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Meditation on "for want of a nail"

You've probably heard this before: I came across it in A Wind in the Door.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


I had some thoughts.

1. First, the progression is important here. Sometimes a seemingly insignificant item has a giant effect right away, with no intermediary steps--for example, a peanut would, if Serena Williams happened to eat it. (Serena Williams is allergic to peanuts. I Googled "famous people allergic to peanuts" to finish this example. The Internet is wonderful.) So the point the saying is trying to get across isn't merely that seemingly insignificant things can play dramatic roles. It's a more Butterfly-effect statement: a tiny mishap at one end of the chain causes a huge mishap at the other end.

No peanuts, Serena!


2. The fact that the horseshoe nail played such a crucial role had a whole lot to do with the fact that the nail was in the shoe of a horse being ridden by a messenger to a battle. Horseshoe nails get lost all the time without having dire consequences. This seems like a really Scrooge-ish thing for me to say; it seems as if I'm stomping all over the message of the saying as it was used in A Wind in the Door, which was to say, "No one is insignificant; your role in the universe is important." I'm not, though: I agree with both those statements, resoundingly. What I'm criticizing the metaphor as a vehicle for conveying that message--because, as I say, not all nails are in the shoes of a warhorse carrying a mission-critical messenger. That nail was important in that way, but what about all the rest of us nails? There are three directions we can go:

3a. "They also serve who only stand and wait." This direction asks us to consider what it means for a life to be of consequence. It's not all about the battles! It's also about churning the butter--or about recording the rate of glacial melting, or about saying something friendly to the kid sitting by himself, staring blankly at the wall while his classmates goof off and have fun. Or about standing and waiting. When people resist this direction, sometimes it's that they don't value these other things, but often it's that they don't want to be denied access to traditional realms of glory, and I totally get that.

John Milton standing and waiting


3b. The Butterfly Effect again, but more roundabout than the messenger's horse going lame because it lost a shoe. Each of us, in our humble nail-ness, may have dramatic effects on events, but in ways that not at all apparent or predictable. You make a joke to your co-worker at the café; a customer overhears it and thinks it's funny; he tells it to his boss, who tells it to her boss, who, spirits lifted by the well-timed humor, goes into highly sensitive diplomatic negotiations in a better frame of mind. Even that's too linear, but you get the idea.

What natural disasters have you caused today, butterfly?
(source is deponti's Flickr, here)

3c. Inherent worth, apart from actions or consequences. This says that nails are a wonder just in their nail-ness, regardless of whether they're holding horse shoes on or hanging pictures to a wall. You are, so you have worth, period.


All three of these things are true, but all three of them are dissatisfying for various reasons. And yet true. For that matter, "For want of a nail" is true too--it just has its limitations if you go teasing it and pulling at its threads. It's almost as if this stuff is complicated and no one formulation is completely satisfying, and yet each has something powerful to say. Hmmmm.


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 7th, 2017 12:13 am (UTC)
I've read A Wrinkle In Time many many times but the sequels I borrowed from a library so I barely remember them.

I also read A Swiftly Tilting Planet before A Wind In The Door. Whoops.
Feb. 7th, 2017 12:26 am (UTC)
I loved A Wrinkle in Time, but it's possible I loved A Wind in the Door even more. It affected my worldview pretty profoundly. (A Swiftly Tilting Planet I liked for the poem ("In this fateful hour/all heaven with its power..." etc.), but the story itself I liked a lot less (and remember less well) than the other two.
Feb. 9th, 2017 07:39 pm (UTC)
Must look up A Wind in the Door.
Feb. 7th, 2017 12:56 am (UTC)
It's almost as if this stuff is complicated

Oh, yes! :D

I'm pretty sure I first read the horse-shoe nail in What Katy Did, myself. (Brief moment of wondering how many mildly didactic children's/YA books it's appeared in.)

I felt sorry for the butterfly - that question's really putting it on the spot!
Feb. 7th, 2017 01:31 am (UTC)
LOL re: butterfly--I'm being facetious. I really don't believe in sole causes!

Yeah, it really is complicated, and these rhymes and poems and so on help us grasp at an aspect of it, but whatever we choose to say or think about at any one moment, there's always *more*.
Feb. 7th, 2017 02:32 am (UTC)
Well, if it comes to that, I don't really believe the butterfly will read and suffer grave distress! :)

And yes, for sure.
Feb. 7th, 2017 04:23 am (UTC)
Yeah, it probably doesn't get much Internet access, flitting from flower to flower, so we're probably good. *phew*
Feb. 7th, 2017 12:58 am (UTC)

Thank you

Feb. 7th, 2017 01:31 am (UTC)
De nada!
Feb. 7th, 2017 01:22 am (UTC)
I really ought to reread A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels one of these days. I did read them as a child, but I think I was just a bit too young/immature to really get them at the time.

But like heliopausa, I remember this rhyme best from What Katy Did, where the emphasis is less on the importance of every person/nail but the fact that seemingly tiny lapses can have dire consequences in the wrong circumstance. Katy disobeys her aunt and ends up paralyzed; the horse loses a nail and the kingdom dies; someone doesn't say a kind word to the lonely kid in the classroom and maybe the kid commits suicide later that day. (Which is obviously a more complicated situation than Katy's, but at the same time, it's the kind of thing people blame themselves for and worry at like a sore tooth.)

