Devil's Head Diary


Carolyn Wiley

A Sign for Our Times

I am driving up the Key when I spy the sign—actually my favorite sign—and growing more so as the county works to stabilize the east side of the road before it slides into Filucy Bay. The sign—BE PREPARED TO STOP—usually provokes a mental chuckle because it seems so unnecessary.

Working within the experiential expectation that gravitational pull is adequate to keep my vehicle from becoming airborne, I alone am determining the trajectory of approximately two tons of potentially destructive mass across the surface of the earth. I got the thing in motion, so it goes without saying that I darn well ought to be prepared to stop it.

Obeying the sign, I ease into a long line of cars waiting for the “go” signal from the flagger. With time to ponder this seemingly unnecessary message, I am startled to realize its real value. Life in this universe would be far more peaceful if this sign—enhanced by flashing neon Day-Glo—was placed at every point of human interaction. Full understanding of the message would have softened my years in the trenches as parent and teacher.

BE PREPARED TO STOP should be the first rule governing human behavior all the way from one-to-one up to the conduct of nations. Should you doubt this thesis, here is a simplified and personalized explanation.

In a familiar human episode, a parent once having said to a child, “Don’t poke your sister!” almost certainly ensures that said sister is gonna be poked soon, frequently and repeatedly.

Obviously children—and a significant number of adults—are developmentally unable to process the word “don't” when it is so often the initial word in a declarative sentence. “Don’t” is interpreted as “Hey, you!”

The poker is not being defiant, since that child only hears the words, “Poke your sister!" And since this directive is delivered in earnest, the child acts accordingly and is surprised when negative parental intervention ensues.

If the initial phrase had been, “Be prepared to stop poking your sister,” there would be no “don’t” to muddle understanding. “Be prepared” implies that the child has some sort of personal responsibility to decide to do or not do something.

The statement also carries an implied “or else,” obligating the poker to assess his or her options. The poker will deduce that if the sister continues to be poked, the poker is entering a phase of life for which a state of readiness would have been advantageous, i.e., "If you aren’t prepared to stop, more than likely, you aren't prepared for what will happen next."

I plan to integrate this bit of wisdom into my everyday life. Having frequently dealt with repercussions for which I was unprepared, I am putting that sign on the electronic communication devices I own—especially those cursed with a REPLY ALL option.