As human beings, we tend to make assumptions about the ground that we walk on. We tend to assume that it is going to be relatively stable underneath our feet. Even if we don’t trust the general stability of things, we often assume that the part of ground or structures under our own feet will be stable, maybe because we’ve never had any problem with it before or because we know ourselves to be lighter than most other people. When those assumptions prove to be mistaken, they can be quite painful. Such is the case for me today, as I am hobbling around because I made a false assumption of precisely that case yesterday afternoon as I was preparing the laundry on a lazy Sunday.
I am not a heavy man. However, I am somewhat absent-minded sometimes. As it was, yesterday I was absent-mindedly walking on our porch outside of the teacher’s house here at Legacy to put up my laundry to dry and I stepped and planted and heard a rotted plank snap as I stepped straight down the porch until my left knee got stuck in between two very strong plants. Needless to say, that was not pleasant at all, and I’m still hobbling around a bit because of that. Despite the fact that I am not a heavy man, I was more than too heavy for that particular plank that happens to be right outside of the door in a very awkward position.
As is my fashion, I tended my wounds here and pondered about the greater significance of such matters. No shortage of thoughts came to my mind. I hobble enough as it is for one reason or another. I’ve dealt with gout attacks, broken my left knee before, and none of that is anything new. But it is always intriguing to think of the similarities between the ground or structures that we walk on physically and those we only walk on metaphorically, especially when there are a lot of similarities between them. Let us at least briefly explore some of those similarities.
We assume a greater deal of stability in our structures and institutions than often in facts turns out to be the case. We assume that our buildings (or porches) are going to be able to withstand our weight without crumbling in the same way that we assume our societies and our institutions are enduring and strong and solid. Neither assumption ends up always correct. Even when we know that the institutions are not solid overall, we often end up (falsely) assuming that it is solid for us, and so we are prone to taking it for granted and being surprised.
I know I cannot be the only such absent-minded person out there. How many people in Cuba more than 50 years ago fell asleep thinking themselves loyal citizens of a corrupt Bautista regime and woke up as citizens of a Communist prison island? How many people did the same thing in Egypt? We assume that simply because structures have endured for decades that they endured because of something solid and enduring within them, some sort of strength beyond the mere force of habit or the slow decay that is hidden by surface appearances until the step and collapse.
Clearly, we talk a lot differently when we know that the structure is about to collapse. We are more hesitant, more wary, more watchful, and place our weight over as wide a surface area as possible to avoid problems. But every once in a while, if we forget the instability of the system, we are prone to test it in ways that it cannot hold. This is as true of governments, families, businesses, and other organizations as it is of porches. Sometimes the earthquake makes the land under our feet turn into fluid. Sometimes the earthquake is social and not physical. The hobbling and injuries are the same afterward, whether they are abrasions or broken relationships or violated trust. We are creatures of habit, and all too often we neglect to remember that our structures are fragile and not as strong as they may appear on the outside. That is to our loss, for our structures these days, whether physical or institutional, do not appear strong enough to bear even my modest weight.