Published: Sunday, October 28, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
I don’t know if I can start this one out with the catch-all, “We’ve all had that moment where…” because, I think, more and more people are going without having ever written a check. Those peculiar little rectangles which have your bank’s name on it, your account number and which you have to sign at the cash register … with a pen … that has ink in it. Not some new-fangled electronic machine where you swipe a piece of plastic and tap a few buttons and—vamoose—you’re out of there with a new sports coat and a $100 fewer in your bank account (“no green seen,” as I just started saying, after I thought of that just now).
Granted, I can’t really complain. I’ve only written a few checks in my life. This phenomenon is more of an Andy Rooney closer than a college columnist’s polite social observation. But the paradigmatic point still holds, especially when one actually does occasion the use of this antiquated form of payment, for then all hell seemingly breaks loose. You know checks truly have seen their last days when the cashier has to break out the old, hulking, off-whitish box that sucks up the check and runs it back and forth a few times, almost lurching as it goes. It sounds something like a fax machine, paper shredder, and creaky old door mashed into a cacophonous little cube. With its zipping and cranking, I can only think of the ping-ping-bang, sizzle-sizzle, ping-bang of the old metal radiators in my apartment (another antiquated thing) that suddenly chose to turn on one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, leaving my roommate helpless as to how to turn them off and my apartment hot and stuffy for a couple of days. But back to the use of checks. Not only is the whole process of “verifying” and “identifying” checks these days like going through a Soviet National border inspection—they take your name, state license number, phone number—but your check may (and believe me, this is not unheard of) crash a bank of 20 registers at a Tommy Hilfiger store and keep the whole system off-line for a solid 30 minutes while the managers scramble to get a tech guy into the store. And you’re just standing there biting your nails. After this, you may want to get a quitter’s patch for checks, or, if you’re brave enough, go cold turkey because these things really do more harm than good.
So why do we keep using checks? It’s not an invalid question, I dare say. For I know that my father is going to use these little pieces of paper for as long as our bank is offering them or as long as a printer in this nation is pumping them out for legal commercial exchange. So, then, the question remains. Why do some people insist on using checks? Why does anyone insist on doing things one way over another, even when it is apparent one is far more efficient, beneficial, or simply better than the other?
I think the answer can be glimpsed in one of those many pithy adages that revolve around this phenomenon: “Old habits die hard,” “It ain’t easy to teach an old dog new tricks,” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These sayings say something about us. Humans seem to have an appreciation for things being the way they are, or, perhaps it might more rightly be said, we have an aversion to things not being the way we are used to them being. (If you can follow that one, you don’t need to take Intro to Logic, you’re already set.) Change is hard for us. Adaption to new things, ways, norms, etc., takes time, and often quite a bit of apprehension. But we are almost universally happy with the result. We come to realize, through reflection, that the change in habit, the transformation in character, or whatever alteration may be the case, is better for us. And so we accept (even if at first we were resigned to) what is the new. This seems to be a self-evident fact about humanity, about nature at large: that change, or transformation, is an integral part of who we are as human beings and the world we inhabit. There’s no escaping it. Maybe there’s some avoiding it. But in the end, you’ll never be the same person doing the same things today that you were doing five, 10, or 20 years before now, or that you will be doing in five, 10, or 20 years from now.
So we play the game, and we’re the better for it. Whether it’s something as trivial as refraining from the switch to plastic cards over slips of paper or as monumental as shrinking back from major decisions, like moving half way across the world or getting married, people are constantly tied up in knots of change. And we go on, very often fighting inevitable changes in our lives, only to later discover the real beauty and great grace of these transformations. As St. Augustine famously charges us, “Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing.” So I shall be charged. And so should the world charge itself—not simply to submit to change, but to embrace it. “Play, laugh, grow” as the Fisher-Price commercial chimes.
I might still use those checks for a little while longer, though, while they’re still around. But I’m sure to be more open and less resistant when it comes to the bigger changes in my life.