“Let’s Just Wait and Watch It” — Let’s NOT! The Mentality of “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” Can Kill You

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

One of the scariest moments of my 62-year-old life occurred about seven months ago at 7 AM in my dermatologist’s office. My wife had joined us, and we were told in a most frightening way that I was likely to die, given the results of a biopsy taken one week earlier. It almost came to be on two occasions as I later developing a 104.5-Fahrenheit temperature as a result of a nasty Staph infection acquired during the hospitalization required to remove the life-threatening tumor! Let’s backwind five months earlier…

One week after noticing a strange outgrowth on my skin, I had shown it to this same dermatologist. Without insisting on a biopsy(!!), he said he could send me to a surgeon to remove it or to simply “wait and watch it for now.” I foolishly asked him what he would do if he found himself facing this situation, and he replied, “let’s just wait and watch it,” so I did just this. It almost killed me, twice!


Consider the modern cliché “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is only very narrowly accurate, wildly misguided and outright dangerous to our continued survival. How so? By the time the danger is clear and present, you’re already about to descend over a waterfall, purely looking at what set of rocks you’ll crash upon, and severely risking your very survival! On the face of it, this piece of advice seems to point to the idea that if something is working, it’s best to leave it alone. In other words, don’t mess with anything that is functioning adequately enough, as the possibility of screwing up would make it worse than when you found it. Where did such an instruction originate? How accurate or useful is it really?

Apparently the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a recent one widely attributed to T. Bert Lance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970’s. Lance is reported to have stated it on several occasions. It epitomized his commitment to save the federal government billions of dollars by no longer fixing things that are not broken and start fixing things that are actually broken. In this narrow application, Lance may have had a point, one that could help save taxpayers significant monies. Well intentioned as this motto was, unfortunately it has been grossly and dangerously misapplied to nearly everything in modern life.

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This mentality of not wanting to be bothered until the damage is visibly obvious is unlikely only a recent development. It appears to have been widespread throughout the world at all times given how easy, convenient, and expedient it is to bypass making the effort of taking necessary actions to prevent harm looming on the horizon. Of course, in the short term, it frees your precious time, energy and effort to address other high priority items, or so it would appear. Heaven knows, our ego-minds can dream up an endless number of reasons, explanations and excuses to help justify doing nothing. It isn’t hard to do nothing. You could honestly describe this patterning as the lazy person’s cop-out: to do nothing until the proverbial barn is ablaze, in contrast to the proactive person’s vision and commitment to do something to prevent the fire in the first place. One caveat: there are times and situations when consciously choosing to do nothing turns out to be the wisest course of action, especially when events, technology and politics are in such flux that it is simply not possible to determine which direction to proceed.

This perspective impacts everyone on a daily basis. It seems to be a human proclivity to get excited and active initially in building, purchasing or creating something, like buying a new house or car or starting a new job or relationship. Then cosmic entropy sets in with our beginning to languish over time and fall into disrepair with poor or nonexistent maintenance, renewal and reinvention. It is an all too common story with human beings repeated endlessly on this planet. Seeing how doing nothing is often actually falling more behind, then it is obvious that continued active participation is essential to stay engaged, productive and competitive. It is also true at times that doing nothing can be brilliant.

Outcroppings of such an expedient ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ philosophy are rampant throughout the major structures of our society and worldwide, in particular within the fields of health care, criminal justice, and public policy, to name but a few. How often do professionals in the health care field postpone or stretch out doctor visits while letting “something” develop due to inconclusive test findings, or contradictory symptoms or just not knowing what they are dealing with? It is quite common to hear people tell their horror stories at the hands of less than competent health care professionals.

Allopathic or modern medicine is squarely in the realm of “secondary prevention,” that is, diagnosing, testing and addressing symptoms, syndromes and diseases after they are physically evident, measurable and resolvable. While there is nothing wrong about addressing such matters with the best available expertise, approaches, procedures and technologies, it is not the same as preventing the disturbances before they arise in the first place. The factual thumbnail story that leads off this writing is a classic case repeated innumerable times on this planet. It is likely that you have heard or directly experienced some version of this scenario many times yourself.

It appears that the least known and practiced form of prevention is “primary prevention,” which encompasses all you be done to stay healthy before any symptoms, syndromes or diseases emerge. Primary prevention includes a broad array of lifestyle behaviors, such as engaging in outstanding nutritional habits and regular exercise (stretching/range of motion, cardiovascular and strengthening exercise/conditioning), daily taking selective supplements and vitamins, using ergonomic furniture and designing low-stress work and home environments, cultivating a network of social support, enjoying sunlight, fresh air, clean water and nature, allowing limited exposure to power lines, cell phones, toxic chemicals and substances, elevated noise levels, high density, stressful toxic people and environments, processed foods, and developing excellent stress-handling abilities. All can boost resilience and adaptability. Learning to effectively watch and investigate your thoughts, feelings/ emotions, attitude and ego-mind is also central to effective primary prevention. Good genetics doesn’t hurt either. Unfortunately, allopathic medicine does not address primary prevention well, but don’t let this stop you.

Applying the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality to the criminal justice realm is often profoundly sad. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me of alerting the police and other protective authorities to ‘an accident ready to happen,’ particularly when domestic disputes, angry altercations, alleged child and elder abuse, and dangerous situations arise, and nothing was done. The voice at the other end of the phone often informs the concerned citizen that the police will not come out until the law is broken, and actual violence, property damage or loss/damage to human lives occurred, and to call them back when this occurs. How many lives have been taken or severely affected, given the lack of response for help? This may well leave anyone with a heart simply speechless in incredulity. It’s not about authority bashing, but simply to reveal and acknowledge the extent of this mentality.

