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Filtering by Tag: Scott Robinson

Ghost Stories

Scott Robinson


In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

Bvt. Maj. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain

Through a tinted window. That is the most common way to tour the fields of Gettysburg. Whether you hop onto one of the bigger bus tours or opt to follow an audio tour in your own car, you can usually grasp the basics of the historic battle in a few air-conditioned hours. Other than the occasional photo-op at a monument or the perusal of an inscription, the whole affair — although interesting — can feel somewhat pedantic.

Recently I had an opportunity to revisit this battleground from a different perspective. Our little group spent the day marching up hills and across fields, following the Confederate advance through those three fateful summer days. The trip overturned my formerly nonchalant perspective. No longer was I a sunglassed surveyor. In some remote way, I became a participant.

Through the journey, our guide carefully tied each step into the historical narrative. A ridge before us was not just “a ridge that troops crossed”. It was the location in which the 26th North Carolina Regiment broke the lines of the Union’s famed (and previously undefeated) Iron Brigade. The 26th lost 687 of their 843 men that afternoon.

But the stories were more often personal than strategic. Here was the spot where Confederate George Washington Kelly was shot after crossing Willoughby's Run with his regiment’s battle standards. Up ahead was the place (nine flag-bearers later) that Col. John Lane was shot through the mouth while holding those same standards, yet lived to lead another regiment. On a different hill, we stood where 19 year old Union Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson severed the remnants of his leg with his personal knife after being hit by an artillery shell. He died hours later of blood loss.

As we moved along in the gory narrative, I could almost hear the soldiers shouting around me, the mass of grey coats surging forward against the blue. The air seemed to ripple with a silent cacophony of gun blasts. The ground cried out with the blood of brothers. Despite a century and a half of distance, the battle’s oppressive weight was still there, nearly tangible in the afternoon haze.

The wraiths within these spaces enveloped me. They left me, not with facts and figures, but with ethereal snapshots: a terrified groan, a rebel yell, a whispered prayer. Data is far more comfortable for me; these ghosts were foreign. A thousand stories strong, they advanced together, filling the empty fields with faces, names, and families.

The echoes of Gettysburg, the poignancies of its moment, are not finally preserved in its maneuvers or numbers — important as those may be. Rather, the heart and soul of Gettysburg is found in its storehouse of narratives, drawn from sonorous tones of old veterans and bloodstained letters pried from cold hands. Through them, Chamberlain’s “shadow of a mighty presence” endures in an amaranthine theater full of tragedy and promise.

Politics and Polecats

Scott Robinson

norman-rockwell_therighttoknow Do you know what you stand for? Recent findings, particularly those focusing on Millennials, have given rise to speculation that younger Americans tend to hold self-contradicting opinions about the world they live in. Others have tried to minimize these statistical interpretations as small, explainable discrepancies that are being used to force contradictions onto a fictitious stereotype.

Disclaimer: I’m not an ardent political junkie. But I do have a thoroughgoing interest in psychology, and in this case of apparent incoherence, I was reminded of a short story from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a little book written by Dr. Robert Cialdini on principles of influence and their formative power in our lives.

Cialdini presents a study undertaken by researcher M.W. Fox on a mother turkey guarding her chicks from a major threatin this case, a stuffed animal made to look like a polecat (think “weasel”). The mother seems to act coherently, protecting her chicks like a mother should, attacking the polecat when it approached. Fox found that the turkey’s maternal protection of her chicks was tied to one specific ‘trigger’: the unique vocalization of the chicks.

Fox wanted to see how influential that protective behavior was, so he stuffed a fake polecat with a recorder that continually played the chick’s cheeping. When this rigged polecat “approached” the mother turkey, rather than attack it she attempted to gather her greatest enemy under her wings and care for it.

The devious avian experiment serves to illustrate Cialdini’s argument that we often allow individual triggerssingle points, phrases, or even keywordsto color our entire outlook on a given argument or position.

I wonder about the young Americans who participated in the recent polls. What thought was behind their responses? Was it careful, deliberative, informed? Or did they hear a particular keyword, the way a question was phrased, and respond instinctively?

This brief reflection isn’t, in the end, about polecats or politics. It’s about people. It’s about the quiet indictment that comes down on us when the dust settles and our fervor recedes. It’s about that faint voice in our heads asking us why we had to get so worked up. It’s a suggestion that we spend a bit longer thinking before answering, a little more time listening than reacting.

(Painting by Norman Rockwell)


Scott Robinson

bear water I leaned in, only inches from certain death. A thin slab of glass was all that separated me from nearly five hundred pounds of claws and teeth. It was a rush standing there, stared down by a creature of immense power. Even with the many safety precautions that zoos maintain, it’s hard to avoid a visceral apprehension when confronted with an animal that could easily take my life. Though I understood well the security of my position, my recognition of and respect for this potential remained.

When you think of the word “awe”, what does it bring to mind? The situations that come to my mind almost seem disparate. Viewing lions at a zoo, getting lost in the wonder of the night sky at 13,000 feet, peering through the crowd at a tiny portrait of a faintly-smiling lady in the Louvre. Awe seems a malleable notion, here hinting at grandeur, there delving into mystery. But certainly it stirs something in us. It can give a disquieting glimpse of life much grander and more fantastic than we could know, or a world beyond our control.

