Friday, March 15, 2013

The Rube Goldberg Machine

Most of you have probably heard about something called a Rube Goldberg machine. But just in case some of you haven't, it's a device that employs an insanely complicated series of devices and reactions to accomplish a really simple task. The concept is named after cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg.

A cartoon depicting one of the devices, "Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin" is featured on the Wikipedia article about Rube Goldberg machines. The self-operating napkin works like this: when you raise the soup spoon to your mouth, it pulls a string, which jerks a ladle, throwing a cracker in front of a parrot, who jumps after the cracker, tilting his perch and dropping his seeds into a pail. The weight in the pail pulls a cord, which lights a lighter, setting off a rocket with a sickle attached to it, cutting a string, which frees a clock pendulum with its attached napkin to swing in and wipe your mouth.  And I thought I could make things complicated!

Rube Goldberg machines came into my mind after I read something my younger daughter wrote a while back:
Every person becomes a lighter poised at the beginning of a stream of oil that leads to a series of events or a chain reaction.  Every person is a trigger.  Even if your fire is only lit by someone else's, you are the trigger in a great circle of triggers, to carry on the flame until eventually, it becomes something great. 

It seems as if the earth, and everything in and on it is a giant Rube Goldberg machine--an enormously complicated system of actions, reactions, devices, manipulations, and ideas--designed for one very simple purpose: to teach people that we are all interconnected parts of one very gargantuan whole.   If this theory is correct, then ironically, everything matters, and at the same time, nothing matters.

On the one hand, everything matters because each and every action we take is a trigger for something.  Every kindness can improve someone's day.  Every insult can fuel a fire of fear, hatred, or anger in someone's heart.  Every time we mistreat ourselves, we face the consequences.  When we're overly critical of ourselves, we face paralyzing fear and uncertainty and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.  When we abuse our bodies, we reap what we've sown, in disease and ill health.  Every time we mistreat someone else, we not only hurt them, but we pollute the atmosphere around ourselves, too. 

So, if everything matters, why are so many of us not doing the right thing?  Nearly every person I've ever known in my life knows what's right.  If they opened their front door, and saw a sick, dirty, hungry child, 99 percent of them would know that the right thing would be to bring the child in, give them some food, and try to help them.   Most people know that you shouldn't lie or steal, that you should hold the door for the person behind you, and that most other people are doing the best they can. So why then, are so few people concerned that "foreign policy" is used as an excuse for murder and mayhem and baby killing?  Why are so many people who are "pro life," so ready to execute a "criminal," even though it's been shown time and time again that the justice system is severely flawed?  Why are so many people playing the role of the jury in the book To Kill a Mockingbird, and so few playing Atticus Finch?

I think the answer to the question why so few people do the right thing is that our culture makes it so damn easy not to.  We're fed fear and loathing in a continuous stream from morning til night.  We call this "news," but what it is, really, is personal insecurity and insignificance wrapped up in a convenient, serving-size box.   We're told that the world is a dangerous place, that people are bad, that everyone is out to get us, that we're not good enough in any of a variety of ways, that you can't trust anybody, and that you must live in constant fear.  Then, we're told that there's not thing-one we can do about all of that except to batten down the hatches, install an extra lock on the door, a home security system, and a "safe-room," put a stash of gold in a box in our linen closets, and wait for the end.  No wonder people are paralyzed.  No wonder most people's answer to life, the universe, and everything is to sit in stunned silence in front of this week's episodes of meaningless TV drivel and hope that no one notices them.

