What are “But If Nots”?

In 1940 a British and allied force of 350,000 soldiers was sent to blunt the German invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland.   The German blitzkrieg outmaneuvered them and forced them into a wearying retreat to a beach in Dunkirk, Belgium.   In position to rout one of the last standing armies in Western Europe and substantially diminish Britain’s ability to make war, the Germans paused, thinking the British force to be larger and more prepared than it was.

The beach at Dunkirk was not conducive to British warships getting close enough to enable a rescue.  The first night on the beach only 7,000 soldiers were evacuated, leaving 343,000 with virtually no hope of being rescued before the coming onslaught.

A British officer on the beach, recognizing the situation, flashed a three word message to the ships . . . “But if not.”

These words are from the Old Testament book of Daniel;

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up

What’s most amazing here is not the powerful poetry and imagery conjured up in the face of death, not the defiance, but that the officer knew that the recipient on the ship would know and understand the reference.   These people had a common language, a shared experience, a common reading of the Bible, which created both a bond and an efficiency in communication.

In fact, we know from history that the message was understood on the ships and circulated about.  It was even communicated back to mainland Britain.  Again it was universally understood and inspired Britons to fight on.  We also know that that night thousands of people, many inspired by the officer’s message, risked their own lives in treacherous waters to gather every floatable boat, dingy, and raft to transport the pinned army out to the ships.  The escape was miraculous and, perhaps not too much to say, history altering.

The use of shared experience and common language, remarkably and dramatically employed at Dunkirk, used to be unremarkable.  Once upon a not so long ago time nearly everyone in the western world that could read had read the Bible and perhaps David Copperfield.   These common experiences brought people together.

Progress has, gratefully, brought us many more books.  And much more music.  And an explosion of television options.  And multitudes of delicacies, events, experiences, and hobbies.  All of which, while enriching our lives (and I wouldn’t want it any other way), have quietly taken away common and shared experiences. 

Take music. Once, I had a common knowledge and enjoyment of the same music that nearly all of America listened to.  In the 70’s we listened to Motown, rock, pop, and soul.  It was all played on the same stations.  Music is now so (again, gratefully) diverse that there are entire genres that I simply don’t ever listen to and many more people that don’t ever listen to what I do.  

In today’s world of much and many we are islands of individual experience, each with so many different streams of input, that it is near impossible for anyone to have a wide view of understanding about what makes up anyone else.

And that’s the point of this blog. 

To create a record, a narrative, of the many things that contribute to the who and what I am.  To catalog and comment on the many things I read, the music I listen to, neat things to eat, and the hobbies and habits I acquire. 

I blog to create “But if Nots” – a common language and shared experience.

Welcome to it.

I have heard it said that the biggest curse is to be uninteresting.  I rather think that a bigger curse is to be uninterested – and I am free of that curse. 

My name is Sean O’Brien.  I live in North Carolina, via Massachusetts.  I was born during Woodstock, and that may have been the most deviant I have been in my life (and I hope the last time I hear Jefferson Airplane).  I am a husband and father, an armchair economist and philosopher, a runner, a business manager, a technophile, an active citizen, a Red Sox fan, and an aggressive pursuer of anything that strikes me as interesting.

This blog will feature thoughts on political economy, education, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, running, music, raising a family, technology, marketing principles, globalization, choice theory, movies, politics and more. 

I hope that you find something interesting to read and can grow the common experience with your comments.


10 Responses to What are “But If Nots”?

  1. Chris says:

    Hi Sean – I’m working on a project related to Woodstock and would love to hear more about your connection to the festival. How can I contact you?

  2. S says:

    You wrote “In fact, we know from history… “. I am having trouble finding a historical reference to the story about the message “but if not” given at Dunkirk. Could you please tell me where I can find more information about this story?

  3. Myron says:

    I’m all in…………………………how’s that for efficiency.

  4. Pingback: What are “But if Nots?” | But If Nots

    • Sean O'Brien says:

      A but if not is a phrase, an idea, a piece if writing, that when shared between people creates a common experience that binds and adds efficiency in communication.

      For example, when I say “no soup for you!!”. Many of you know what I mean and what I am referring to without my having to complete the reference.

  5. Jeff Peterson says:

    Looking forward to some interesting reading! Based on some of our “running” dialogues alone…

  6. EJ says:

    Good Premise SOB, nicely done.

  7. Anne says:

    Based on your description, it should all be interesting to read!

  8. Rick says:

    I am among the interested — and looking forward to being aboard.

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