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When the Ground Shifts Under Your Feet

Railroad tracks are great places to camp, I’ve heard. They’re flat and usually level, you have open sky above, and when you hit the sack, you can nestle cozily between the sleepers.

It’s just, sometimes you’ll start to feel a vibration under you. Or you get a kind of presentiment, a feeling something’s going on, so you put your ear down to the rail, like in old movies. And you hear it coming.

But it’s not a problem. You have some time, so you gather up your gear, pull up the tent stakes, and move off the tracks.

In reality, I’ve never camped on railroad tracks and probably wouldn’t sleep too deeply if I did. But the point of the illustration is: fear doesn’t have to come into it. You don’t move your campsite off the tracks because you’re afraid of the train, you move it because staying there would lead to an unsatisfactory result.

You do need to move, if you don’t want your tent to get smashed flat. But there’s no need to be scared about it.

The vibrations on a railroad track are a minor example of the ground shifting under your feet and prompting you to move. But imagine tightrope walkers. For them, there isn’t a ground. Only that barely existent, unstable rope or wire that responds to the wind and to any movement in its fixtures, and to the movements of the rope walker, too. So the person on the rope has to respond to the rope, and it responds to them, and the whole performance becomes this spectacular dance of the rope walker with the rope.

Philippe Petit, the guy who once walked on a wire between the World Trade Center buildings, says he feels no fear. You couldn’t do a thing like that if you did.

It’s like when you run down a dry wash, from boulder to boulder. Or when you’re coming down a trail that’s full of cobblestones, like there is on the way from the Reavis ranch down to Campaign Creek. It’s so hard to walk on because you have to choose every step and the rocks will shift under your feet. It’s slow going, and tiring, and after a while it kills your knees and ankles.

But if you run, it’s so much better. Scary at first, but once you realize how well it works and get a little confidence, it’s pure joy — barreling down the trail, totally in flow.

I like modern dance sometimes, and there’s a wonderful one on YouTube called “Celui Qui Tombe” — French for “He Who Falls.” It’s performed on a square platform about 15 feet on a side. The dancers – six of them – start out just standing still. They’re wearing street clothes, so they look like normal people. Then they start to look a little concerned, and you realize it’s because the platform is very slowly starting to move. The dancers all start to look around, as if they’re trying to figure out what’s going on.

The platform is gradually starting to rotate. As the rotation builds, the centrifugal force starts to affect the dancers, and they start to respond to it. They try to brace themselves against it, and some of them stumble. As it picks up speed, they begin to reach out to each other to keep from falling. Soon they’re all standing together linked by their arms, because it’s more stable to be all connected.

As the performance goes on, the platform rotates faster and faster. Eventually some of the dancers seem to realize there’s nothing to be afraid of, and they go to the corners, where the platform is moving fastest, and they lean back. The centrifugal force holds them up and they put their arms out and it’s like they’re flying.

In reality, it’s quite a daredevil thing for the dancers to perform. There really is a lot of centrifugal force, and with one misstep or moment of weakness, they could all be thrown off the platform. The dancers must have to be just as brave as the people they’re portraying.

I suppose my point is obvious: we’re all those dancers on the moving platform. We’re all tightrope walkers now. We’re all camping on the railroad tracks.

The world has changed from what it was fifty or even twenty years ago, and it’s not just that it’s something else now. It has changed from no change to constant change, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.

Business people have been on to this for a while. About 20 years ago tech developers started talking about agility — processes that were more about flexibility, collaboration, and empowerment than the rigid style of management that went before. Now, practically every business is practicing agility, because the world is changing too fast for anything else to work. Even capitalists are learning to dance.

That’s what it is: the world is moving, and we have to move with it. Maybe we were leading too long, and because we felt in control, we forgot we were supposed to be dancing. We got very stiff for a while, and we got used to that. It felt comfortable, familiar, and predictable.

But now the ground is shifting under our feet, all the time, reminding us it is a dance, this life. It’s time to move.

And we need to learn to be good followers. To respond to the lightest touch, to move with the world, in harmony, not resisting, but trusting, and fearless. The music has started again.

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