Kobayashi Maru and Me

Remember the old Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan? It opened with the starship being attacked – and quickly overpowered. Just as it seemed all hands were about to perish, the lights came on, and it turned out we’d been witnessing a test, the same one faced by every would-be Starfleet captain. It was called the Kobayashi Maru, and it placed the candidate in an impossible, unwinnable situation. The point was to see how they would act when faced with the end of the line, the failure to save their ship and their crew.


A few days ago, I was at an event that referenced the work of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and I was reminded about one of the points she so abundantly demonstrated: that racism is fundamentally interwoven into the social and economic structures of our society, and that structural racism is incredibly resilient: as one expression, such as segregation, is dismantled, another iteration is already being consciously developed, is already waiting in the wings, ready to be deployed in the service of protecting the profits of the elite.

The experts were saying, We need to be constantly vigilant, constantly on our guard, because as we’re slicing off the head that’s actively biting us, this hydra has many more ravenous mouths that could very well be devouring our resources while we’re not watching.

And I was feeling despair. The thoughts going through my head: What’s the point of burning up all our energy and grinding ourselves down to useless little stubs to get this one law passed, when they’ve already regrouped for the next fight before they’ve even lost this one? Is the whole thing a setup? Are they keeping us distracted, battling for something they’ve already moved on from – while they just consolidate their power and wealth more and more tightly?

And if that’s the case, how can I go on?


Something hopeful I took with me from grad school: Hegemony is never complete. It can’t be. It’s impossible for any ruling class to COMPLETELY control the discourse, the helping institutions, relationships, our thoughts, heck, even the military. These phenomena are too complex, too slippery. Yes, they can exert a lot of damn control, but it will never be perfect. There will always, must always, inherently be gaps.

And in those gaps exists the possibility of revolution.


The next day, I heard this story, an African folk tale about animals getting the heck out of Dodge as a grass fire roared across the savannah. An elephant was distracted in its charge toward the safety of a marsh by something tiny and buzzing. It raced past the elephant – then it reappeared, going back the way it had come. Then it passed the elephant again, and again zoomed back toward the fire.

The elephant put up its trunk to stop the creature, which turned out to be a hummingbird, carrying water in its beak, a drop at a time, to pour onto the fire. The elephant asked why the hummingbird bothered. The hummingbird said, I want to save my home. And this is what I have to give. So I must give it…

When we decide whether to act or not based on whether we think we can possibly affect the outcome, the person telling this story suggested, we’re likely to stop acting entirely.

So we can’t allow ourselves to think this way. When confronted with disaster, with injustice, with huge suffering, we must give what is in our capacity to give, and try – as a spiritual practice – to let go of the need to know that if we keep efforting, we’ll get the outcome we want.

Because sometimes the calling is just to alleviate the crushing weight of sorrow for one person, for just a while, even if we’re still doomed.

And sometimes, our attachment to one imagined outcome is preventing something much better from being born.


I wondered then if we weren’t living some cosmic Kobayashi Maru. If our guides aren’t up there watching with serious faces, trying to see the mettle of our character as we struggle and give up and get re-inspired and struggle some more, even as each victory is absorbed almost soundlessly into the ocean of history, and the greedy and powerful remain untouched.

I wondered if that was enough of a point. If it could be enough to make me willing to keep living.

But then I remembered that Captain Kirk (well, Admiral in that movie) had forced a different outcome. As a cadet, he beat the Kobayashi Maru and saved his pretend ship from destruction by hacking the test, reprogramming the simulation to make it possible for the lives of the crew to be saved.


There’s always a hack.

There’s always a gap of possibility.

Actually there are MANY possibilities.

Just because we don’t know what they are yet, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I think I need to have faith that a better world, a just world, really is possible. But I don’t need to know what it looks like exactly, or know that what I’m doing is going to help us get there in a linear fashion.

I think we need to keep trying everything. Every creative intervention we can think of. Even if we’re not convinced it will make a difference to the power structure currently hobbling our human spirits.

I suspect that whatever finally pushes us over the edge will be a surprise.

And it’s only by trying all the things, and keeping trying in the face of seeming failure, that we’ll ensure the door is propped open when the answer is ready to come in.

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