Sunday, July 25, 2004

Structual Failure

In To Enginner Is Human, Henry Petroski writes:

Furniture is among the oldest of inanimate enginnering structures designed to carry a rather well-defined load under rather well-defined circumstances. We are not surprised that furniture used beyond its intended purpose is broken, and we readily blame the child who abuses the furniture rather than the designer of the furniture or the furniture itself when it is abused. Thus a chair must support a person in a sitting position, but it might not be expected to survive a brawl in a saloon. A bed might be expected to support a recumbent child, a small rocking chair only a toddler. But the child's bed would not necessarily be considered badly designed if it collapsed under the child's wild use of it as a trampoline, and a child's chair cannot be faulted for breaking under the weight of a heavier child using it as a springboard. The arms and legs of chairs, the heads and feet of beds, just like those of the people they serve, cannot be expected to be strong without limit.

It was the last bit that got my notice: "[P]eople . . . cannot be expected to be strong without limit."

I know it's probably a sign of all the things that are wrong with me, but this triggered something of a new thought for me: "Maybe I'm not omnipotent."

I'm not talking about physical things here. I'm well aware of my failings in that arena. I've got a pretty firm grasp on how much I can lift, how far I can walk, how fast I can run. I'm cool with that. But reading Petroski, I was suddenly confronted with this idea that maybe there are mental and emotional constraints upon my person as well.

A lot of my unhappiness in life revolves around the fact that I haven't managed to accomplish things I thought I should. Some of these things are simple, like cleaning up my bedroom, and others are probably a bit more important, like having a meaningful career. But when I read that paragraph, I had a glimpse of a reality where the problem was not that I couldn't get these things done, but rather that I had expected them at all.

You see, I've got a lot of expectations, and I inflict them on the people around me as well as myself. To a certain extent, they're good -- they're what gets me out of bed and to work in the morning. But at other times, they're nothing but an excuse for something to beat myself up over.

In a nutshell, the question at hand comes down to whether the problem is that I can't live up to my expectations, or that I have expectations I can't live up to. So I guess the project for the next little bit is going to be focused on working that through. We'll see where that gets me.