Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tipping Points

I have an incurable fascination with tipping points, especially those of the historical variety. There’s something alluring about a person or group who arrives at just the right moment in time, at exactly the right place, and manages to change the world we all know. At first glance so much of it seems to be about random chance, about landing in the moment and stumbling into a place in history. But other times, it appears planned. Maybe the person was destined for that specific moment and their shear pursuit of it created their own fate. Or maybe there’s something more—divine intervention or design. That’s why such snapshots of our past are so interesting. Do we make our own fate, or is it laid out in front of us simply to follow?

Not all tipping points are a razors edge. Some are blunted, building through months, decades, or even a lifetime. To me, these are the kind we control, creating our own path through life. History littered with examples like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gallileo—individuals striving against unbearable obstacles driven by a sense of purpose that others can only ponder. They made their fate, shaped their future, and in the course changed all of us. I’m sure someone could argue that they were destined for it, but they worked hard at their vision for the world and in the process left us ideas like equality, or an invention like the printing press, or an better understanding of our universe.

But as a writer, I’m most fascinated with the other kind—the razor’s edge. I love stories about a person running headlong into history and changing the world in the collision. Those are the moments that no one saw coming, sometimes not even those involved. And the best among those are names that have faded until they’re almost forgotten. Maybe the authors of our history texts didn’t deem them worthy, or maybe they didn’t fit the mold we looked for. They were the wrong color, the wrong gender, or fell on the losing side. Imagine the stories we lose if we forget them.

Just a few weeks ago history dusted one of these stories off and thrust it into the mainstream for us all to marvel over. Henrietta Lacks was all but forgotten, a few articles and a documentary trickling out over the past few decades, but nothing commensurate with her contribution to the world. In fact, the only reason she re-surfaced was through a deal her family made with the National Institutes of Health. Henrietta died of cervical cancer when she was just 31, never knowing how she would touch so many lives. And as an African American mother of five, she is just the kind of person that unfortunately history all too often passes by. But in her case she had something special to offer. Cells cultured from her tumor refused to die, something that had not been seen before. Scientists now have an immortal line of cells for research, cells that don’t die off after just a few divisions. The cell line was named HeLa after the first letters in her first and last name, and they have touched so many corners of medical research, from AIDs and HIV, to cancer and even a cure for polio by Jonas Salk. And she never knew.

Not all historical tipping points are as positive. Another historical marvel to emerge should bring tears to all of us, the possibility haunting of what the world might have been without it. In January 1894, a four-year old child broke through the ice in Passau Germany while playing tag with friends. Another young boy was able to pull him out in time, saving him from certain death in a fast flowing river capped by ice. The rescuer became a priest, Father Johann Kuehberger. The boy he saved—Adolf Hitler.

But the tipping point that has fascinated me is something closer to home—ripe with drama and speculation. Officer John Parker was one of four Washington DC metropolitan police officers assigned to protect the president of the United States. And on April 15th 1865, Parker was the officer who drew the detail to stand guard in Ford’s Theater. The rest we know. But what would have happened if Lincoln lived? Can you imagine the America that might have been?

I’ll save my thoughts on John Parker for the next post!