It isn’t sexy, or new, but maintenance is arguably the most important thing for our life on earth.
Maintenance is the preservation of, or the taking care of the things in our lives. All the physical things we need and enjoy will last only with maintenance. Our homes, our bodies, our pets, the machines that make our lives easier, roads and bridges, all require tending. Even the vital non-physical things in our lives need repair as well, our relationships, teams, our mental health, even community and societal systems, like education and government.
Maintenance should be among the highest priorities in our lives as individuals, families, organizations, and society. It is something that Stephen Covey would call a fourth quadrant, which includes those activities which are not urgent, but deeply important. Covey refers to quadrant 4 activities as “sharpening the saw”.
Our society values the new things. Innovation is lauded as the driver of all good things. But I wonder about the role of capitalism in shaping this value. Many believe the market economy is driving us the wrong way. We know the churn of disposable goods, our throw away economy, is destroying the planet, burning through our limited resources, and polluting the very air, water, and soil we depend upon. The stuff also fill our homes and minds with clutter.
Maintenance extends the healthy, usable life of things.
When I was in school as a youth, we had to choose a poem to memorize and recite. I chose “Ozymandias”, partly due to its length, but its truth resonated with me even then.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
— Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”, 1819 edition
In this time of boastful and proud leaders, some would-be kings, it is some comfort to know that time will take care of them.
But we also know, no matter how much we distract ourselves, that Ozymandias’ end is all our ends. In this society, we live in studious denial of death. You and I could do a podcast about the benefits of keeping that fact in our perspective. But while we are here on earth, living in the tragic gaps between the way it is and what we hope/long for – everything is made better when we tend to maintenance of the important things.
The scientific name for the physical process of breaking down, the gradual decline of order is ‘entropy’. Entropy can work quickly, or more slowly. It depends on what we do to counter the breaking down effects. All physical things need maintenance. It’s physics.
Do we brush our teeth? Do we floss? These actions counter decay and infection. If we do, we stay healthy and our smiles help light the world.
Do we wash the dishes, and the laundry. When we do, we show our family love and caring, and maintain a peaceful environment in our home. Do we recycle? When we do, we care for our family and sustain the earth a little.
Do we exercise our bodies, tending to our heart health, maybe our joint mobility and muscle strength too? If we do, we stay stronger longer, happier, and feel more alive and sexy.
Do we put air in our tires, and change the fluids? Do we replace brake pads, and wipers? (So we can see, so we can stop.) We make the roads safer for ourselves, and others, when we do.
Do we repair bridges and streets? Or do we wait until the decay and erosion require total replacement?
Delayed maintenance is more expensive, isn’t it? (Yes, it is.)
Systems thinkers know that skipping maintenance is an example of Fixes That Fail, (from Peter Senge’s system archetypes in his book the Fifth Discipline.) It’s a common dynamic – about a fix, or solution, that helps in the short-term. But after a delay, the fix actually exacerbates the problem.
If we don’t take care of our bodies, because we don’t have enough time, or money, over time we are likely to become weak and diseased. That is both more expensive and painful than doing exercise and eating fresh food ever was.
When we don’t repair a leaky roof in a building, if we wait long enough, the roof, walls, and floors will need to be replaced.
People in business understand the value of being able to use assets longer, but even they routinely fall into the short-term trap of not wanting to pause production long enough to do the maintaining. Being able to balance pressures for short-term success with the wisdom to create the conditions for long-term success means avoiding Fixes That Fail. It maximizes the return on investment, and it’s easier on the planet.
Sometimes maintenance can take the form of incremental improvements. When my children were small, our family planted a garden, so the kids could experience tilling, planting, waiting and watching, and finally harvesting, i.e. the life giving gift that is earth. In the beginning, we dug holes, planted seedlings, and hoped for the best. Over the years, we made incremental improvements. A fence was necessary to keep the deer and rabbits from eating our plants. We added mulch and ground cover to discourage weeds. Early on, we started watering the garden, and later installed soaker hoses, with timers to water at night to minimize evaporation. We started composting to enrich the soil. The children are all grown, but the garden continues to provide organic food, with not too much effort.
Maintenance requires a bit of gusto as well, a determination to fix what will fall apart without our effort.
The older we get, the more intentional we are called to be about maintenance of our bodies and minds, and it takes more of our time and effort. Making ourselves exercise, and pushing a little harder, pushing our limits, (specifically adding weight bearing exercise), helps to reverse the muscle loss that inevitably happens as we age. Booking and showing up to doctors’ and dentist’s appointments, and following through on their advice takes up more and more of our time, eventually becoming a part-time job.
The notion of maintenance is explored further on a wonderful site called the marginalian:
“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more,” Albert Camus wrote in reflecting on strength of character in turbulent times as WWII’s maelstrom of deadly injustice engulfed Europe. But that mending is patient, steadfast, often unglamorous work — it is the work of choosing kindness over fear, again and again, in the smallest of everyday ways, those tiny triumphs of the human spirit which converge in the current of courage that is the only force by which this world has ever changed.”
Albert Einstein in that essay (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) examined in a beautiful autobiographical piece titled “The World as I See It,” the notion of maintaining human rights, through service to others and by standing up against injustices. None of which can be accomplished unless we keep our spirits strong.
Staying connected to the purpose of your life, to the Spirit within, whatever form that it takes, is the foundation of all our work to repair and to make better.
Mending work is sacred work. It minimizes waste. It is kindness for on the earth, and kindness to one another. It is gentle on the soul, and it helps the good times last just a little longer. So stay strong, friends, and do the things.