Given the opportunity to prevent outright damage and harm, what would stop you from doing so as a part of your policing job? Some may argue that there are limited manpower resources to answer all calls for preventative help. Some may argue that many of these situations will resolve on their own. Some may argue that we possess no clearly tested guidelines to discern which situations are worthy of immediate response and which are not. In any event, there is no question that major harm does happen a good portion of the time, even with repeated calls to authorities. Wouldn’t you call this a poor utilization of resources, and providing less than adequate safety to our citizens, to say the least?

In the domain of governance or public policy, the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality is exhibited in sharp relief. For example and most poignantly, from Columbine High School massacre in 1999 to the most recent Newtown school shootings in 2012, even when the gun control laws for assault and automatic weapons are clearly broken and repeated catastrophes occur, solid structural actions to remedy this state of affairs are hard to find and implement given strong lobbies and longstanding attachments. The United States is the sole industrialized Western country to allow the prevalence of weapons among its citizens. What may well have been a necessary right when our country was founded is clearly not fitting for these modern times, and actually remarkably dangerous, misguided and unwise.

Nationally and internationally the infrastructure of roads and freeways, bridges and tunnels, along with aging railroad tracks, damns, canals and levees, pose a danger to us all, travelers and homebodies alike. Without a commitment in regular action to invest in maintaining an effective and safe infrastructure, economic progress along with ease of travel and commerce are jeopardized. An earthen dam that has been leaking for decades without repair that finally breaks wide open after a huge storm, flooding the valley and taking a huge toll in human lives and property damage, is a prime example. When all the damage is done, then the dam’s structural difficulties are addressed. More broadly, important issues often go by the wayside in not getting effectively addressed until some catastrophe brings them to the public’s attention, prompting elected officials to finally act.

Remember the Loma Parieta earthquake, or the Northridge earthquake, that both demonstrated the real need for massive retrofitting of freeways in California for earthquake safety? The Northern California Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 is credited with killing 63 people, injuring 3,757, leaving some 3,000 to 12,000 people homeless, and causing an estimated $6 billion in property damage, which makes it one of the most expensive natural disasters in United States history up to that time. Then came the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California that claimed 57 lives, 8,700 injured and caused an estimated $20 billion in damage, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters in the history of this country. Some 2100 spans currently are scheduled to be strengthened when the transportation retrofitting in California is complete. What took so long to recognize the need for freeway retrofitting in earthquake country? What stopped California from passing legislation for this work far, far sooner?

It wasn’t that the need for earthquake safety was unknown. Apparently legislation had been proposed for decades to address these very realistic, life-and-death concerns, yet each year it did not pass, given the high costs and lack of public, legislative and leadership support. In fact, it took these two massively damaging earthquakes to get legislation enacted. Would anyone be surprised that funding for further retrofitting has been curtailed or put on hold given budget constraints? Do we human beings ever learn to be proactive and to tackle head-on key concerns before we’re faced with yet another tragic loss?

In awareness, everything changes in an instant. Awareness includes action since there is no way anyone can be in awareness and not take necessary actions in accord with a newfound awareness, at least not without getting into major trouble with oneself in sacrificing core values, principles and integrity! Awareness per se, in and of itself, is curative. Possible candidates for appropriately hard-hitting, truth-pointing mottos for proactive prevention and progressive engagement are: either you’re showing active, rock-solid commitment in actions to grow, develop and evolve or you’re defaulting to devolution, playing small, settling and giving up; either you’re seeing the larger picture and taking actions to create your vision daily or you’re caught up in the mind’s minutia, being its asleep slave, and just hanging around; and either you’re actively being born in creating your life here-and-now or letting your life languish like a leaf in the stream being carried at the whim of the current and conditions.

We all face the daily opportunity to recognize the human proclivity to let everything slide and lack the foresight to responsively, effectively address key concerns that directly impact us. We can stay well-informed and live a healthy lifestyle that embodies primary prevention for broadly well-lived lives and we can challenge the mentality of “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” and “Let’s just wait and watch it” by saying, “Let’s NOT!” The life you save can be your very own or a loved one. I lived this; I know.

I have a clean bill of health at present and I’m working with a Naturopath, medical specialist and new dermatologist to help create a pathology-free physical body while actively supporting vibrant health. Drawing upon this one’s direct experience, it is now clear that health care is far too important to entrust into the hands of medical doctors, or anyone else, but yourself. Only you will fully experience the consequences of decisions made regarding your health care and quality of life.

Remembering that only each one will experience the consequences of their own choices and actions in my work as a psychologist with clients, one core principle honored is not to tell another human being how to run their lives, since it will only be this being and their closest intimates that will experience the results of this choice, which is ultimately and purely up to this being. Only rarely, when there is not enough selfhood or ego strength available to make this choice, and devastating harm is likely to ensue, that this principle is relaxed. Every one of us can be granted the human dignity to learn and grow in our own way, manner and timeframe, so long as this does not unduly impinge and harm others. This painfully liberating, jaw-dropping cautionary tale offers four critical life-saving morals: Look before you leap; if you think education is expensive, try ignorance, forewarned is forearmed, and act now, not later, or you may deeply regret what you did not do in a timely way! Capisce?!

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