When a Single Narrative Is Not Enough

When a Single Narrative Is Not Enough

When a Single Narrative Is Not Enough is the first of a series, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the secondthirdfourth, fifth here and here, sixth here and here, and seventh.

 

Memorial Day 2015. Three months after our wedding day, my financially recovering husband and I opted for a local getaway to Galena, IL, a small tourist town by the Mississippi River. We wanted to see the river, to which my sister responded, “Huh? Why?” She was right to question us—we were probably only inspired by some vague, romantic notion of the river from literature (Twain).

 

Off we went to Galena. Honestly, we’re not really small-town America type of tourists. The few times we do this type of getaway, we run out of things to do. I guess we’re not into antiques and fruity jams that much, and we also look for Chinese food by the 5th meal or so…

 

But there was one thing that left an impression on me, which was our visit to the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, IA, across the river from Galena.

 

Naturally, there was an exhibit on steamboats with Mark Twain quotes sprinkled throughout the gallery walls. A well-crafted miniature of a steamboat was displayed, and I stared at it for quite a while.

 

Certainly, steam engines marked the dawn of technological and industrial overhaul, powering engines for various large-scale, useful work. They enabled steamboats and later on, railway locomotives, means to transport large masses of both humans and goods across the country. As the mechanical principles of their operations were understood and developed further, they became ancestors of modern turbines and internal combustion engines, from which we benefit each day.

 

Technologically, steamboats were a major accomplishment. But, they were more than technological artifacts; they were also human artifacts.

 

I paused in front of the steamboat miniature, troubled. It was blatantly obvious to me that the architecture was designed to mimic and enforce social strata. There were three levels—the lowest for the workers, who had to toil through shifts to keep the boat going; the second level for those who paid to travel and dine on the boat for business or leisure; the third mainly for the pilot. Perhaps it was just my 21st century pair of eyes, but these visible and intentionally constructed separations, sectioned by mere wooden floors, produced a discomfort.

 

The Haves and Have-nots were separated. The Have-nots toiled for the Haves, which on the steamboat meant constantly feeding wood to the furnace that boiled large amount of water for steam. These boilers were prone to overheating and explosions—indeed, most steamboats were destroyed by fire—and were not the most pleasant working environment, understatedly. Children worked on the boat too, and accidents did not discriminate.

 

Facts of life, one may say. It is just the way of the world, no different now than in the past.

 

Maybe. How could people be so oblivious to the things that went on, literally, under their feet? How could human worlds be so different and separated while occupying the very same vessel?

 

As steamboats traversed the Mississippi River, they also caused massive deforestation along the riverbank. Trees were cut down to produce wood for fuel. Environmentally, this was a disaster. Deforested riverbanks, unstable and prone to erosions, resulted in severe flooding that would occur for decades, many years after steamboats no longer graced the Mississippi.

 

The Appeal and Inadequacy of a Single Narrative

 

Steamboats were not just technological artifacts, nor societal, nor environmental artifacts. They were all of the above and more. One could slice this reality into a single narrative and tell an exclusively good or tragic story, but it would, at best, be partially true. The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.

 

The problem is, for one reason or another, we tend to respond better to single narratives. They are easy to explain and easy to remember. On paper, single narratives present a coherent and explainable reality that appeal to the public, translating into, say, book sales or political appeal. When something that we believe as good reveals a darker side, or vice versa, our minds have a hard time resolving the two. How can something good be bad?

 

Yet in the real reality, many human inventions are both good and bad. One aspect is rightfully celebrated, but another facet reveals something sinister in the shadow. In reality, multiple narratives can exist at the same time.

 

***

 

As an engineer, I could probably be forgiven for telling the story of the steamboat as a technological wonder and ignore its other aspects. But, as follows from above, there’s a great insufficiency with this practice.

 

How can one adamantly celebrate “progress” when humans and the environment come as an expense? How can one be spellbound by the beauty and grandeur of human inventions, and forgetting that they were built on the backs of other humans?

 

Don’t get me wrong, I think accomplishments should be celebrated. What I’m advocating is a kind of celebration that’s not ignorant, but one that is conscientious. It is a celebration with certain awareness (and ownership) of their possible “dark sides” and with resolve to do better in the future.

