A Step Over the Cliff

Not long ago, a man stepped off a 60-foot cliff while sleepwalking in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. He survived with only minor injuries – thank goodness for bushes – and an indelible memory of Newton’s First Law. Once started, some journeys are hard to stop.

I suspect David Cameron might have a fair amount of sympathy.

Cameron, for the unfamiliar, is facing the prospect of having the United Kingdom become the “Untied Kingdom.” In just a few days, Scotland will be voting on whether to declare independence from the rest of the UK, and for the first time since the referendum was announced two years ago, polls suggest that the separatists might win.

How did things get here? Because of an agreement that Cameron himself made two years ago with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond after a big Scottish Nationalist win in the local elections. He didn’t have to. Cameron was already deeply unpopular in Scotland; saying “No” couldn’t really lose him any more ground. But it probably seemed harmless. No previous referendum had succeeded, after all, so this could be a way to soothe popular opinion while closing the books on the question for another generation.

Oops.

Once started, some journeys are hard to stop.

With ancestors on both sides of the boundary line, I’m not entirely sure of my own feelings. Is it a good thing for a people to claim its own national identity? It can be, yes. Is it a good thing for a people to stay joined together, to try to make something more than the sum of its parts? It can be, yes. Living in Longmont and not Glasgow, it’s not something I have to make a commitment on, fortunately.

But pardon me if I fail to feel sorry for Mr. Cameron. He’s running hard against a political law as hard as any of Newton’s: decisions have consequences.

It’s a point worth remembering.

A good friend recently forwarded one of the multi-point lists that seem to spring up on the Internet like dandelions in a lawn. In this case, it was “Twenty Daily Practices That Changed my Life.” And the very first point stuck with me – simply asking the question “Do I want this?”

It’s scary how easy it is to forget to ask that. Many times, we make choices feeling there is no choice. We keep the uncomfortable job because of the insurance. We keep the bad relationship because it’s not always like that … is it? And on a higher level, we – whether voter in the street or leader in the capital – go along with a less-than-desirable policy because of the political realities.

But do we want this?

What could happen if it failed?

What could happen if it succeeded?

I’m not arguing for indecisiveness. And heaven knows that compromise is vital to politics and even to life in general. But if you haven’t taken a moment to see your own choices clearly – to weigh what you really want and what costs you’re willing to pay – then you’re compromised before you even begin.

You’re sleepwalking off a cliff. With no guarantee of a bush underneath.

However the Scottish election goes, I hope it works for the best. Because that’s really all that can be done now. No nation makes its own breakup easy to do (as we’ve seen here, even breaking up a state can be quite difficult) but if a free country gives its people that choice, it has to live with the consequences. Whatever they may be. All of Scotland must now ask “Do I want this?” and weigh the answer well — better, perhaps, than Mr. Cameron did.

Mr. Newton said it. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The actions we start may be hard to stop.

Choose them well. With eyes open.

Or be ready for an abrupt awakening.

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