Practise what you preach or Do as I say…?

My significant other recently told me, in answer to a question, that I have a tendency to overreact. This, I know I do when I’m stretched and overworked (all my own doing of course) and in all honesty, overreaction has been the order of the day for the past few months. But as with those annoyingly wonderful ruts in the road, finding a way out of it has taken some creative manoeuvring, not least a change in perspective.

This was reinforced recently on a semi-planned visit to the one of my regular haunts and a place to really get me overreacting. We’ve had a love-hate relationship since I first started researching there twenty years ago. The pedantic non-user-friendly manuscript ordering rules and myself came to a functional working arrangement years ago, thank goodness, so what still irks me every time I visit? The inconsistencies around security. And it’s not just at the B that I suffer this irksome practice.

I’ve no issue with being checked when I enter a building but please, do it properly if you’re serious about it nor not at all. Don’t waste my time by making me take my bag off my back, open it for you to just glance in it and tell me to go through and then when I question the action tell me it’s for my safety. Usually, I end up in a little altercation with the poor security guard on duty who is just ‘doing as he’s been told to do’. But on my last visit, I happened to be there on a day they were trialling a new system (couldn’t see anything different other than more men in suits around, but hey-ho), so happened to raise the point with the guard checking my bag telling him about the need for him to do a thorough check of my bag if the B was serious about my security. He thought I had a good point to make and would take it up with his manager standing behind him. On my more recent visit, arriving at 9.44 in the rain, the queue was wound round the side under cover to past the Conference Centre. Entering the building, I calmly said to the guard (the same one I had previously encountered), ‘I hope you’re going to do a proper search today’ and proceeded to open all the zips on my bag whilst apologising for insisting despite there being a queue. To his credit, he acknowledged the queue and thanked me for insisting and assisting him to do a thorough search of my bag. For the first time in ages, I’ve managed to get into the B without my blood pressure rising or overreacting. I wondered how many others insist on having their bags searched properly?

The significance of this more pleasant encounter was that when Social Sciences couldn’t find the publication I’d ordered, I was in a much better frame of mind to deal with it – an African adventure approach was what the doctor had ordered on this occasion (I don’t usually visit Social Sciences, but this is where you find Session Papers), it worked. It turned out the person serving me was new on the counter usually being in another reading room so together we both learnt something about the room. Sad to say, the document all this was over didn’t contain what I’d hoped it would. At least I can tick it off the list.

Back to practising though… it’s the inconsistencies that annoy me most. Not the policy providing it is based on common sense and this I think is where we go wrong today. The tickbox dictates how we practise as do our traditions. How are we to create a world where people are people and respect each other for being people irrespective of their beliefs if we don’t compromise? As an historian, looking back, I distinguish between ethnic groups and micro-nations to explain the interactions and consequences of the past, but looking forward and being in the present, we’re all people bringing our rich heritage with us.

Recently, a group I’m involved with invited another group to join us – we had slightly different practises and in getting the two groups together, compromise had to be made. However, at the final preparation meeting which I couldn’t attend, some dogmatic thoughts dominated and the compromise solution was done away with. For me, as I explained to someone afterwards, it was as though I’d invited a vegetarian to dinner and purposefully fed them meat. The group having professed to be open, turned out to be as closed as other groups in terms of accommodating peoples of different beliefs. I probably did overreact to this situation but thankfully before taking any action sought the wisdom of others. It’s still got me thinking though about practising what we preach and how we get there when people are coming from such different starting points. (cf review Tim Butcher).

Practising what one preaches has its challenges as Jan Smuts discovered during his command in East Africa. Not one to sit still at headquarters behind the lines, he pushed forward sleeping out in the open with the men, reconnoitring himself much to the horror of his British staff and concern of his South African staff. But, putting himself in this position, he won the respect and admiration of the rank and file. One can’t say the same about the officers though. The downside of Smuts being ‘on the ground’ meant he often missed the big picture and the strategic overview, didn’t pay enough attention to supply lines as he was coping or wasn’t aware of the real situation. It was also one of the reasons he didn’t tackle the black-white issue in South Africa. He couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between his personal beliefs and where mass white thinking was at the time. On this issue he took the political expediency of trying to stay in power in order to reduce the impact but that had its own consequences, not least his historical reputation.

It’s not always easy to practise what one preaches as the circumstances dictate otherwise, but knowing where to draw the line and being flexible enough to deal with it will go a long way to making life a little more pleasant for those on the receiving end of my overreaction and hopefully me personally. My current behaviour-changing challenge is to deal with inconsistencies more cheerfully. It paid off at the B, perhaps it will elsewhere too.