 

***

 

When it comes to safety and sustainability, technology learns. Though, it doesn’t usually happen until after some major catastrophes take place and government imposed regulations with severe economic penalties are enacted. My question is, Is this the only way we learn to fix mistakes and design better systems?

 

I can’t help asking the what-if questions. What if the engineers, designers, and all those involved in designing the steamboats were cognizant of safety both for humans and the environment? Would they have come up with a better version of the steamboat?

 

These hypothetical questions are impossible to answer since we only have one version of history. Plus, hindsight is 20/20.

 

But now that we have hindsight, can we do something about our foresight?

 

Can we be more mindful of the multiple narratives involved in a given situation? Can we work to integrate them somehow?

 

The business argument says, “It will take too long and too much money. We need to take risks; we can’t move on only when everything is perfect,” which has its legitimacy, within its economic narrative. But this is only one of the narratives at play…

 

***

 

These questions swim in my head and I don’t yet know how to reconcile them. All I know is that I see systems like the steamboats and I crave for something more. There has to be something better; there has to be a better way of doing things. As I live and work, I want to be that holistic engineer and human being who is not adamantly fixed on a single narrative.

 

 

Photo credit: The Dave Thomson Collection at Steamboats.com.

 

A Book Can Change Your Life

A Book Can Change Your Life

 

Like a comet pulled from orbit

As it passes the sun

Like a stream that meets a boulder

Halfway through the wood

 

The song “For Good” from Stephen Schwartz’s popular musical, Wicked, sings to the alteration in one’s life trajectory as a result of meeting another person. I love the imagery the lines create: when a force or the momentum from a chance encounter or collision with an object causes something to travel in a slightly different direction.

 

As much as with people, this phenomenon also happens with books. A single book can open your eyes and make an impact such that you cannot return to who you were before. Your path forward then takes on a different shape.

 

Most recently, my orbit-altering sun was a book titled Just Mercy. Bryan Stevenson was my white rabbit signaling me to the world of the incarcerated, the poor, and the condemned. I followed the trail onward to Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, and other related articles. I was getting an education in the legacy of slavery and racism in our society, and the many shapes it materializes into.

 

Along the way I learned about women, children, and the mentally ill in prison—the vulnerable that tends to be the most defenseless in the case of abuse. I learned about the lack of sanitary pads or tampons for incarcerated women and their monthly humiliation. I learned about the difficulty of re-starting life after prison, where employers avoid those with criminal records, which then can cause people to spiral in debt. Here is a world where being poor can be a crime.

 

Last week, when sorting through stacks of magazines, I wondered if there was an alternative to dropping them off at Goodwill. Maybe I could donate them to a prison library or a juvenile detention facility. I then came across Chicago Books to Women in Prison, whose work does exactly as its name says. Books, women issues, and prison—it seemed like a perfect convergence of what I’ve been learning this year.

 

The timing was perfect because they hold trainings for new volunteers on the last Sunday of each month. So on Sunday, my husband and I went over and volunteered for a few hours. It was a powerful experience.

 

Chicago BWP receives letters from incarcerated women from detention facilities around the country. In them, the women indicate their preferred genres or specific titles, and occasionally, tidbits about themselves. The volunteers then would try to match their requests, find the books from the shelves (not as easy as I expected), add a little note (optional, but recommended), and package them for mail. People would help by taking what they can to the post office. It’s quite a system, and they have many dedicated volunteers.

 

There, they also keep a box of letters from inmates saying how grateful they are for the books they have received. The books are like a light to them…

 

I can’t easily describe the experience, but the human connection from holding the letters in my hand impacts me deeply. I know they were not addressed to me, but somehow, they arrived in my hands. Some of them have dreams to accomplish after their release, some are well read, and some have really nice handwriting. I said a little prayer for each letter I worked on.

 

Books are so important to me as a source of knowledge, insight, pleasure, and relief from the ‘real world’. I’d want to believe they could be those too and much more within prison walls. I know how a book can change my life. I hope that those mailed books may change some lives too, for the better.

 

Needless to say, we will be back to Chicago BWP.

 

Related articles:

Books Kept Me Alive in Prison

Women in New York State Prisons Don’t Have Enough Sanitary Pads, Not to Mention Other Daily Indignities

Prisons that withhold menstrual pads humiliate women and violate basic rights

Image by Edukeralam, Navaneeth Krishnan S (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Education of Jesus Christ

The Education of Jesus Christ

Few events in the Bible were as pivotal as the moment humanity first chose to disobey God. I don’t think it’s possible to sufficiently describe the weight of the decision to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. That single decision ultimately turned the universe around. Because of that decision, God the Son came down to earth, became flesh, died as a human being, and would remain a human being forever. That one decision brought a change in the Godhead.

