friedman’s fables (4)

Have you ever noticed that while you can make your horse prance and perhaps even your dog dance, you cannot play with your pet alligator, salamander, turtle, or snake? They are deadly serious creatures. It is out of the question to expect them to behave mischievously, let alone irreverently. It is also rare to see them develop a relationship that is nurturing. Playfulness and nurturing appear to have evolved simultaneously, perhaps even as a part of one another, and are a part of our mammalian heritage. Is it so far-fetched to say, therefore, that in all human communication when we have forgotten “the importance of not being earnest,” at such moments we have committed a reptilian regression?

Panic

There was a row of dominoes standing equidistant in a long, narrow line that circled back into itself. Since the distance between them was shorter by half than their length, all knew that if ever one lost its balance, all would have trouble keeping theirs.

Now and then, something happened that made them shake, and some seemed more tipsy than others, but no force that touched them ever went beyond each other’s ability to rebalance, and the dreaded, unstoppable chain reaction, which each knew it was powerless to reverse, never began.

But one day it happened. It was number 10101. Number 10101 teetered, shook, pivoted on its corner, righted itself, and then fell flat against its neighbor.

Its neighbor, 10100, was taken so unawares that it immediately fell against its neighbor, and that sequence repeated itself at least several hundred times before all the dominoes recognized that malignant state of their condition. As the process continued, some gave in without a fight. Others pretended it wasn’t happening. A few became so anxious that they fell over before it was their time, so that, here and there, the tipping was being replicated in more than one place along the line.

Wherever the original tumbling order reached such a point, it momentarily appeared to stop. But the process went right on, continued by the secondary pattern. Actually, the dominoes had accelerated the process by quantum leaps.

As the wave persistently moved on, each domino mobilized all its energy to hold up or push back its falling neighbor. But it was to no avail! The continuing felling force was just too much for each individual domino’s own weight and size. In addition, the very nature of their existence worked against them. To hold one neighbor up would have been difficult enough, but to fight the accumulating movement was out of the question.

The attitude of those that remained standing was pretty uniform. Each asked itself what it could do to fight this plague-like process proceeding inexorably toward them. Some tried to calculate the power in ergs of energy as against the rest mass of their own weight. Others wondered if perhaps some aerodynamic innovation could be conceived to drag this juggernaut to a halt. Still others considered the possibility that they could help their neighbors stem the tide if they could bring their own strength to greater, hitherto unimagined, peaks. And several thought of sacrificing themselves for the greater good by falling before their turn, in the misguided hope that by such action they would in effect create a “fireline” whose gap the coming conflagration could not bridge.

But inevitability prevailed, and it was becoming increasingly hopeless to think that anything could arrest the course of these events before they reached their natural termination, when, suddenly, things stopped.

Indeed, they stopped with such resounding force and suddenness that at first the cumulative energy, redirected, created a backlash. A ricochet occurred that actually reversed the process, but without lessening its destructive effects. At some point the dominoes began to go in the other direction, straightening up again, only to fall the other way. This continued at the same rate as in the previous direction, past the starting point, running right through the original 10101, and mowing down the remainder of those previously untouched, until, once again, the last one fell against the other the other side of the domino that had not gone down. Again the process abruptly reversed itself, now in the original direction. But, somewhat spent, the energy being expended was just enough to push each, in succession, into an upright position without bowling it over.

This verse and converse occurred so fast, however, that before any of the dominoes had time to consider what had happened, all were basically standing once again erect, quivering here and there, but basically stable.

Eventually all began to focus on the point where things had turned. What had happened? Which one had stopped the pernicious process and how? At that spot all that could be seen was a domino no different in size, or shape, or weight, or color, or density, or any other visible characteristic. Nor was there any prosthesis or other artifice present to prop it up or reinforce its strength. The entire line was agog; slowly each began to realize what it owed to this one member if their community.

“But how did you do it?” they all wanted to know. “What formula did you use to check it? What did you understand about its nature? How did you calculate the proper measure? What did you see that we didn’t?” the others all asked.

“I’m not sure what the difference was,” said the domino that had not dominoed. “All I can say is that while each of you kept trying to hold your neighbor up, my concern was that I did not go down.”

MORAL: Put your own oxygen mask on first.

Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (The Guilford Press, 1990), pp.155,175-178