Monday over Coffee: Pilot

Need a Word of Encouragement?


Pilot.

When I was a kid, I loved Astroworld. My favorite attraction was The River of No Return. As the ride began, as the boat pulled away from the dock, the captain would always ask a kid to come up and take the wheel. I had an uncanny knack for getting this job. Maybe it was the air of leadership and competence I exuded as a seven year old. Maybe it was that my dad told them it was my birthday. Regardless, I’d step forward with a look of deep concentration, knowing all the passengers were now depending solely on me to navigate them through the river’s twists and turns, avoiding the waterfalls, the rocks, and the rudimentary audio-animatronic wildlife all along the way.

Imagine my disappointment later when I learned the vessel remained under control of the real captain all along. Astroworld knew it was ill-advised to let me drive a boat. Not only did I lack the requisite experience to operate a pleasure craft, but my prefrontal cortex wasn’t close to being developed enough to make all the right choices and reactions to get us all back home.

The pre-frontal cortex is what allows captains, pilots, drivers, really all of us to plan ahead, to predict the consequences of our own actions, and to anticipate those of others. It’s what provides us the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. It’s what allows us to run a series of pilot-like simulations in our imaginations before acting. To play things out. It’s what gives us the capability to perform thought experiments, then decide on the best course forward.

David French is a conservative writer, a veteran, and a religious man. He and his wife have three kids: a blonde-haired boy, a blue-eyed girl, and an adopted Ethiopian child named Naomi. He has written about how Naomi’s experience has differed vastly from that of his other kids. People see Naomi at the community swimming pool and ask where her parents are. She has been followed around in department stores. Some of the incidents could have more benign explanations, but as they multiplied, the benign explanations became increasingly implausible. French's recent writing encourages us to use our pre-frontal cortex as God intends and run a thought experiment like this:

Suppose one in ten white Americans is racist. Perhaps that’s off. Maybe that’s generous. It is hard to say, but let’s keep going. Consider that in many places, racism is not only condemned, but stigmatized such that those who do hold such views remain silent to maintain their social standing. If you’re white and live in such a place, you’re unlikely to hear racist remarks much, if at all.

Now imagine you’re African American and ten percent of the white people you encounter think less of you, or even hate you, because of your skin color. “You don’t know in advance who they are or how they’ll react to you,” French writes, “but they’ll be present enough to be at best a persistent source of pain and at worst a source of actual danger.” You’ll be pulled over more. Store clerks will follow you around. Many of your encounters will be strangely hostile. You’re reasonably told to live on guard. Risk could arise at any time. It’s simply part of the fabric of your life. “This," French writes, “is how we live in a world where a white person can say of racism, ‘Where is it?’ and a black person can say, 'How can you not see?'” It’s how one set of Americans can say, "It’s so much better than it was," and another say, "You’re still not listening."

The Psalms say we’re fearfully and wonderfully made. We are. We’re pilots. Everyday, we run hundreds of thought experiments. Some, it turns out, are of deep spiritual consequence. God has given us the remarkable ability to simulate each other's experience. To run this particular simulation is a Gospel function. When Christ said, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ He’s asking us to do precisely this. To be a pilot. It’s the only way home.

God—


Help me to replicate within my imagination the lived experience of others. I acknowledge I should’ve done this better long ago. May I sense the rough currents fought, the turbulence, and the shear. May I see what’s required to ford the river each day. May I feel the historic obstacles crashed against and all that must be resiliently endured even now simply to go out, to live, to provide, and to get back home again. May I run this simulation until I see it so clearly it directs my future ways and shows me who I must become.

 

Amen.


— Greg Funderburk


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