… never break the chain

In 4th grade or so in the mid-1960s, I found myself in the YMCA Gra-Y youth program, having graduated from the Indian Guides, which of course has, fortunately, lost the “Indian” since. My Gra-Y group at the Santa Barbara Y was the Pythons. Our shirts had a white or gray coiled snake on forest green fabric. Yes, forrest green. That was, for some reason, discussed and emphasized to the point that I still remember. 

Our main activity, or the one that sticks with me, was flag football, played on Saturdays on the field behind the Y, in a league with the other Gra-Y groups also based there. I don’t remember any of their names. Or colors. Somehow I was our team’s lone All-Star selection at the end of the season. I was small, wiry and quick enough that on defense I could dart through the offensive line and grab the streamer Velcroed to the belt of the opponent with the ball and slam it to the ground — a tackle in that low-contact version of the sport — for a loss of yards. Now and then I used the same skills on offense to take a handoff and weave through the opponent’s defense for a gain, and even a touchdown here and there. This, sadly, stands as the sole sports success of my life. Well, at least I have one.

I also have a clear memory of a Gra-Y motto, unless it was from Indian Guides, in which case it’s a not-quite-as-clear memory. The motto, emblazoned on patches we could buy and affix to our clothes, was:

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Today I find that it is derived from a passage about chains of intellectual reasoning in a 1786 essay by English writer Thomas Reid. I also see, from Wiktionary, that it may have been a reworking of a Basque aphorism: 

A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest.

Regardless, the truism made a big impression on me. Thinking about it through my life I found many places in which to apply it. But I also came to realize that maybe I mis-applied it. Or, more accurately, misinterpreted it.

In Gra-Y (or Whatever-Y) it was used to instruct us on how individuals form a chain of a group, or a community, or by extension, a society. It made sense. I see now that it really was an admonishment to not be a weak link, to take responsibility for your part in things, to not let everyone else down. Sure. That seems important.

It was something else for me, though, maybe the opposite. There was something just too John Wayne about the shaming of someone who has weakness. And there was something really coming to my, and many others’ consciousness: that weakness is not always the “weak” one’s fault. Weakness — and I’m going to stop using that term as it is meant to shame — can come from a variety of directions, be they cultural, economic, socio-political, physical, or whatever. Some people don’t have advantages others have. Some people are struggling. Some people are hurting. It’s as simple as that. 

And if some are struggling, some are hurting, then we all who make up that chain are too. And it follows, with nary a thought to it, that when this is the case, it is all of our responsibility to step in and help. It raises up the individual and the chain, all at once. 

This became and remains my political philosophy, such as I have one. And now I think that perhaps it is others who have misinterpreted that saying.