The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"KBO: Keep Buggering On"

In my latest pop culture addiction, Billions, there's a poignant moment when the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, separated from his wife because he has violated her trust to build a case, has to sell his treasured set of Churchill's The Second World War to get himself a place to stay. The volumes are, fictitiously, inscribed with a real quote by Churchill:
Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
(As a side note, Paul Giamatti absolutely captures the quiet pain of a book lover having to part with a treasured book, one that has encapsulated his own ethos, for cash; his portrayal of the moment was delicate and nuanced, but all the more powerful for it.)

A couple of years ago, I met Ian McNiece, who has played Churchill in Doctor Who, who told he that he treasures Churchill's less grandiloquent statement of the sentiment: "Keep Buggering On." We had a picture taken together, and he inscribed it for me with "KBO: Keep Buggering On."

It's a useful reminder in these days of a divided country that seems determined to keep drifting further away from itself. But how does one keep buggering on? How does one not give up? A 1927 letter from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (then nearing 90) to a young law student offers a clue:
However a man may feels about his work nature is likely to see to it that his business becomes his master and an end in itself, so that he may find that he has been a martyr under the illusion of self-seeking. But we rank men at least partly at least by the nature of their dominant interests, and we think more highly of those who are conscious of ulterior ends--be those ends intellectual ideals, to see the universal in the particular, or the sympathetic wish to help their kind. For your sake I hope that when your work seems to present only mean details you may realize that every detail has the mystery of the universe behind it and may keep up your heart with an undying faith.
Holmes, skeptic as he was, is expressing in secular terms a point much like one made by the great Anglican poet George Herbert in his poem The Elixir:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav'n espy.

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—"for Thy sake"—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
I'm not sure it matters terribly much whose framing is more congenial to you--Holmes's or Herbert's; while Herbert's is rooted deeply in faith, Holmes's is too, albeit in a different faith, a non-Christian one. But both men share a belief in perspective--not the spasm of emotion in response to a momentary emotion, but a true perspective that seeks to see the true value of all acts, of all endeavor. That sees the meaning in a life of dedication to something worthy of one's efforts. Something beyond mere gain, though one may begin in the hope of gain, only to find oneself gaining far more than money through such a life.

Something concrete to be done, a task that one may lose one's own transitory emotions in, even if the details on their own can seem dry, can lead to wisdom, and, ultimately, refreshing one's faith--however you like to divine the word.

A way to endure when the time is out of joint: find a way to make your efforts feed your soul.


Ellen said...

I liked this blog very much, especially your last three paragraphs.

As to politics, at this point I've stopped listening and watching better news shows daily. I still do it every couple of days or read the NYTimes just so I know what has happened over the last couple of days.

Anglocat said...

Thanks, Ellen. I’ve cut down to the Times, the Washington Post, and my local paper. I’ll read about it, but don’t care to watch.