Perhaps this unease is what leads us to attempt to limit the experience of awe in our daily lives. We direct industry and technology toward reducing anomalies, preventing chaos. We channel our experience of awe into culturally acceptable forms - particularly in entertainment. We are ever more able to engage in “armchair awe”, carefully positioning ourselves to disengage at a moment’s notice should the experience start to get overwhelming.

With this pattern comes an increasing resilience to awe. The underlying “threat”, the power that grounds our awe, tends to deteriorate as we become more and more removed from it. Any impact an awe-filled experience might have is eroded.

The effects of this awe-resilience can be seen in relation to modern spirituality. The notion of worship has been widely blighted by a lack of awe. Dulled by the insular illusion that we are masters of our own fate, we have little interest in dwelling on fearful things. This insidious pull leads us to focus on God’s love so exclusively that He turns into the spiritual equivalent of a stuffed animal, meant only to be hugged.

That day at the zoo, I was awestruck by my position. The proximity to such ferocity grounded my gratitude for the protective glass, the barrier apart from which my life was forfeit. It is the sort of tension displayed in the final verses of Hebrews 12, where the author juxtaposes grateful worship with reverent awe. Do we take for granted our position behind the barrier, or do we recognize that beyond the unshakeable kingdom lies a God of consuming fire?

A Better Way to Fail

Scott Robinson

 Colorado. 1955.

The crumpled piece of paper had gotten stuck in the back corner of the cubby, wedged into a gap in the cherry veneer. I had been slowly working my way across the row of shelving, clearing out the academic residue of another sixth grade year. With a bit of wrangling the paper came loose, unfolding to reveal an old Latin quiz I had given my students months earlier.

I stared at the D minus, following the page down through the misconjugations and blank spaces. Papers like this usually made me pause and reflect. Some days it was on how my pedagogy might have fallen short, what I hadn’t conveyed effectively. Other times my thoughts were on the kids, disappointed at their squandered potential or saddened by a knowledge of their poor home environments.

That afternoon, though, I realized I held in my hand a sixth grader’s approach to failure. It was something to be discarded, neglected, suppressed. It provided no value, only a poignant mix of apathy and shame, crushed into a crinkled symbol of disappointment.

In my teaching experience, this concept of failure seemed to be the norm. It’s a bit odd, considering the popularity of contrasting tales. Thomas Edison and his 1,000 failed light bulbs, Albert Einstein’s educational struggles, R. H. Macy’s multiple store closures…history is littered with great artists, scientists, inventors, and industry leaders whose successes were forged through their use of failure as a stepping stone for improvement and growth.

We may tip our hat to all sorts of rich paradigms for understanding failure, but do we make any effort to incorporate them into our educational methodology? The dusty paper in my hand said otherwise. It spoke of failure as static, as a terse, single-minded declaration: “insufficient”.

Such an approach to failure is useful in one way, at least —it provides a quantifiable, universal notion that fits well into political sound bites on the state of modern education. But if seen as an exclusive definition, it threatens to suck educational policy into a vicious cycle driven only by a desire to lower the number of such “insufficients”.

But my intention is not to delve into the politics of education, it is to open an inquiry: What if we were to handle failure less as a judgmental declaration, and more as a constructive conversation? What if it was seen less as an end, and more as a beginning?

Perhaps I would not have discovered the abandoned quiz that day, had its young recipient known a better way to fail.

(Photo by Elliott Erwitt)

Self-Made Monsters

Scott Robinson

28 flappybird

Rolling Stone recently published an interview with Dong Nguyen, creator of the viral hit game "Flappy Bird". The interviewer, David Kushner, writes about Nguyen’s experience as his app surged in popularity:

He hands me his iPhone so that I can scroll through some messages he’s saved. One is from a woman chastising him for "distracting the children of the world." Another laments that "13 kids at my school broke their phones because of your game, and they still play it cause it's addicting like crack." Nguyen tells me of e-mails from workers who had lost their jobs, a mother who had stopped talking to her kids. "At first I thought they were just joking," he says, "but I realize they really hurt themselves." Nguyen – who says he botched tests in high school because he was playing too much Counter-Strike – genuinely took them to heart.

Nguyen’s intention had been straightforward: build a fun game for mobile platforms, easy to play and hard to master. But as his app went viral, it garnered a darker reception. People attacked Nguyen. They designated him an author of evil. Their vindictive reaction peeled back the app’s popularity to reveal an addicted and infuriated world where guilt was eschewed by appeals to ‘distraction’ and ‘addiction’.

Wrapped up in low-fi, Nintendo-esque graphics, Flappy Bird is a feathered fiend for the modern disposition. Its simplicity is infuriatingly addictive, and its difficulty chafes against impatience and demand for easy victory. It’s easy to love, but even easier to hate. And the app’s fallout, directed toward Nguyen, shines a spotlight on a basic human proclivity: our readiness to shift the responsibility for our destructive impulses onto anyone or anything other than ourselves.

Mike Carey and Peter Gross write in the fantasy series The Unwritten (Vol. 1), “We make our own monsters, then fear them for what they show us about ourselves.” For many, Flappy Bird provided that insight.

What’s your monster?