The Readiness Is All

Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1852.

I was eleven years old when my mother enrolled me in the Boy Scouts of America. There was a Troop at my elementary school, and eleven was the minimum age to become a Tenderfoot Scout, the beginning rank in the Scouts at the time I joined. I don’t recall asking my mother if I could join the Scouts. I’m not even sure if I knew they existed. But I think it was part of my mother’s efforts to socialize me. At about the same time, she signed me up for Little League baseball as well.

My scouting career was brief. I went camping once, and also attended a regional meeting where boys received their merit badges. The problem was that I could not get the hang of knot tying, an essential requirement of scout-craft. As I recall, there were three knots I needed to learn: the square knot, the clove hitch, and the half hitch. One thing, however, from my short time in the Scouts, has stayed with me, the Scout Motto: “Be Prepared.” For some reason, the idea resonated with me.

Once Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, was asked for what should a Boy Scout be prepared. He replied: “Why, for any old thing.” It’s a surprising answer when you think about it. Is it possible to be prepared for “any old thing?”

My favorite book when I was a child, and still my favorite book, my comfort book, is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. I re-read it every couple of years. I’ve read it aloud to my wife, who seemed to enjoy it enormously. To her, I read the annotated “The Whole Story” edition published by Viking with illustrations by Jame’s Prunier. (Prunier spells his first name with the apostrophe).

I think I love the book so much because its main character, Phileas Fogg, perfectly exemplifies the idea of always being prepared. The description below is from the translation done by Frederick Paul Walter and is the version I am currently reading.

Phileas Fogg was one of those mathematically correct people who are never in a rush, always prepared, economical in their every step and movement. He never took a stride too many and always went by the shortest route. He didn’t stare off into space. He didn’t indulge in unnecessary actions. Nobody ever saw him excited or agitated. He was the least hurried person on earth, yet he always arrived on the dot. Even so, you can appreciate why he lived a solitary existence, an existence free of all social intercourse, as it were. He knew that friction was a part of life, and since friction is time-consuming, he never rubbed anybody the wrong way.

Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days, trans. by F. P. Walker

Oh, how I admire Phileas Fogg! It’s still a fair question, though: Is it possible to be prepared for everything that comes your way?

After my time in the Army, I spent a couple of years at Mississippi State University studying philosophy before applying to graduate school. It’s tempting when learning philosophy to try on a philosopher’s world-view, to take it for a test drive. I became enamored with the teachings of the late Australian philosopher, D. M. Armstrong. I was drawn especially to his assumption, stated in Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics, that “all that exists is the space time world, the physical world as we say.” I have to confess, however, that it didn’t fit me at all. My test drive crashed on the rocks of reality. Here’s what happened.

During a routine physical examination, blood was drawn from me and sent to a lab for analysis. Not long afterward, I received a note from the lab that I found alarming. It said that I needed to make an appointment with my doctor as soon as possible to discuss an anomaly in my blood-test results. Well, I wasn’t prepared for that. All of a sudden, I saw my life slipping away, my body returning to the soil, and me, the most important person alive, descending into an abyss, an extinction — a nothingness. Professor Armstrong’s philosophy slipped from my mind as easily and quickly as clothes come off on the way to a pond in the scorching heat of a Mississippi summer.

Don’t get me wrong. My reaction had absolutely nothing to say about the truth or falsehood of D. M. Armstrong’s philosophy. It said something only about me, about my inability to use it to be prepared for what everyone faces. Eventually, life will end; my life will end. Pragmatically, if for no other reason, I needed to find a different philosophy, a way of life that would help me prepare for the end of my life, odd as that sounds.

There is an astonishingly beautiful passage in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2. It is a dialogue between Hamlet and his friend Horatio concerning Hamlet’s upcoming fencing match with Laertes.


HORATIO
You will lose this wager, my lord.

HAMLET
I do not think so: since he went into France, I
have been in continual practise: I shall win at the
odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here
about my heart: but it is no matter.

HORATIO
Nay, good my lord,—

HAMLET
It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of
gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman.

HORATIO
If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will
forestall their repair hither, and say you are not
fit.

HAMLET
Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man knows aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.


I find this passage incredibly moving. And here is an equally moving performance of it by Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio.

May you be prepared for all that comes your way.

All the best!

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