January 21, 1997
Robert Persig, in Zen and the Art of motorcycle Maintenance, defines the old-fashion word "gumption" as it relates to quality. it's an old Scottish word once used by pioneers, though seldom heard nowadays. Persig says that gumption describes "exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption." (Wm. Morrow, Quill edition, 302-303) In fact, the Greek root, enthousiasmos, means literally "'filled with theos,' or God, or Quality." (303)
Persig understands this to mean that when we connect with Quality we're filled with enthusiasm, with a Holy Spirit, which manifests often in wide-open receptivity to the creative potentialities inherent in any moment not bricked up and walled in by zombie-like behavior and other self-defeating reactions to life. Persig: "A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to See what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That's gumption." (303) Persig also calls gumption the "psychic gasoline," that fills our motivation tank so that we're able to do the very same things we were sick to death of before we did our gumption-filling "no-account" things, such as fishing or some other whileawaying activity that puts the savor back in the salt. Peace-of-mind-making activity is the only prerequisite needed to get filled with gumption.
I, for one, like this understanding of Quality or God as high-octane-energy- filling theos that keeps us vitally alive and creative in our relations to things of the world and to each other. It makes gumption the paramount source needed to cull out and sort asunder the good seeds from the bad. Or, to put it another way, gumption keeps us contacting the world from Quality and not from anger and frustration or greed and violence, or from a host of other deadly energy sinkholes we can lapse into to muck things up good. The problem, though, is that life is also God's or Quality's ingenious invention for testing our resolve to find ways to avoid the "gumption traps" that lie hidden in the most innocuous seeming situations, and into which we stumble and then must, if we care enough, spend energy setting things right again. A gumption trap is "anything that causes one to lose sight of Quality, and thus lose one's enthusiasm for what one is doing." (305) Persig sees two main types of gumption traps: 1. those arising from external conditions he calls "setbacks"; 2. those arising from conditions primarily within ourselves he calls "hang ups." As it so happens, these two gumption traps are often related. We experience some major setback because of someone's major hang up or because of some major hang up of our own.
Some organizations and institutions seem peculiarly prone to spend a good portion of their energy spinning their wheels in the muck of major setbacks created by the hang ups of key persons in key positions, As a consequence, they are more or less continually engaged in mopping up operations. I won't go into details; you can, I'm sure, supply your own from your experience. In these rather common situations, Quality has little or no chance to unfurl its luminous wings because the creative flow of quality is dammed up by the rigid values of a few who want to impose their narrow agenda on all.
Ideally our work, the thing in which we spend most of lives, should be gumption building, not gumption destroying. And yet how often is that the case? The lapses from quality are legion and the setbacks ripple out from many local orbits of service, business, and industry in every community to resonate in the culture at large. Some would argue that these lapses are more frequent nowadays than they've ever been. And in so many obvious ways the culture at large appears to be short on Quality. Norman Solomon's short article in this issue is testimony to that. Whose responsibility is it to promote Quality? I'll give you the answer: Each and everyone of us! Get a little gumption going for you and just see how well and how soon things improve.
- Tom Brennan