As I noted above, the irony of the Rube Goldberg Theory of Life is that while every action we take matters, in the big picture of things we are like a single cell in a body, and so nothing matters.  All the infinite minutia that we twist and turn and lose sleep over, is all like one of our skin cells.  It comes and goes, and leads to little of significance, most of the time.  Of course, there's that odd time, when one skin cell goes cancerous, and leads to a really big problem.  But 99.9% of the time, whatever it is that I'm worrying about today isn't going to matter a hoot 30 or 40 years from now, as I lie on my deathbed.   So why are we constantly worrying about something or other?  Why do we think that getting a new car, or a particular wardrobe, or a bigger house, or more money in our retirement account will somehow "change things."  And if we don't believe that, then why do we seek those things in the first place?    How many of you have ever heard that someone had died and said to yourself, "Poor thing, she never did get that Mercedes?"  We're conditioned to ruminate, worry, and stew over the stuff that 99.9% of the time makes no difference at all, while ignoring religiously the opportunities we have to really matter--by being a trigger.  And every single one of us can be that trigger, on a small scale or a large one.  I must pause to tell a story to illustrate this point.

I was a bit of a problem child.  My kindergarten teacher found me to be so disruptive that she actually asked my parents to remove me from the school.  They refused, probably because they didn't know what else to do with me, and I guess the school didn't have enough on me to justify expelling a 5-year-old, so I spent the rest of the year torturing that teacher.  She retired at the end of the year.

Then I was in first grade, and I went to a tiny, two-classroom "primary school" right around the corner from my home.  It had only first and second grades in it, and so everything there was geared to those grades.  It didn't take long for my teacher to notice that I finished my work faster than the other kids, that I was bored silly by the books that were available in our "library," and perhaps more importantly, that I was only a disciplinary problem when I was unchallenged.  So she took it upon herself to make the arrangements and get the permissions to send me to second grade in the other classroom half of the time.  Much of the remaining time I spent in the first-grade class, she had me help the other kids who needed it with reading or making a good "R" or whatever.   I felt very important, which was not usual for me at that time in my life.   She also got permission to take me, every Friday after school, to the middle school a mile away and let me check out books to read and work on the following week.  She'd load me up, each week, in her big, beat up pearl blue Chevy pickup with a huge camper on the back, and, in essence, drive me to a higher grade.   I thrived academically, and besides thinking that it was infinitely cool to go someplace with my beloved Mrs. Mahoney every week, I was kept occupied enough with my part-time middle school curriculum to stay out of her hair the rest of the time.  I became a model student.

Mrs. Mahoney had a couple of choices when she found me as one of her students.  She could have decided to maintain the status quo--try to make me conform, punish my misbehavior, and treat me like "one of those children"-- or she could have done what she did.   She chose to be a trigger.  I went on to skip from Mrs. Mahoney's class to third grade.  I graduated high school at 16 and college at 19,  as an honors student both times.  After a few years working, I went on to law school and finished high in my class.  And it all could have been very different if it weren't for Mrs. Mahoney.  She was my "trigger."

If it weren't for her, every student I tutored in college might not have gotten my help, and every person I represented as a lawyer might not have found someone to take their case.  Had I been in a different place in my life, I wouldn't have met my husband, had my kids, or done any of the good stuff I've done in my life.  It all could have been very different, had I been labeled as a troublemaker, instead of a smart kid, when I was 6.  Who knows where that chain-reaction ended, or even if it has yet.  Who knows what each of those graduates I tutored have done with their lives, or what bringing their case meant to each of my clients and their families?   At the very least, Mrs. Mahoney changed everything for me.  

I tell this story because we need to realize that what we do matters--it's what we fear that doesn't.  We're not pathetic schmoes, stuck in a world of degradation beyond our control--we're infinitely powerful.  A single teacher in a ratty blue pickup can change a kid's life, and who knows how many others.  A single blog post or YouTube video can reach millions of people.  A single person can inspire others--maybe a few, maybe a million.  Every one of us could become the first gadget in the Rube Goldberg machine that once and for all proves to everyone that we're all connected and all necessary to each other, and starts the chain reaction that fixes all that is wrong in our world.

The alternative, of course, is to sit and do nothing and wait in fear, hoping that someone else will find the answers and fix everything for us--waiting and waiting, fearing and fearing, while the world crashes in on itself.  And who knows, if you're a good little member of the herd,  maybe you'll get your Mercedes. 

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