturb him or contact him. Having finished the most important work by noon, one can then continue the momentum of positive action and flow throughout the rest of the day.

A lesson from Haruki Marukami: Do not deviate from your established routine. When working on a novel, Marukami’s day started at 4 am and ended at 9 pm. The day was filled with writing, which he did first thing in the morning, running, swimming and spending time with his wife. Essentially repeating the same day over and over, one comes to build their focus and endurance and most importantly, the work gets done.

A lesson from Samuel Johnson: You’re not the only one who falls of the path and gives into laziness. As Johnson writes:

“My reigning sin, to which perhaps many others are appendant, is waste of time, and general sluggishness,” he wrote in his diary, and he told Boswell that “idleness is a disease which must be combated.” Yet, he added, he was temperamentally ill-equipped for the battle: “I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.”

It may be that you find it hard to stick to a routine. Chances are you’re not the only one. Artists throughout time have failed, recalibrated, adjusted their routines, shifted to working in the morning, or in the evening, and then failed again but that does not matter. Never accepting the failure is more important, for even if you are unable to stick with a particular routine, you can still get back on the path easier once you have fallen off.

Routines then allow one to see what the path looks like and what you should be doing, how you should be acting, rather than being blind, trying to navigate through this world.