Personal Parables

I know little to nothing about the bible but I admire the way that people cherrypicked lessons from it. To retort, I’ve been recognising and recording my own set of parables, drawn mostly form childhood or adolescent media sources. Rather than “John 14:6 Jesus answered…” they’re a bit more “Like that bit in Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon says…”.

I’m going to call them Personal Parables – mostly because I like the alliteration – and where possible I’m going to find video clips rather than just quoting scripts.

To get the ball rolling, here are three that have cropped up in my brain more times that I can remember, triggered by situations that feel in someway allegorical, even if in the most tenuous possible way.

Personal Parable #1.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: The bit when he switches the idol for the bag of sand.

It’s a well know and classic scene from the beginning of the movie. Indy has made it to the ancient idol that he’s painstakingly worked toward. All he has to do is switch it out for a bag of sand so that the removal doesn’t trigger any boobytraps. He knows the risk, but feels confident, and nervous, he pauses, takes a breath and *switch*. Success! Except, not… queue massive rolling bolder, a traitorous assistant, massive spikes and certain death…

While certain death isn’t exactly the level of risk, this moment runs through my mind every time I have to change something, or switch something out for something else, or turn on a plug that I’ve fixed with sticky tape. Or when I’ve been part of team updating DNS records, updating a wonky web server or deploying a change that could take a site down. The boulder is the client, the traitor, well who knows if things go wrong, and the spikes? Well, just more worry and fear.

Personal Parable #2.
Gattaca: The bit where ‎Ethan Hawke somehow beats his brother in the final swim.

This one’s a bit darker and further up the tenuous scale. It’s not as classic a film as Indiana Jones perhaps, but a classic of sorts and increasingly apt in these days of CRISPR. If you don’t know the film, it’s set in the not too distant future where every sensible parent genetically engineers their child. Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent, however, was classically conceived in an impulsive act of love, that his parents later regret, given the genome prediction that’ll have male pattern baldness, ADHD, heart defects and die at 32!

Their second son, Anton, they engineer ‘properly’ and he’s everything that Vincent isn’t. Taller, smarter and more capable in every way. Even though he’s younger, he beats Vincent at everything, especially physically. Vincent is a weakling. Flawed and sentenced to an early death.

Spoiler Alert! Vincent refuses to give in to genetic destiny and tries harder than anyone could have imagined. He runs away, assumes another identity and nearly achieves his goals, until Anton catches up with him and risks revealing his real identity and health issues.

In a spot of classic estranged-brother-bonding, they agree to settle it with one last game of chicken, seeing who can swim furthest out to sea before the other gives up and has to turn back.

Level pegged, Anton stops and says the conditions are too foggy and dangerous. Vincent calls him a quitter, and they continue. Anton stops again, amazed and unbelieving at how his less physically capable brother can be beating him, and asks “How are you doing this Vincent? How have you done any of this?…” After more talk of the dangers that they’re in, Vincent gives the answer.

“You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.“

Anton, having effectively heard his brother say that he was willing to die rather than give in, that he was swimming for all or nothing, that he wasn’t playing the same game as Anton, turns back to shore. How can he compete when neither their goals or risks are aligned?

There’s a bit more to the story and what happens next, but the parable part that has stuck with me since 1997 is that penny drop moment of realising when goals or risks don’t align with classmates, friends or colleagues.

That sinking feeling when you realise the project you’ve been slogging away on is secretly being canned by your boss who think’s it’s worthless. Or when you’re stressed about meeting the rent each month, but a housemate says you can manage and convinces you out on an expensive bender, only for you to discover later that their parents pay their rent for them. Or when you’re in a project team, and almost everyone has their own motive, polishing the UI so it looks good for a personal portfolio, or rewriting everything just to try an interesting new method, or working toward the critical deadline with the secret that you’ll be leaving before it comes.

In recent years however, I’ve also begun to see the flip side to this one. Not just from Anton’s ‘victim’ point of view, as per the examples above, but also from Vincent’s point of view. The power and opportunity of realising that you can call your own shots, set your own goals, and take risks that you calculate to be safe for you, if not for others.

Personally I still struggle to think this way, and hide a big motive up my sleeve. It makes me think of the dot come and start up bubbles, with entrepreneurs successfully pitching cazy ideas that they can afford to fail because the money isn’t their risk. In this sense I think mostly of boo.com, the book about which I had to stop reading for its hideous arrogance. Maybe that’s a bit too strong, and I’m a bit too soft. I don’t know. But not saving anything for the swim back, or not sharing your motives, or being hoodwinked by the true motive of team member, will always pang me back to Gattaca.

Personal Parable #3.
King Size Canary: The bit were the cat and mouse compete for one-upmanship beyond the point of benefit.

To lighten the mood I’ll conclude with an old cartoon. I had a VHS cassette full of them when I was a kid but the end of this one suck. The plot, if that what you call the thing that cartoons have, is that a cat, a dog, a mouse and a canary all discover that a bottle of ‘Garden Jumbo Gro’ formula makes them vastly bigger.

Whoever is the biggest chases their prey or tormentor in turn. Canary chases cat, cat chases canary, dog chases cat, then mouse saves cat. But, cat chases mouse, mouse chases cat, cat chases mouse, and so on and so on until the bottle is empty and the competition is over and the cat and mouse are planet sized and hopelessly standing on top of the Earth.

This one, I’ll leave for you to interpret. A good parable is open for interpretation. Isn’t it? Seriously, I have no real idea how the bible works.