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2016 Grateful 46

‘Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’

I think William James had something there. He was a major contributor to the Pragmatism Movement a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.

I’ve been giving this some thought lately, having nothing better to do and wanting a distraction from the everyday stuff that normally occupies my mind. And I am wondering whether Murphy – you know Murphy? The Optimist? As in Murphy was an optimist? –  was also a pragmatist.
toastI got this in my inbox last week (ta much JF) and just had to wonder:

Murphy drops some buttered toast on the kitchen floor and it lands butter-side-up. He looks down in astonishment, for he knows it’s a law of the universe that buttered toast always falls butter-down. So he rushes round to the presbytery to fetch Father Flanagan.

He tells the priest that a miracle has occurred in his kitchen. He won’t say what it is, but asks Fr. Flanagan to come and see it with his own eyes.

He leads Fr. Flanagan into the kitchen and asks him what he sees on the floor.

“Well,” says the priest, “it’s pretty obvious. Someone has dropped some buttered toast on the floor and then, for some reason, they flipped it over so that the butter was on top.”

“No, Father, I dropped it and it landed like that!” exclaimed Murphy.

“Oh my Lord,” says Fr. Flanagan, “Dropped toast never falls with the butter side up. It’s a mir…. Wait… it’s not for me to say it’s a miracle. I’ll have to report this matter to the Bishop and he’ll have to deal with it. He’ll send some people round; to interview you, take photos, etc.”

A thorough investigation is conducted, not only by the archdiocese but by scientists sent over  from the Curia in Rome. No expense is spared. There is great excitement in the town as  everyone knows that a miracle will bring in much-needed tourism revenue.

Then, after 8 long weeks and with great fanfare, the Bishop announces the final ruling.

“It is certain that some kind of an extraordinary event took place in Murphy’s kitchen, quite outside the natural laws of the universe. Yet the Holy See must be very cautious before ruling a miracle. All other explanations must be ruled out. “

“Unfortunately, in this case, it has been declared ‘No Miracle’ because they think Murphy may have buttered the toast on the wrong side!”

toast3I am grateful this week that I still wonder why, that I still ask questions, that I still want to know. Because life without wonder, without question, without curiosity would be very boring indeed. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t need all the answers. I don’t want all the answers. Sometimes, it’s just enough to wonder why.

Murphy's Law

For most of my adult life, by virtue of the family name I was born into, I’ve been an unintentional victim of Murphy’s Law, that adage asserts that if anything that can go wrong, it will go wrong. I was curious enough at one point to check to see which of my ancestors might be blamed for saddling me with this rather pessimistic outlook and discovered, much to my surprise, that it wasn’t a Murphy at all.

200px-De_Morgan_AugustusOne hundred years before I was born, mathematician Augustus De Morgan apparently wrote: ‘The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.’

Those in the know reckon that Murphy was born when the name De Morgan was lost in an international game of Chinese whispers, misremembered, misreported, and generally mistaken for Murphy. And so we have Murphy’s Law.

Last week, I came across a more contemporary law – Godwin’s Law – which states: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ So, no matter what the topic under discussion, Godwin, an American lawyer, reckons that if it goes on long enough, eventually someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. What an interesting observation.

Two other things happened last week that got me thinking.

bookFirst, I finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. In it, author Erik Larson, a noted historian and able writer, gives ‘a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.’ [I couldn’t have said it better myself so I’ve borrowed the words of an anonymous reviewer – were I to add a descriptive to it, I’d choose ‘chilling’.]

Second, I found myself in conversation with three people who regularly visit Budapest for various reasons. All three (none of whom know each other to my knowledge), in answer to my question as to whether or not they thought the city had changed, said yes. One, a musician who has been coming here for twelve years to play a gig, said they noticed that people seemed to be more on edge. They mentioned a pervasive sense that something (and not something good) is about to happen. Another, who has come back a few times since moving home, said it didn’t feel quite as safe as it used to be. They couldn’t point to anything specific; it was simply a feeling. But the comfortable familiarity that they once enjoyed had been replaced by a sense of no longer really knowing the place. And the third commented on the public attitude and a welcome that wasn’t a great as it used to be, infused as it was this time with a certain wariness, peppered with a degree of resignation.

New laws (I’d be all for shops not opening on Sunday were it a vote on whether to introduce it or not, but to rescind?), new taxes (I still can’t fathom the logic of a tax on solar panels!), and new proclamations from on high might, when taken individually, amount to nothing, but if added together, could they weave a different story? And while, for the record, I’m not drawing any comparison between 1930’s Berlin and Budapest in 2015, there is a tiny, niggling something at work in my heart that says tomorrow might be a better place if, collectively, we paid more attention to what is going on today. Could I make that the new Murphy’s Law or has someone else already snagged it?

First published in the Budapest Times 30 January 2015

On being a Murphy

Murphy, apparently, was an optimist. Murphy’s Law has been translated into every language known to man – even Hungarian. The fact that Murphy is generally taken to be a fellah probably stands in my favour and reduces the pressure on me, a mere woman, to follow in his inglorious footsteps. Yes, yes, I know all about the positive psychology angle. Think positive thoughts. Choose your reaction. Smile and the whole world (even that cranky cow in the Lehel tér csarnok) will smile with you. But sometimes, a good, old-fashioned wallow is in order.

GB Shaw, one of my favourite dead Irish men, reckons that the secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation. To which I say, ‘load of crap, George’.  I have no problem occupying myself but yet I seem to be hurtling towards a mid-life mope of gigantic proportions and find myself unable to apply the brakes.

Manly Hall reckons that it is only a step from boredom to disillusionment, which leads naturally to self-pity, which in turn ends in chaos. I’m not bored. I am a little disillusioned, which may explain the self-pity and make the chaos a refreshing antidote for what ails me. Truth be told, I’ve sod all to complain about and, in the grand scheme of things, live a blessed life. I mean, when I meet the likes of Patrick head on outside Bath train station….

…I have to stop and think.