System Shocks: The Impact of a Singular Life

Last week, I experienced several system shocks. What is a system shock? Simply put, it is a shift in everyday reality. I believe in the power of shifts, because shifts mean change. A system shift is even more impactful, because the shift occurs at a foundational level, affecting the foundation of powerful structures.  Shifts are sometimes large and epic and sometimes small and barely perceptible.

Large shifts — of an earthquake magnitude, tsunami-generating — create disruption and dis-ease, – like Indonesia. A radical realignment, requiring a reckoning, creating questioning.The Indonesian earthquake should startle us, all of us, at our core – a system shock: a shift in every day reality. What was the everyday reality in Palu before the earthquake and tsunami? A break from Bible study, playing soccer. Then, a system shock:

“On a break from Bible study at a church compound outside this city last week, Douglas Simamora was playing soccer with fellow students when the solid ground beneath his feet turned to liquid. Mr. Simamora and his friends, attending a retreat with dozens of students and teachers, watched as the narrow A-frame Protestant church, with its steeple and image of Christ with hands outstretched over the doors, was swept away. A 7.5-magnitude earthquake had set off a rare seismic process called liquefaction.”

The church, with its image of Christ with hands outstreched, and the students and teachers, some surviving, some not, were carried almost a mile away on moving land.The images of the church, before, an after a rare seismic process called liquefaction (when the earth becomes a river) is powerful.

The image of the disassembled church is a system shock.

As is the disassembled mosque.

And, when a beautiful, sacred, revered floating mosque, surrounded by seeming peace, beauty, grandeur, majesty, and mystical energy, elevated, symbolizing ascendance

becomes shrouded, grounded, destroyed, framed by death, destruction, and disaster,

we should ask ourselves, what might these images may be telling us? What might they be a metaphor for? What might they be encouraging us to reflect on?  A headline reminds us that “in Palu disaster, grief has no religion” as Christians and Muslims are joined in grief beyond magnitude and comprehension — intertwined in the universal unifying human reality of dying, decaying, and death, as bodies go into mass graves, some in coffins, many in body bags, with often only a moment of prayer and acknowledgement of life, many without family even aware of their transition.

The disassembled images remind me of another system shock the day before – a connection, that may or may not be causal. But on September 27th, one day before the earthquake, in one of the most powerful energy spaces in the world – a judicial hearing took place. A hearing that we could consider a system shock to the psyche of America, and to the world. And then, the next day, the earthquake. Connected in time, perhaps causal, but nevertheless – a system shock.

The images are powerful and raise questions many have been asking. Who gets to yell, who gets to challenge, who gets to point fingers? Who gets to be themselves, who has to be different, who has to conform? What are our expectations as a country? Can a country have shared expectations and shared values? What demeanor and attitude is appropriate in particular venues and forums? How do we hold ourselves accountable as a nation and country?

A generation has past since the last hearing – almost 30 years. Has nothing changed in America about our ability to value the voice of women, our willingness to reckon with violence against women, our capacity to acknowledge differential power, and our collective willpower to stand on the side of those who almost always sit alone?

Last week was a system shock. The images across the papers were often of 4 people: 2 men, 2 women, 2 African-American, 2 White, 2 potential Supreme Court justices, 2 women professors.

The impact of a singular life – Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill, — to create system shock — to challenge our conscience as a nation, as individuals.

A week later — another system shock for me  — again, caused by the impact of a singular life.

On Sunday I spent hours looking at art by Jacob Lawrence at the Jacob Lawrence exhibit at Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg.


I was struck by one of his quotes: “My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life – if he has developed this philosophy, he does not put paint on canvas, he puts himself on canvas.”

“He puts himself on canvas.”

How many of us develop an approach and philosophy about life, and then use that approach and philosophy to put ourselves on the canvas of life, to literally put ourselves out there, out in the world, out on stage, out, vulnerable, almost uncovered, for the eyes of all, for scrutiny, for criticism, and rarely perhaps for acknowledgment, for recognition, for validation, and even love?

Jacob Lawrence did.  He was a remarkable artist, painter, historian, storyteller, activist, social justice fighter, a freedom fighter. His work taught me much.
I looked at over 90 pieces of his art work from his series on the Holocaust and James Weldon Johnson’s Creation, to his series on singular lives of impact: John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Toussaint L’Ouverture. I then spent time reading a book about one of his most famous series – the Migrant Series. The Migration Series—60 paintings about the movement of over 5 million African-Americans out of the South from about 1940-1970.

