Ruts Of The Past

Four Feet, Eight and One-Half Inches. That is the distance between the rails of a standard gauge railroad in the United States. What an odd number. There is a very specific reason for that measurement. US railroads were built by English expatriates, and that’s the way they built them in England. The English used that gauge because they initially used the same fixtures and tools used for building wagons. Wagon wheel spacing matched the ruts in the ancient roads throughout Europe so the roads didn’t tear up the wagons, and those ruts were made by Imperial Roman war chariots. The wheels on those chariots were just wide enough to accommodate the width of two war horses.

This is called “history and path dependence,” which is to say that the past and the way we got where we are today had definable and often profound effects on the current state. I was reading a paper titled, “How the Future Depends on Past and Rare Events in Systems of Life” and the authors detailed the impact of invariants and invariance in the transformations that occur in biology. In other words, living systems are constantly moving from one state to the next, yet those moves are not made from an infinite selection of possibilities. Rather, they are made from a set of potential moves that are predetermined by the present state and, by extension, the historical state path.

If you’re not asleep yet, this gets more applicable, I promise. In the example of the railroad gauge, we can see that the way our trains were originally built was heavily determined by the design of the Roman chariot. When it came time to design the Space Shuttle, Thiokol was awarded the contract for the solid rocket boosters (SRB). Ironically, these were made in their factory in Utah and had to be shipped to the launch site by rail. Rail that went through a tunnel that is only slightly wider than the railroad track. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel which determined their width and, by extension, their length. The engineers would have preferred to make the SRBs fatter, but they were constrained by the width of a Roman chariot.

There is nothing particularly special about January 1. This year, it was a Friday, and other than being a day off from work for many people, it was no different than any other Friday. It was also no different from the Thursday before, except we look at the start of a year with hope—hope for a better year filled with the promise of opportunity. However, we must understand that our future is heavily influenced by our past. 

In some cases, our past has created constraints that are largely unmovable. The engineers at Thiokol couldn’t reasonably build new tunnels for the shuttle rockets. Likewise, there are things about all of us and circumstances that were created before our time that are practically unchangeable. Knowing and accepting this helps us to focus our attention and effort on things we can affect instead of wasting time and energy building tunnels.

In recovery, we learn that we cannot change the past. We can make amends where it is possible to do so without harming others, but we cannot make the past different. What we can affect is the future. Regardless of what we have done before, we can ALWAYS choose to do what is right in the present. Knowing we can’t change the past does not prevent us from changing the future.

Sometimes the unchangeability of the past forces us to see possibilities that we would otherwise not have seen. Thiokol could have decided to build a plant near the launch site so the SRBs could have been made with the most opportune dimensions without any transportation constraints. Not being able to change one thing can be the catalyst to change something else.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

Orson Welles

True creativity is best experienced in the face of constraints. A blank page is often actually a curse. We function best when we are trying to overcome constraints or work within a set of limitations.

Artist Austin Kleon is known for his newspaper blackout poems. Working from the constraints of the words already present in a newspaper article or column, Austin uses a marker to black out words, subtracting from the original content until only his own message is left. This seems to me the perfect tangible metaphor to what we each must do with what life (and our own past) has handed us. We must take the page before us, with its existing frame and content, and create our own message, our own future.

I pray that this year affords you many chances to create a future for yourself and those around you that, while drawing heavily on the material of the past, is completely and fully your best future. I am blessed and proud to be part of this community where we each support the other’s journey. We can use the ruts of our past to create a message of hope for our future together, because that is The Kimray Way.

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