Headmaster's blog:

Both feet out

I think the vast majority of sensible people recognise that the way in which we experience the world depends so much on the perspective from which we view it.  The lives that most of us live in Surrey and south west London are not typical of our peers in the United Kingdom, never mind those in more distant parts of the world who have to cope with very different social, economic and political systems.  It is though, quite difficult, to shrug off our own immediate concerns and see things through the eyes of other people.  Indeed, one of the most important benefits of studying literature, history, religious studies, politics and art is that these subjects help us to empathise with the concerns and conditions of people who have other problems and priorities.

No matter how empathetic we might become, however, we still have to deal with the here and now and the here and now is often really busy for Londoners.  People leave home for work early, they move around the city as quickly as the crowds and traffic will allow, they strive to fit as much as they can into their waking hours and to strike all the items from their intimidatingly long 'To do' lists.  This desire to get things done places a premium on efficiency and decisiveness.  Identify the problem, work out the options and then act.  These are the hallmarks, so we are often told, of the successful person.

There are circumstances, though, when procrastination and inaction might be better options.  One of our greatest monarchs was Queen Elizabeth 1.  She was highly intelligent, very well-educated, multi-lingual and shrewd but she was a young woman in a highly dangerous and complex world dominated by men.  Her country was divided between Protestants and Catholics, a bitter religious war was raging in France, Dutch rebels threatened the stability of the Low Countries and Philip II of Spain appeared to be increasingly threatening.  Further, she was under pressure to marry and produce an heir.  In the face of these daunting difficulties Elizabeth procrastinated for as long as possible in the hope that some of these problems would resolve themselves.  Once she had reached an age when it was impossible for her to produce an heir, she refused to name her successor as this would inevitably undermine her authority. It could be argued that a more decisive monarch might have managed the second half of the sixteenth century much less successfully.

A much more modern example of the merits of inaction was in the news this week.  At the age of seventy seven Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov passed away.  Almost exactly thirty four years ago, on 26 September 1983, he was on duty watching the Soviet Union's satellite systems for signs of a nuclear attack.  In the early hours of the morning the screen started flashing red indicating that the USA had launched such an attack and that the Soviet Union only had minutes in which to respond with a counter-attack.  There was no doubt what Petrov should do in this situation: he had to tell his superiors but instead he did nothing.  He had a strong feeling that the alarms on the screen were a technical error and he was right.  The satellites had spotted sunlight reflected from some clouds and mistaken this for incoming nuclear missiles.  If Petrov had acted according to the rules and his own training, it is highly likely that there would have been a nuclear war between the world's super-powers with catastrophic consequences for the rest of the world.  Thank God he did nothing.

As my dear mother would sometimes advise my siblings and me: 'If in doubt, both feet out'.  It is sometimes right to follow your instincts and avoid the urge to appear decisive.
Friday 22 September 2017

22nd September 2017

King's College School

Southside, Wimbledon Common,

London SW19 4TT

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