The Runaway Train, The Dinosaur, and the House of Cards

 

Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress, highlights Joseph Tainter’s three factors that lead to a civilization’s collapse:  the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards.  An illustration of these phenomena are in PBS’ just concluded production of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Illustrations with a direct connection to today’s world.

Dickens illustrates the Runaway Train in Merdle’s Bank, where debt pays debt, and that debt pays more debt.   Merdle alone, as the conductor of the train, sees the inevitible crash.  He despises the Dinosaurs that seek his favour to “invest” with him, yet takes them on as passengers.  The Dinosaurs continue to believe in his wisdom and prowess.  ‘Society’ has complete faith in Society, hence Merdle.  For Society, the financial returns will continue.  This is what is owed to position, prestige and privelege.  Status is taken for granted.  There is nothing that can go wrong.  But it does.

The House of Cards. From the degradation and literal collapse of the Clenham household, to the rise and fall (and rise and fall again) of the Dorrit family.  The Merdles themselves who have enjoyed privilege find it gone.  The newfound wealth of the Dorrit family is gone.   “I might go back to dancing,” says Fanny Dorrit.  Her brother, Tip: “But what about me?”  All in which they found meaning is gone.  

Enter Arthur Clennam, in debtors’ prison as a result of inability to pay his creditors after having lost his fortune on Merdle’s Runaway Train. His despair is not from having lost his fortune, but from having let others down.  His happiness in the end is as it always was -enjoying, and in relationship with, people regardless of their status and position in Society.  Through Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit and the cast of characters that support them on their journey, we see that relationships are what endure in the world.   If you count only on riches and material goods, then you can’t have much to count on.  The House will eventually crumble. 

In today’s world, Merdle’s Runaway Train is the fall of Wall Street and even Bernie Madoff.  Dinosaurs refused to see that the economic train was heading fast down a path of disaster.  The harm for many is substantial.  The House of Cards is revealed.  What we have can disappear in an instant.

In the news this morning, 160 people are dead of swine flu in Mexico after only a handful yesterday. Travel advisories are now issued from the Government of Canada.  The World Health Organization views travel restrictions as pointless – it can not be contained.  Looks like a Runaway Train.  

It appears, if we stop and think about it, that our very existence is a House of Cards.  Our privilege in the West is a House of Cards, and perhaps a Runaway Train. Whether it is the economic conditions of our time, or the environmental and health stresses at this time, let us be wary of the Dinosaur.  It is what keeps us from noticing the Runaway Train and the House of Cards.

Then what is the opposite of Dinosaur?  Awake, conscious, in tune with the world.  In relationship with the world.  In relationship with others in the world to seek understanding and solutions.  A sense of happiness.  In Little Dorrit, the happy folk have relationships that cross (yet keep) many boundaries – jailed and jailor, poor and rich, female and male, servant and master, harassed and harrassor, young and old, unloved and loved. Perhaps this is the antidote to the Dinosaur. A way of being that  gets the best out of people for the challenges ahead.  

It can’t really be named, this anti-Dinosaur, but it seems this is what will cultivate our needed collective ingenuity.  

 

Doubting Susan Boyle

 

As I was enjoying the thrill of waiting for the play Doubt to start at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, I read the following by the playwright, John Patrick Stanley, and I knew I was in for a treat:

“There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered.  It is the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life.  The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt.  It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or I become a lie.”

After the experience of the play, I looked at the world differently.  Stanley suggests that doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and I wondered how that plays out in the world.  Enter Susan Boyle. 

As I write this, the You Tube video of Susan Boyle’s performance at Britain’s Got Talent has been viewed over 62 million times. We watch Simon Cowell ask her a few questions before she sings.  Even though I know what is going to happen, it is perfectly clear she doesn’t fit the mold.  She doesn’t look or act “the part.”  When I watched this I knew what was coming, but I also knew in my soul that I would have reacted the same way as the audience.  I felt, with conviction, that there was no way this gal was going to be for real. Then she sings.

The judges’ chins drop, the crowd rises, smiles are everywhere.  Tears surface.  Susan Boyle, with the doubt she inevitably carried in people’s reaction to her, dreamed her dream.

Stanley’s words offer so much about how we see others.  Thank you to Susan Boyle for reminding us to renew our humanity, to dream our dream.  For reminding us that there are Susan Boyles everywhere in our world, should we choose to doubt our fixed assumptions and recognize them.  

 

Is it Time to Sub Off?

 

After a soccer scrimmage my coach made the observation that I was not subbing myself off the field frequently enough.  I had been playing but not as hard as my mates.  I had been keeping track of them and giving them a chance to sub out and take a break before me.  Then when I took my turn, I waited to make sure my mate heading back to the field had the rest she needed.

I explored this with my coach, checking my assumption that if I am not getting tired, I should let others go ahead of me.  There was silence, and I fully expected him to say, “yes, of course”, but he answered, “no.”  The reason – if you don’t take time for yourself, your teammates will see you as a workhorse and count on you to stay on so they can take their breaks.  It won’t add up to anything good for you or the team. 

I further digested this with a colleague of mine who revealed he is taking a 2-year break from volunteering.  We started thinking about how we know people we can rely on to pick up what needs to get done – regardless of how much energy they have to do it.  But we rarely find people who balance the need to step in with the need for look after themselves.

In a real game situation my coach will tell me when to sub off.  But in real life, if I wait for someone to tell me, it won’t happen.  And like in soccer, I will lose stamina over time, I will lose my mental agility to see what needs to get done, let alone be able to do it well.  I will cause harm to my team AND make it impossible for fresh legs to apply themselves to the cause.

Subbing off is an expected and necessary part of the game, but there is a conundrum to learn to live with: when you are off the field, you are still in the game.