My mother was part of that migration, moving to north, and to California and other western states. The Great Migration was a system shock – a shift in America.

It was in many ways about seeking the Four Freedoms Franklin D. Roosevelt championed: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The Four Freedoms – freedoms we all, as humans, need and desire. Freedom that led in many ways to the independence of America from England, to the American Revolution.  It is the freedom we can almost imagine these Olympic runners that Jacob painted running towards, a finish line of freedom:

straining with every vein, a yearning, a desire, a seeking, a movement, a pushing, an urgency.

Jacob Lawrence’s work, ”is a metaphor for the human condition – our desire to be free – to seek – to overcome, and to arrive”  (Elizabeth Hutton Turner).  We migrate, we move, we create movements, seeking to actualize the potential for humanity, for the basics and then more, so that we are more than animals – seeking only food and some semblance of shelter. We seek more, as we should – a life – education, justice, family, love.

The Migration Series reflects that search, not only for African-Americans, but all “migrants” for we are all migrants in this particular life journey, traveling from wombs unknown, birthed into another world, having materiality for but a moment before returning again to migrate in the ethereal.

The impact of a singular life — Jacob Lawrence.  His art lives, touches, and creates system shifts for those of us who are open to shifts, to being challenged about what we think, our ideologies, our values; for those of us who are willing to experience shifts that shake our psyche, our conscience, our subconscious, our spirit, and soul. His art causes us to reflect on singular lives – John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass. Singular lives that created system shifts.

That same Sunday, a sacred day for rest  and reflection in some spiritual thought, I moved from the gallery of art to a gallery of music at the Moss Arts Center. I went to hear Itzhak Perlman and Rohan De Silva — beautiful music, a violinist and a pianist in harmony, in synch, a symphony.

Yet, there was dissonance. For professional concert violinists are never in wheelchairs. The image, alone, creates a shift. A shift from stereotypes about what a classical concert violinist should look like. A stereotype about who should be in wheelchairs and what you can and should do in wheelchairs. Where did these images come from? How often are we open enough to question and challenge our images, expectations, and stereotypes?

The impact of a singular life — to create a shift in our thinking, to create system shocks.

Do we lead our lives in ways to create shifts? Do we lead our lives in ways that put ourselves, literally, on the canvas of life? That may not be the goal for many. But, what then, should be the goal, the guide, the purpose? For whom should creating system shocks and system shifts be the goal? Should it be for those of us, who like the Olympic runners, have been in training and preparing, for years?  What have we been in training for?  What is it? Is it towards  a higher calling of service for the benefit of humanity, towards creating system shifts?

In A Black Woman’s Journey, Mildred’s colleagues talk about her impact and the shifts she created:

In our system, you have influenced at least 1,500 students. That is quite a legacy to leave the world. Your energy and caring has planted seeds for much social change. In teaching history, you have greatly influenced the future.—Mary Cunningham, Department Chair, 1993

Another colleague shared the following reflection for Mildred’s retirement:

“I will greatly miss you as a friend, a valued colleague, and as a vital part of the social work program. My current and selfish concerns are the replacement of your varied roles among us. I feel assured that you have assisted us in finding a replacement for content areas that you taught. I am less than convinced that we can find replacements of your disciplined advocacy roles for justice and equality in developing us as faculty. For examples, who can as forcefully intervene in faculty meetings when:
• Racial and sexual equality is threatened?
• Course content is being flaunted?
• Academic and/or practice pseudo-elitism raises its ugly head?
• Cultural and/or religious bias is revealed?
• Homophobia causes students or faculty to panic?
• The poor and developing peoples of the world are misunderstood?
• Programmatically, we as a faculty fail to “see the forest for the trees?”
These important faculty developmental roles have been enigmatically enhanced by you. Although we may stumble here and there, your abilities have prepared us to continue at a higher level of performance. (Black Woman’s Journey, 221)

Inspired by singular lives, like Mildred, and many others, may more of us be “disciplined advocates” for justice and equality, preparing others to continue at a higher level, leading shifts in systems. May more of us live lives that generate system shocks, create change, and accelerate transformation that improves lives, if even one life at a time by shifting stereotypes, shifting possibilities, shifting outcomes, and shifting the world. May more of us lead singular lives of impact – shocking systems across the world – to create a more just and humane society. May we rescue, salvage, and transform the driftwood of the world, — lives abandoned, voices silenced, those discarded, and those thrown away — by our art, action and activism.

(Art by Emmanuel Pratt-Clarke on driftwood in Exuma, Bahamas)

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