 

One decision changed everything. But since “everything” is so nondescript, it would be useful to focus on one particular change that sin caused. In the book Education, writer Ellen G. White wrote:

Adam and Eve had chosen the knowledge of evil, and if they ever regained the position they had lost they must regain it under the unfavorable conditions they had brought upon themselves. No longer were they to dwell in Eden, for in its perfection it could not teach them the lessons which it was now essential for them to learn. In unutterable sadness they bade farewell to their beautiful surroundings and went forth to dwell upon the earth, where rested the curse of sin. (Emphasis mine)

 

It says that because Adam and Eve chose to sin, they brought upon themselves an unfavorable condition. This condition was not purposeless, however, since it was a means through which they could regain their first position.

 

The second sentence contains what is, for me, a truly groundbreaking concept. It says that because of sin, the perfection of Eden could not teach them the lessons they needed to learn anymore. Is there anything better than perfect?

 

The Ideal Classroom

When I think of the ideal classroom to learn and to study, I naturally think of a perfect environment. By perfect I mean in its totality. No evil, no violence, no suffering, nothing negative at all. In other words, it is something like Eden. Yet in God’s estimation, this perfect place was not suited anymore for the education of Adam and Eve. Perfect wouldn’t do any longer because they sinned, and with sin came a whole nature that was incompatible with how God and the sinless worlds operated.

 

That decision to disobey God was more than just a wrongful deed. It transformed the entire nature of how we, human beings, learned. The whole mechanism for us to go from not knowing to knowing, unlearned to learned, changed. Before sin, a perfect environment like Eden was the ideal venue for learning. But that perfection became unfitted for sinful men.

 

But couldn’t we see the truth in that statement? Don’t we say this a lot: suffering, struggles, and failures teach us the most? Yes, happy moments teach us too, but when it comes to an accelerated track to learning and gaining wisdom, we get our curriculum from the school of suffering.

 

And so Adam and Eve moved to dwell on earth, which by implication was now the fitted classroom to their sinful nature. God seemed to have a lesson for them, for humanity to learn, and He was adamant that this lesson was learned. Before sin, Eden’s perfection was the means to learning this lesson. But as a Good Teacher, He didn’t impose the same method categorically. When His students changed, He too changed His classroom, His approach.

 

The Education of Jesus Christ

Given this backdrop, ponder with me the import of this verse in Hebrews:

“Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” Hebrews 5:8.

Jesus Christ learned through suffering.

 

First, Jesus Christ learned. “Though he were a Son,” the Omniscient God the Son, he learned. When Jesus put on the garb of humanity, He did not access that omniscience. Instead, He humbled himself to not know everything, and after a season of time, to learn and know them, just like we all do.

 

Second, the way that He learned, in particular the lesson of obedience (the lesson that God wanted Adam and Eve to learn in the beginning), was through the things that he suffered.

word_education

 

Here’s the marvelous thing. Because Jesus did not sin, He did not have to get on this education track that required suffering as textbooks. He was perfect. In other words, perfection like the one in Eden was the ideal classroom for Him to learn.

 

But when Jesus came down to earth and put on the garb of humanity, He set aside that first education track and adopted the one that we, sinful human beings, had to be on. Why? Hebrews 5:9 says, “And being made perfect,” through obedience, and before that, through suffering, “he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” He did this so that we could obey and follow His example.

 

O to marvel at the incarnation of Christ…

All the world’s a classroom is my personal slogan. But such is the nature of this classroom: glorious at times and horrendous at others. Its history has bright and dark periods, and noble and despicable characters in it. But in the divine arrangement, this is to be so for now so that I can learn what I need to learn, until one day, I can transfer to the heavenly classroom. On that one day, I will be changed, so that I will not have to learn through suffering anymore.

 

Yet even more beautiful is the fact that God himself joined me in this imperfect classroom and went through the education that I have to go through, at the very least, so that I know that he is a High Priest that can “be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” (Hebrews 4:15) What a marvelous God.

 

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren. Hebrews 2:9-11