Columnists > Judgment Calls

True convenience

Better to be "appropriate" than merely "comfortable"

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade at 29," Jan. 19, 2002

It is axiomatic that to give birth to an unplanned baby is not "convenient." But not convenient for what?

This I set myself to ponder one day (curious about a half-remembered high-school Latin root, convenire), to see what can be discovered about the proposition. For who knows but that much has been smuggled, unawares, into my modern notion of "convenience."

Convenire: "to be fitting, agreeable, suitable, proper"-etymologies of "convenient" that my Merriam Webster's Collegiate pronounces "obsolete."

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The word surfaces in England in 1374, disguised in orthography but not in sense (conuenyent). Moral and ethical suitability are the common connotations then, and still in 1497 ("All other theym lyved in a conuenyent chastyte"). Again in 1538 the meaning holds, of a quality that is "consonant to the nature or character of; in accordance with; in keeping with; befitting" ("The best kynd of lyfe and most convenyent to the nature of man"). The KJV of 1611 lends its testimony ("Neither filthinesse, nor foolish talking, nor iesting, which are not convenient").

Yet other voices are gathering force in 1477 ("gretter acqueyntaunce at some other conuenyent tyme"); and thus is born the notion of "convenyence" as "suitability to easy action, or absence of trouble in use or action."

The slippage seems a fait accompli by 1759 when Ben Franklin pens that "men who want a present convenience must not be over-solicitous about future contingencies." "Ease" and "comfort" have now swallowed up "appropriateness" and "suitability."

What is of interest is the quiet, underlying philosophical shift not documented in the lexical aids. What shocks is the Oxford English Dictionary's tautology that explains the shift as to "personal convenience"-as if it goes without saying that that which is "personal" is necessarily a matter of "ease" and "comfort" and immediate gratification, rather than "suitableness to nature" and deferred gratification. What fascinates is the universal begging of the question in the proposition that "to give birth to an unplanned baby is not convenient."

Giving birth to an unplanned baby is not convenient to pursuing a career in law, or in the circus, let us agree. But what have we proved? Have we thus established anything about man's happiness-not to mention his ultimate good? Nay, we must follow this rabbit down the trail a bit farther. For the flaw in the scheme is always the Garry Kasparov factor, is it not? How many millions of contingencies must be marshaled to assure a favorable outcome-for attaining the career, first of all, and then the happiness that is expected to accrue to the career?

Even chess is an inadequate analogy because it is still a closed system, theoretically beatable-no eruption of lung cancer may insert itself into the game; no traffic accident may foil a well-laid strategy. Now picture your opponent isn't "Deep Blue" but God Almighty! Chess is a piece of cake compared to controlling your life.

And even if we eliminate the inconvenience of the unplanned baby, a thousand other inconveniences are just on the horizon-the planned child who develops leukemia, the planned and healthy child who turns out to be a scoundrel. If you've known one person who's not been hindered by inconvenience, I'd like to meet him. On second thought, who wants to know such a person? The interesting people are those who've been much inconvenienced, people who've been "hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; persecuted, but not abandoned; perplexed, but not in despair; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Plenty of the sins in my life that I now loathe and repent of-all those shortcuts to character development-were most "convenient" at the time, in the base, post-17th-century sense of "suitability to easy action, or absence of trouble in use or action." Too bad they turned out not to be "convenient" in the pre-17th-century sense of "consonant to the nature or character of; befitting." Today I'm still reaping some of the whirlwind of "convenient."

What worldly wisdom shrinks to happiness the Bible calls "life," which is a more comprehensive category, a state not threatened when wretched "happiness" plays hide and seek. "Life" thrives in the soil of inconvenience, where it leads to suffering, and suffering to perseverance, and perseverance to character, and character to hope (Romans 5:3-4).

Now just for fun, go to the Bs in Oxford's and you will find "bless," and its ancient German derivation "blédsian," with the etymological meaning "to mark with blood." Which helps me better understand just what it is to "bless" a man in leave-taking. And that when Christ blessed me-or covered me with His blood-it was an act which, in the modern meaning of the word, was not at all "convenient" to Himself.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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