Courage at Twilight: Futility’s Virtue

The city I work for saw two feet of new snow, and my friends driving the snow plows worked hard all day and all night to make the streets passable and safe while trying not to knock over any mailboxes or clip any cars parked illegally on the street. (I drafted and presented to the City Council the ordinance prohibiting on-street parking during snow events.)  Cars parked on the narrow streets make plowing difficult and dangerous.  My secretary took a call from an angry resident yelling at her about being blocked in his driveway by four-foot ice mounds.  My sympathies stacked in the plow drivers’ favor.  At home 50 miles away, I chipped away for an hour at the ice mound blocking my own exit from my own driveway, but feeling grateful for the dedicated drivers who cleared the streets.  Where else are they supposed to push that much snow?  I have heard people suggest we use tractors to load the snow into dump trucks for off-site disposal.  That might work if you tripled their taxes, and even then would take weeks.  Finished with the drives and walks and mounds, I cleared with a spade a large ice pile away from the mailbox so the mail truck could deliver the mail, and so I could retrieve the mail.  Without that effort, there would be no mail.  And because the neighborhood children gather on our street corner to catch the 8:30 morning bus, I swathed a path from the sidewalk through rutted ice mounds to the street.  If I had a small child catching a bus on the neighbor’s street corner, I sure would appreciate the neighbor making the walk to the bus safe for my child.  The mailbox and bus paths exacted from me another hour.  When all the collector streets were cleared, the snow plows came back during the night for a final pass through the residential streets, obliterating my back-cracking wrist-wringing efforts.  The mail truck rammed the new mounds to get to the mailbox, and the children stepped high over new rutted mounds.  My previous night’s efforts had been utterly futile.  At 9:00 the next night, Mom exclaimed anxiously that she had forgotten to get the mail.  Of course, I knew that even had she not forgotten, she could not have safely walked to or even reached the mailbox.  A fall on the ice was practically assured.  I nodded an acknowledgment, pulled on my snow boots and heavy coat and beanie and gloves, and headed outside with the spade to get the mail, and to dig out the mailbox.  The job needed doing.  (Mom did not know that “getting the mail” first involved digging out the mailbox, and felt sad later when she realized my effort.)  As I dug at the new mounds of ice blocking the mailbox, I thought about the futility of the previous night’s labors.  I thought about the hours and days and months I have worked on legal projects that have died for legislative hostility or lack of interest.  And I kept digging.  I thought of years of marital patience and parental agony and the frequent absence of a happy ending.  And I kept digging.  I thought of Elijah’s moated water-soaked altars, the very stones of which were vaporized by divine fire, and still no one turned to the fire-sending god, and Elijah sank into depression in a cave, fed carrion by compassionate crows.  I felt sad that so many efforts to make life better often go unappreciated and unutilized, sometimes completely unseen.  Turning the question over and around as I strained at the ice, I convinced myself to find hope in what my labors, though futile, yet work inside me, how they might tend to mold my character, refine my intentions, humble my pride, and stiffen my spine, how they might spur me on to greater and longer labors in spite of the distinct possibility of futility.  And now the sun has emerged from behind the clouds and is beginning to melt the snow.

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