Call Me Trim Tab

Queen Mary, NYC

The Queen Mary, NYC

It’s hard for me to imagine coming to an understanding of spirituality in a single moment.  . . . Perhaps the greatest problem with this word is the line it seems to imply between spirit and flesh, between some exalted, superior state and the experience of everyday life, when in fact they are all mixed up together. We define ourselves and our deepest values by the choices we make, day by day, hour by hour, over a lifetime.” — Tobias Wolff, author, This Boys Life.

I think we’re often looking for those big moments in our lives – the big “Ahas!”  We want to be hit over the head with the answer, with enlightenment, with a giant flashing arrow that says: “Go this way!” 

But lately, I find myself particularly attracted to suggestions that small changes can have large effects;  that small steps are the way to get you where you want to go – and a way to enjoy, and recognize, the process as you go along.

An article I found on Oprah’s website (linked to by way of CNN’s website) talks about this approach, and also led me to learning more about Buckminster Fuller, and has inspired me to think about the value of aspiring to be a trim tab.

The writer, Martha Beck, points out that it’s pretty difficult to “find the right life” – you have to create it instead, step by step:

“It amazes me how often people use that phrase: “Find the right life.” Would you walk into your kitchen hoping to find the right fried egg, the right cup of coffee, the right toast? Such things don’t simply appear before you; they arrive because you rummage around, figure out what’s available, and make what you want.”

But how do you begin?  The path of least resistance:

“Begin making choices based on what makes you feel freer and happier, rather than how you think an ideal life should look. It’s the process of feeling our way toward happiness, not the realization of some Platonic ideal, that creates our best lives.”

And this is where the concept of trim tabs entered my world, thanks to this writer. You don’t have to make big changes to get you where you want to go.  I’m sure you’ve read lots of articles about New Year’s resolutions, and the fact that small changes, repeated regularly, work more often than big I’m-changing-everything-in my-life-right-now  approaches, which tend to flame out in a few weeks.

And those little changes, those little choices that you make each day, can affect not only your life, but the lives of those around you, and, by a ripple effect, the world itself.

Well, it seems that Buckminster Fuller had this same idea, and a perfect way to visualize it:

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary: 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.

Bucky Fuller gravestoneIt’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.”

—R. Buckminster Fuller, Barry Farrell (Playboy Interview, Feb 1972)

(The Buckminster Fuller Institute)

Ms. Beck puts the notion of trim tabs in very concrete terms:

“Every life is a series of trim-tab decisions. Should you read tonight or watch TV? Choose what feels warmer. Self-help or thriller? Choose what feels warmer . . . Making consistent trim-tab choices toward happiness is what steers the mighty ship of your life.”

My trim tab decisions: surf the internet, or write? Sleep in or get up early to exercise?  Read the New York Times or study French pronouns? Trim tab decisions, every one. And that’s just one category, a self-focused one.  I could also make different “outward-facing” choices – to choose listening over speaking, patience over hurry, a calm response over anger or irritation.  If you think about making those types of trim tab decisions, daily, in your own life, and of other people making them in theirs, you can see how they might accumulate, over time, with enough power to turn our lives, our world, toward peace.

To reiterate Tobias Wolff: “We define ourselves and our deepest values by the choices we make, day by day, hour by hour, over a lifetime.”

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