When platitudes fail

    The one thing the moderns will not trust a man to do is to conduct his own life. – G. K. Chesterton, Abolishing the Ordinary

    I have two books by Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. The books are called Scouting for Boys and Rovering to Success. In these, Baden Powell gives advice to young men about the problems they will face in the world and how to achieve success. They are good books filled with little catch phrases to help get over the humps and bumps of life. Among these gems is this suggestion: “If you are in pain or trouble, make yourself smile at it. If you remember to do this, and force yourself, you will find it really does make a difference.” Further on, Baden Powell also suggests whistling happy tunes and going for walks.

    Indeed, he places a great emphasis on walking. Walking, he writes, improves the digestion, increases the health of the blood, and clears the mind. Of course, it is not enough just to walk; one must walk the correct way. Slouching is out. So is wearing a hat at a jaunty angle. These, according to Baden Powell, are signs of a weak character. And for Baden Powell, strong character is synonymous with self-reliance.

    I was talking with a friend of mine who had recently been in a car accident, nothing life threatening, but he was rather broken up by the fact that his car was completely destroyed. I was at a loss of what to say in the way of comforting words. Then, I remembered Baden Powell’s advice.

    “Why don’t you try smiling, or whistling? Lord Baden Powell says that whenever one is feeling downhearted, or having gloomy thoughts, smiling and whistling a cheerful song always helps. He said that when he whistles a cheerful song he feels better right away. Have you tried this yet?”

    “What did you say?”

    “I said you should try whistling a cheerful song, something light-hearted. It will make you feel better. Lord Baden Powell said so.”

    “Lord Baden Powell can go to hell. I am not downhearted or feeling glum, I am totally freaked out about my car!”

    “But did you try it? Here, let me start.” I began to whistle Marching to Pretoria.

    “Just shut up, will you?” he asked. He had not been a Boy Scout.

    It is funny how the book makes such good sense when I read it, yet somehow fails in execution. Baden Powell has a gripping section on personal hygiene in which he talks about the importance of tooth-brushes: “Scouts in the jungle cannot always find tooth-brushes, but they make substitutes out of dry sticks, which they fray out at the end, and make an imitation of a brush.”

    I tried this when I was a boy. I cut sticks from my dad’s hedge in the backyard and chewed the ends of these to make them into a week’s supply of tooth brushes. When dad came home from work and found my pile of chewed sticks beside the sink, he was not pleased. Nor, for that matter, was he happy about the new gaps in the hedge.

    I find it enlightening being a father, going through similar experiences with my own sons in a kind of perpetual state of déjà vu. I had given my two boys BB guns and suggested that they go behind the barn and do some target shooting. They did so cheerfully, and ran behind the barn. After about an hour, I went back to see how they were doing. They had improved upon my original idea by using the barn windows as the targets. Being the dad, my duty required that I correct them, as my dad did with me. Yet I knew that I would have done (and did) the same thing myself, as would have my own father when he was young.

    Perhaps Baden Powell’s most famous saying is “paddle your own canoe.” He explains that this was a proverb of the Canadian Voyageurs, and it means to do your own duty, look out for your own work, independently pursue your own goals relying on your own strength. I once tried this bit of advice on a friend who had slipped on some ice and broken his arm. He was justly irritated at the red tape that he needed to go though at the hospital before they put on a cast.

    “Why don’t you paddle your own canoe?” I asked.

    “How do you mean?”

    “Your own canoe, why not paddle it?”

    “What canoe is that?”

    “Not a canoe, literally, but a figurative canoe. Baden Powell says you should paddle your own canoe.”

    “Do you think I broke my arm in a canoe?” he growled.

    “No, no, I just figured that some words of wisdom were called for in the circumstances, that’s all,” I said, retreating.

    Not everyone appreciates Baden Powell.