Sour Milk

I watched one morning as a college roommate of mine shuffled sleepily into the kitchen.  He poured a cup of coffee and reached into the refrigerator for the milk jug.  He removed the cap and took the obligatory sniff, at which he reflexively scrunched his face and moved the sour jug to arm’s length.  I then watched in amazement as he replaced the lid and put the milk back into the refrigerator.

From my seat across the room, I asked him, “Do you think that milk will be better tomorrow?”

“Huh?”, he replied, still dull with sleepiness.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise, but this post is not really about sour milk; it’s about our society’s dull tendency to put off responsibilities until later and to pretend that the inevitable isn’t really inevitable after all.

Why didn’t my friend pour the milk down the sink and dispose of the jug?  Was it early morning dullness?  Was it laziness?  I suppose I could write a paper on the possibilities, but what I’m more interested in are the consequences.  Had the sour milk stayed in the refrigerator, how many others might have ruined a bowl of cereal with it, or dirtied a clean glass only to discover that the milk was useless?  Had it stayed endlessly in the refrigerator, needlessly taking up space, how many times might it have been in the way of other items that were still useful?

The fact of the matter is that putting off a simple housecleaning task can be very costly in the long run, for it begins a relentless chain of inconveniences that ultimately amount to many times the work that would have been required to deal properly with it in the first place.  The 15 seconds of labor my roommate saved by putting the milk back in the refrigerator could easily have cost the others in the household several minutes of time.  And besides that, how shall I calculate the value of the frustration that each person would suffer?

But again, this article is not about sour milk.  It’s about life.  Here are some what-ifs that we might glean from the sour milk story.

  • What if all politicians who were found to be “sour milk” (that is, who broke the law, exceeded their powers in office, violated the trust of their constituents, etc.) were disposed of, rather than being sent back to the refrigerator over and over?
  • What if all public-serving employees (clerks, teachers, sales associates, etc.) who had bad customer service paradigms (and who wouldn’t correct them swiftly), were removed from contact with the public and replaced with people with the right paradigms?
  • What if every time we made a mess, we stopped to clean it up?
  • What if every time we recognized a bad fact, we stopped and fixed it?  (“Oh, so since they’re not from India, I’m going to stop calling them Indians”.)
  • What if every time we recognized a flaw in our own thinking, we immediately stopped and fixed it?  (“OK, I suppose that nobody owes me an easy life.”)
  • What if every time we recognized a flaw in our language, we stopped and fixed it?  (“Oops, I should have said ‘better than’, and not ‘better then’.”)
  • What if software and hardware companies stopped selling programs and devices that don’t work properly or consistently?  What if they waited until their products were actually ready before they rolled them out?
  • What if no student was allowed to graduate High School until he had actually mastered the learning material?
  • What if no American company would hire a person who had not mastered the English language and the communication skills required for the job?
  • What if no parents ignored and/or tolerated fundamental flaws in their children, such as dishonesty, greed, malevolence, or apathy, but actually helped the child to overcome them instead?

I suppose that this list could go on and on, but these should suffice to make my point.  Can you imagine the impact to our society if even one of these things were adopted by all?  Think of the frustrations we all endure as the result of having to deal with an incompetent clerk, a customer service representative we cannot understand, or a product that doesn’t function properly!

The fact of the matter is that the more excellence with which we are surrounded, the easier life is.  As I was taught early on about camping, the latrine should not be near the center of the camp.  No, for all kinds of good reasons, you’ll want the latrine on the outskirts!  And as my Uncle Bill put it, “Animals don’t defecate in their own dens.”

Figuratively speaking, however, people are often not quite that smart.  Too many of us live with deceit, malice, manipulation, greed, and corruption right in our own households.  We tolerate it, rather than to toss it out.  We don’t make our homes into peaceful refuges, so we have no shelter from the ugly world around us.  To give an example of a different type, millions of parents live in agonizing stress over the disobedience of their own children, never realizing that had they taught the child how to obey, it would have saved them and the child immeasurable suffering over the years.

And our companies are the same way.  So many of us have such a low view of excellence that we hire and put up with unrefined employees who don’t even have a paradigm of continual self improvement.   Then, of course, we commence to complain about how bad they are, as if we were not responsible for hiring them.  Oh, and I dare not forget that we also fuss about our griping customers, many of whom are griping because they were ticked off by none other than the low-hanging fruit we hired to serve them!

Sour milk, to mix metaphors, is a constant thorn in the side of our culture.  When will we ever learn?

These are the kinds of experiences that have led me to my third paradigm:  “Self correction is the rightful duty of mankind.”  If we are expected to clean up after ourselves when we spill a bowl of chips on the carpet, why aren’t we expect to clean up after ourselves when we misstate a fact, operate under a misconception, pronounce a word incorrectly, or treat someone else unrighteously?

Excellence is a way of life that is appreciated by far too few, as if it is somehow cold and unsympathetic.  The critical eye of excellence offends many just as a guilty conscience offends the guy who has his mind made up to do the wrong thing.  For those who heed excellence, however, they find that it is its own reward.  My child does not throw tantrums.  This is because I taught him not to.  And I don’t ever have to deal with hangovers because I trained myself never to get drunk.  And I don’t have to deal with an unruly or unfaithful spouse because I married someone who is quite responsible and faithful.

People grossly underestimate the benefits of such decisions and paradigms.  Not only did my household not have to endure that tantrum or fight that happened in some other house last night, but we also avoided the 100 previous tantrums and fights that the other household endured.

Don’t get me wrong; we still have our unfinished improvements to make.  The point here, though, is that we are continually grateful for the benefits of those things that we have already put into place.  And the farther we get down this trail, the easier it us for us to see the value of a fervent vigilance in maintaining the excellence.  We spring to action at the very first hints that trouble is brewing, rather than letting it come to an ugly head.

This is the paradigm we have adopted, and now it remains to apply it in every area of life.  For example, we just started a hyper-healthy diet after years of neglect.  Having studied and discussed for quite some time, we still had to push ourselves over the edge to get started with it.  And that we did—finally!  We are excited because we know that the outcome will be excellent—and we will be better people for it!  Happier, more fit, and with more energy than before!

When people tell themselves that they don’t have time for excellence, they obviously don’t understand its value.  It’s like telling me that you don’t have time to swing by my house and pick up your winning $10,000,000.00 lottery ticket!  If one understands its value, seeking it out is no problem.


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