In search of trim tabs

Any parent of a teenager knows the frustration of becoming ensnared in their black-and-white thinking. Teens are so clear and unequivocal in their opinions. Mine is certain that I am frequently wrong, naïve, or just plain dumb. Well, the teenagers who have stepped up and spoken out following the latest school massacre are giving us a healthy dose of black-and-white thinking. And it’s just the medicine we need. We can’t always afford to be patient in an emergency. Arguing over every shade of gray has been a paralyzing trap.

These young people speak from authority as survivors of hideous trauma that most of us cannot imagine. They know what needs to be done and they will brook no interference. Who knows? Their involvement just might be the factor that creates the greatest shift.

In a recent blog post, Jennifer Fink advises to focus on our children, to really listen to them, love them, and especially to reach out to outcasts.

“If we want to stop school shootings, we have to do better by our kids. We have to collectively agree to prioritize the physical and emotional health of our children. We need to listen to and learn from those who work closely with children, and give them the support they need. We need to love the children close to us, and reach out, whenever we can, to help struggling children and families. Some common sense gun laws might help too. They won’t solve the problem — this problem is far bigger than access to guns — but they might slow the carnage, at least while we work to shift our priorities and heal our children.”

At this rate, the children may be the ones to heal us.

Another writer suggests that anger is at epidemic levels and advises making anger management training more commonplace from an early age, including breathing and mindfulness practice.

Many other ideas being offered lately (such as the absurd notion of arming teachers) are, in environmental parlance, “end of pipe” solutions. That’s when a polluting industry is ordered to put scrubbers on their smokestacks or treat toxic effluent before dumping it into the local stream. A savvier industry might look further upstream and choose to reinvent processes or substitute ingredients in order to reduce or even eliminate their pollution. The same principle applies to opening rec centers in city neighborhoods. Better to give kids something constructive to do so they don’t mess around and get into trouble with the law.

Everything in this country feels broken. Spending even a few minutes on social media drags me into despair of ever emerging from this tangled web of pathologies. Every time someone weighs in from their perspective or expertise, another thread snarls. There are the obvious ones from the past week: gun laws, mental health, education. None of which, opines another commenter, can be fixed—or even addressed—without comprehensive campaign finance reform. And what about access to health care in general? Or the opioid epidemic? Or the school-to-prison pipeline?

Add to the list, a lack of empathy education. And what about the state of the environment—plastics, pipelines, starving polar bears, bleaching coral, insect die-offs, spills? This is all compounded by a media landscape of stridently polarized agendas masquerading as authoritative and unbiased news. Being fed by widely divergent information sources, we occupy alternate realities. No wonder it’s so hard to talk to one another.

In the spirit of the old idea that the best way to solve a problem is not to have it, how far upstream is it possible to work? How can I, one person, contribute to untangling the mess? Where are the leverage points where my actions can be most effective?

Buckminster Fuller was a great systems thinker before there was a name for it. In a 1972 interview in Playboy, he told the story of how a vast ship turns in the water. There is a small rudder on the main rudder, called the trim tab, that makes it possible to turn the entire ship with relatively little effort or energy.

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trim Tab.’”

It’s easy to get caught up in these far-ranging debates about big, entrenched problems and forget how much power we each have. In her moving TED talk, judge Victoria Pratt shares the positive effects of her ninja move to show genuine love and respect to the downtrodden people in her Oakland courtroom. It’s stunning that this is so counter-intuitive, but that’s the state of things for now.

Bucky Fuller left a profound legacy. Some of his projects were straight-up whack-a-doodle, like his proposal to cover Manhattan with a giant geodesic dome that he said would pay for itself from the savings on snow removal. I’m a generation or two removed from his active teaching time, but some of my mentors were his students. They all spoke reverently of his brilliance, his creativity, his ability to see intractable problems holistically and to formulate novel solutions. His philosophies and ideas are carried forth not only by his former students, but also preserved in the many books he authored.

“The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.”

I read this as both reminder and permission. The best way to effect change is to be true to myself, to listen to my heart, and act on its promptings. Today, it’s telling me to put ideas together and to write. That’s my thread. Others will be moved to speak up at a forum, to march in the streets, to mentor kids, or to show people love and respect when they least expect it. Because we are all part of the same system, our choice is not either-or. We each have a part to play in the weaving of this vibrant, many-strand tapestry. Any way we plug into it will be effective. Even if I never see the effects of my actions, as long as they come from my heart and are offered with love and humility, I’m good with that.

8 thoughts on “In search of trim tabs

  1. Seeds take time to grow into a forest and require the interaction with millions of other beings. We need seeds, fungi, bacteria, pollinators, scat spreaders, ants, dung beetles doing what comes naturally in support of the community of all beings.

    • Thank you for this lovely reminder and image. Sometimes it feels too overwhelming, then I remember we each do our part.

  2. Julie, that is great! Bucky is like a Buddha to me, seeing all sides of things, and displaying genius, as a commonality, not rarity. In my 20s, I was a part of the Hunger Project, an off shoot application of human potential theory. For over a year, systems experts, including Bucky, looked at why there is hunger on our planet, and found that it was “ soft issues”, prejudice, greed, politics, nothing else, that was keeping us from feeding ourselves. Technologically, totally doable, sans psychological entrenchment. You are very good, you brought a complex idea, to Bucky’s trim tab practicality! Very cool!✌️😎

    • Awesome, Bill! I love meeting Bucky’s tribe! One of my other very favorite concepts from him is the “processional effect” from bees gathering pollen for their hives and in the process (unintentionally) pollinating plants. What’s your processional effect?

  3. Was and still am mystified by Bucky Fuller and how some see him as brilliant. He was a techno-twit like Amory Lovins, also a smart guy, but like Bucky they live within the bounds of technology and technological solutions. They don’t see the big picture of a living Earth where humans are one species among many. And to use a technological term like trimtab to refer to a human is what Husserl called technique colonizing the lifeworld.

    • Andy – thanks for your comment. I agree with what you say about having a technology-focused lens, especially when it contributes to the mindset that humans are the pinnacle, we have the big brain, we can think ourselves out of any problem, and technology will save us. I tend to be inspired by Bucky Fuller more so than Lovins (although, yes, genius), because somehow I got the sense that he was a humanist in a humble sense, not in the “we are the best” sense. He did talk about how little we know about how the living world actually works. Maybe I read too much into his personal story. I still like trim tab as an image within human society. I don’t see it in mechanistic terms, though I do take your point. Haven’t read Husserl; maybe it’s time. You will find, if you have a chance to read other stuff here, that I am very much in agreement with your comment that we are but one species among many. Until more of us get that, nothing will change. Thanks for reading.

  4. “The best way to effect change is to be true to myself, to listen to my heart, and act on its promptings.”

    Sometimes it’s literally the only thing we can personally do, which is heartening and discouraging at the same time.

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