Some of you may have seen this post over at that other place, with a different introduction, but it was pretty well received so I thought it might be worth sharing with the Mighty Moose.
Don’t let yourself be put off by the apparent subject matter, it is a transparent meta-phore with, I hope, value to activists and others who work with groups with sometimes uneven participation.
A long time ago, it seems like shortly after the Chinese invented gunpowder, I enrolled in the University of Science, Music and Culture (USMC). Freshman orientation was held at a place not at all far from the plush resorts of Hilton Head, S.C. A gated campus known as Parris Island.
The Phys Ed program was spectacular. The lecturers wore funny hats, and spoke in a vocabulary not exactly fit for mixed company. But if a person paid attention, and it was hard not to, you could be surprised by how much you could learn in just a few short weeks.
One of the special classes was a thing they called “Log Drill”. One eight or ten foot long log, eight eager and not so eager participants, and fun in the South Carolina sun. It was easy. You could get the whole thing at the very first class.
It went like this. The lecturer explained that all we had to do was pick up the four hundred pound log, the eight of us, together, and each student would bear the same fifty pounds of the load. Elementary physics, or maybe just basic arithmetic. Then the fun began.
At the lecturer’s instruction we raised the log so that it rested on all eight shoulders. That was the easy part. We were then instructed to raise the log straight over our heads, to hold it there while the lecturer explained the next part of the lesson.
He told us again, at some length, while we were holding it over our heads, about how the log weighed four hundred pounds, and if each of us was doing our share the weight would be the same fifty pounds per student. If one of us decided the weight was getting a little heavy, and wanted to slack off for a little bit, no problem. The other seven would only have to bear another seven pounds apiece. Fifty seven pounds isn’t that much more than fifty, is it?
Mercifully, he then instructed us to lower the log to the other shoulder, to rest our trembling arms a bit. During that interlude he explained that if even two of us didn’t feel up to it, what the hey, both of them could kind of fake it. It was only an extra eight pounds or so more for the others. There’s not that much difference between fifty seven pounds and sixty five, is there? The other students could handle it.
And then he instructed us to raise the log straight back up over our heads again. While we held it there he went into a long dissertation about how it was quite alright to not hold up your share, your arms and shoulders were tired, they hurt, you deserved a break. All you had to do was stop pushing up on that log and simply rest your hands on the bottom of it, looking for all the world like you were holding up your share while you barely held a feather’sweight. Applied physics you might call it.
Some of the students took his words literally, as students are wont to do, and relieved their aching muscles. They faked it. The other seven, or six, definitely noticed how fifty pounds now felt like fifty seven, then sixty five, and, of course, it wasn’t all that hard to tell the fakers from the takers. Checking brows for sweat was a pretty good clue. The difference between twitching arms and necks and smooth, relaxed ones even better.
And then we repeated the exercise. Over. And over. And over. The lecturer constantly chattering about how easy it was to let the others hold up your share of the weight as his words reached deeper and deeper into the minds connected to those aching limbs, and one and then another would succumb to the Siren’s song. A third started faking it, another fifteen pounds per student, only eighty pounds apiece for the rest.
And then a fourth. The remaining four students, limbs as aching as badly as anyone else’s, holding up that four hundred pound log. Another twenty pounds per person, only a hundred pounds apiece. And then the fifth.
The log fell to the ground, the few die hards unable to carry so many others’ load. And then the lecturer turned on us, called us out for the worthless teammates we were. He didn’t name names. We all knew. The ones who’d struggled agaist the load, no matter how heavy it got. The ones who’d hung in as long as they were able. The ones who were too quick to put the burden on the rest of us
Fortunately it wasn’t just a one day class. We did it again the next day. And the day after that, and the day after that, for weeks. The funniest thing happened. More or less in the same order the students had hung in there the first day they began to hang in there every day, holding up their share of the team’s burden. We never dropped that log after the first day,
After a while even the fakers were holding up their fifty pounds until the class was dismissed. We’d become a real team. A gaggle of individuals who realized who their friends were, the ones who held up the weight, the ones who wordlessly bore their burdens, maybe not with a smile, but with a grim determination to succeed at the common task. The ones who knew we were in this together.
When you’re among folks like that it’s hard not to be one of them, a person who does their share, who holds up their fifty pounds.
All of a sudden it was easier on everybody. The super dedicated who were still pushing up against that hundred pounds right over their heads. The willing but unable who couldn’t handle more than the eighty. Then the ones who’d crapped out at sixty five. Pretty soon even the fifty seven pounders were there for the finish. Finally the ones who were already faking it at fifty pounds took up their share.
We were back to “only” fifty pounds per. It was easy. It was glorious. It made you want to say “Bring it on, we can handle it”. Which, of course, was the lecturer’s goal all along, the day we realized that if everyone carried their share the total weight wasn’t that big a deal. It was heavy, sure. But it certainly wasn’t unmanageable when we all did our part. It was damn near fun.
Maybe there’s a lesson in all that, or maybe I’m just an old man with foolish memories.
I’ve got my fifty pounds.