Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A really truthful engine

We were visiting my brother-in-law last week, seeing their new baby boy, and I among the books I was reading to the kids was "Thomas Breaks a Promise." What was curious about it was the subtitle: "(previously published as 'Thomas Tells a Lie')". That was enough to pique my interest: what was the lie, and what was the promise, and why did they change their minds about the title?

Sir Topham Hat tasked Thomas the Train Engine with checking all the signal lights on a new stretch of track. Thomas started the job but then became distracted when he came across a carnival. Thomas only remembers his lapse when he hears Sir Topham Hat talking to another engine about the new route at the end of the day. Thomas doesn't volunteer the information that he didn't finish checking the track. If he had fingers, we would probably have crossed them, and hoped that nothing bad would happen. But, as it happens, something bad does (almost) happen, and Sir Topham Hat dresses him down for his lapse, and Thomas is a reformed, safety-obsessed little train after that.

"Telling the truth" and "keeping a promise" are two principles that are frequently confused. Witgenstein came up with the whole notion of "language games" to help explain the difference. He found the language of science to be an incomplete way to engage the world, because sometimes we care about more than just descriptive truth. The rules for keeping a promise are similar to the rules for telling the truth -- both require a certain kind of integrity -- but they aren't the same.

So: is it more important that you tell the truth, even when it's painful, or that you do what you say you're going to do? It's a toughie, because you want your kids to feel free to tell you the truth, even when it might compromise their position, so you might be tempted to focus on the disclosure and not the original shortfall. People will always "sin", in the original sense of the word ("missing the mark"), but at least they can be honest and forthcoming about it. And yet, in the end, what you do matters a lot more than what you say, truthful or otherwise, and you could view the entire endeavor of raising kids to be teaching them how to make and keep committments. On the other hand . . . a lot of commitments get broken because people weren't honest enough to face the truth to begin with.

I think I'll go with the publisher's revision: the original sin, and the more significant one, is that Thomas failed to keep his commitment. The cover-up was secondary. If you keep your commitments, you won't find yourself in a position of needing to lie about it.

Next time: "Thomas Commits Perjury," previously published as "Thomas Fails to Fully Disclose."

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