In October, these missionaries from Boston put on their long underwear.
Never mind that in Hawaii it was as tropical as ever.
It was October.
That’s not an actual quote from Hawaii, Michener’s typically long-view historical novel — I read it decades ago but I think it starts with the undersea eruptions of magma that formed the island chain — but I believe it captures the spirit of his point. Michener was mocking a certain mindset: One that doesn’t distinguish the situation-dependent aspects of life from the eternal ones.
These missionaries — or so Michener was claiming — followed prescribed rules. To be good people, to be holy, to be God-fearing, they read the Bible and prayed at the prescribed time of day, they attended worship services at the prescribed time of the week, they changed into and out of long underwear at the prescribed season, they celebrated Church holidays at the prescribed time of the year, and they traipsed off to a Hawaiian ministry at the prescribed time of their lives.
One of these things is not like the others.
– Sesame Street song
They wouldn’t have understood this song for preschoolers, at least not as it applied to their lives. For them it was all one: the religious observances, the life’s work, the wardrobe choices. And everything that was right in Boston was right everywhere. Every. Little. Thing.
Now I don’t know whether Michener’s take on these folks was even remotely accurate or fair but it stuck with me, maybe because it was thought-provoking and also funny, albeit in a slightly superior way. After all, if you can observe an irrationality in others, you’re not guilty of it yourself, right?
Not so fast.
This week, I rooted through my closet looking for something clean to wear and emerged happy with a drapey, lightweight-cotton top. A sleeveless top. Clearly the right choice for a sunny day in May. And I continued happy with my choice until I went outside, where it felt like October and a cold one at that.
Now, there’s no question that a drapey, lightweight-cotton, sleeveless top can be right in May. But only in the right May.
And although I’m not in exactly the same situation as Michener’s missionaries — I don’t conflate my wardrobe choices with my efforts to live a good life — it was a good reminder not to start doing the equivalent of that in any area of my life. Many of the things I do without thinking aren’t eternal truths or anything like it: They’re just how we happen to do things in Boston.