People can also suffer from the sense that every lapse on their part is the lost nail that will doom the kingdom. It is all very complicated.
Feb. 7th, 2017 01:29 am (UTC)
People can also suffer from the sense that every lapse on their part is the lost nail that will doom the kingdom. --that's what this entry was addressing. Insofar as there's a butterfly effect, its operation is so roundabout that I really don't think we can take the blame (anymore than we'd be grandiose enough to take the credit).

I haven't read What Katy Did, but I'd argue that it's never just one thing that causes the disastrous consequence. Even with the messenger in "For want of a horse," the circumstances had to be just so: no farrier nearby, no back-up messenger, and no way of recovering the battle, etc. It's not *solely* the nail that cost the battle.

But yeah, it is very complicated. It's contradictory things at once.
Feb. 7th, 2017 01:50 am (UTC)
We've very important! Except when we aren't! And it's hard to know in any particular circumstance if that's a moment when we are important or aren't - even afterward, I think we often don't find out that we were one of the nails that kept the horse going and saved the kingdom etc.

I guess it's important just to do our best and accept that sometimes we're not going to know how much of a difference we made, if we made any.
Feb. 7th, 2017 02:10 am (UTC)
I guess it's important just to do our best and accept that sometimes we're not going to know how much of a difference we made, if we made any. --Yeah, this exactly. You managed to say it in a sentence!
Feb. 7th, 2017 02:37 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly. Be comforted, for you are important, and also a very tiny bit of the fabric of the universe!
Feb. 9th, 2017 07:41 pm (UTC)
SO very true!
Feb. 7th, 2017 02:44 am (UTC)
I think of these as the bricolage theory of worldbuilding: the components can be little and big. It might be harder to find the crucial little components (the nail) that makes all the diff. Easier to see the big one. But it's an error to assume the little ones don't exist.
Feb. 7th, 2017 04:24 am (UTC)
totally agree--the little ones absolutely exist and absolutely contribute.
Feb. 7th, 2017 10:17 am (UTC)
I'm more concerned about the King losing a battle because his generals were stressing over a lost nail. That rhyme is useful for people whose job it is to find nails for horseshoes, but for everyone else, it's "don't sweat the small stuff"...
Feb. 7th, 2017 03:03 pm (UTC)
That too! Plus, dude, plan in some redundancy! Maybe two messengers, if the whole kingdom is going to ride on the outcome of the battle.
Feb. 7th, 2017 01:49 pm (UTC)
Like the nature of light itself.
Feb. 7th, 2017 03:02 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, yes. Yes indeed.
Feb. 7th, 2017 02:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this thoughtful post. Right now, there are so many bad things going on at national level both in the UK and the US, and I desperately want to do something to help make things better but at the same time, I feel powerless.

One problem I have is that I feel I should be able to do something, even though I'm small and have little influence. Both Archimedes and his "Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough..." and the butterfly effect give rise to the faulty thinking that if ONLY I could find the right place to push or flap my wings, my small action could have wonderful results. But as you say, just as most lost nails won't end up being much of a problem, small efforts most likely won't result in big changes, however well targeted that effort is.

So the challenge is neither to give up because it all seems useless whilst also accepting that one's individual effort is not likely to have much effect. Yet still we have to keep on keeping on.
Feb. 7th, 2017 03:02 pm (UTC)
That is exactly the challenge, and it's really hard, which goes to show that the hard stuff that's asked of us isn't just physically hard, but also mentally/spiritually hard.

I think there can be companionship in this, though. We're here, together, working hard. That's a kind of a gift, in a way.
Feb. 7th, 2017 04:08 pm (UTC)
To add to what asakiyume said-- it would also be quite horrifying to be puissant enough to be able to transform society unilaterally and single-handedly. I would be immobilized by worry. Smallness is a mercy, too.
Feb. 9th, 2017 09:38 am (UTC)
I don't exactly worry about transforming society by my actions, but the depressed mind does conjure up some very plausible chains of events on a smaller scale that lead to death, disaster and misery. This is why you should never say to a depressed person, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"
Feb. 9th, 2017 12:51 pm (UTC)
Too, too true.
Feb. 8th, 2017 09:43 am (UTC)
We may not be the lightning, but we can be part of the wave!
Feb. 8th, 2017 01:59 pm (UTC)
And that's a good thing--waves are good
Feb. 9th, 2017 09:39 am (UTC)
Or, to use another metaphor that's going around at the moment, you can be one snowflake in an avalanche.
Feb. 9th, 2017 08:01 pm (UTC)
Feeling that metaphor today :-)
Feb. 7th, 2017 05:15 pm (UTC)
Speaking of children's books, Sarah Rabdau wrote songs inspired by Outside Over There and wanted Maurice Sendak to hear it but he died the day she tried to send him a letter.

Feb. 8th, 2017 09:42 am (UTC)
True it is spiritually hard to keep a vision and follow it.

I do believe that God is the collective manifestation of the UU, and if we work with the system then the UU can help sort out the trajectory, and manage the nails for us.

Since we can't always micromanage the blacksmith, or random rock impact. And indeed, to let God, or WhoEverRunsThisPlace, get on with her job, we HAVE to let go of that micromanagement...

So we do what we can, and leave the rest up to Her.

The other hand says, She helps those who help themselves, but this is not Controlling Things!
Feb. 8th, 2017 01:59 pm (UTC)
Very, very good points ♥
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )

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