Friday, February 19, 2010

A Fine and Enviable Madness

"... it was, in fact, a fine and enviable madness, this delusion that all questions have answers, and nothing is beyond the reach of a strong left arm." -- from The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I love my job. I love the alchemy that takes the stuff of daydreams, and spins it into hard, tangible reality. What we have dreamed, we have done; generations of men dreamed of flight, and dreamed of touching the stars ... and when you look up tonight, you'll see airplanes lazily crossing the sky, and on the Moon our footprints still lay. Generations of physicians dreamed of a world without disease ... and in one singular case, the dream was realized. I've been vaccinated for smallpox, but most people younger than me haven't.

This is National Engineers' Week. We celebrate it during the week of George Washington's observed birthday, in honor of our first President's first career as a surveyor. The mechanic arts as they were called then were recognized early to be key to both our prosperity and our security. Whenever America has faced a steep challenge, her engineers have always answered, and delivered the goods.

It's a profession that could easily lead to a swelled head, if Nature wasn't always there to take us down a notch or three as required. We rarely enjoy the "luxury" of hiding our mistakes. An unscrupulous doctor might hide their mistakes in the morgue, and an incompetent lawyer's mistakes vanish into the prison system. But an engineer's mistakes? They tend to come unglued with a loud BANG overhead, distributing debris over two or three time zones. We never have to look far for accountability, it always comes looking for us.

But most of us don't chafe under that kind of responsibility, rather, we relish it. We enjoy knowing that our work counts for something. We don't dread the possibility of highly-visible failure; the challenge motivates us to make our work as clean and error-free as we know how. The challenge -- the satisfaction of having done a difficult job well -- is a large part of what gets us out of bed most mornings.

It can be a crazy life sometimes. Schedules get very unpredictable, close to delivery time. But on the whole I wouldn't have it any other way. It truly is "a fine and enviable madness."

The Sons of Martha

by Rudyard Kipling

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains "Be ye removèd." They say to the lesser floods "Be dry."
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd -- they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit -- then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden -- under the earthline their altars are --
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city's drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's days may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd -- they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet -- they hear the Word -- they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and -- the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

No comments: