The Rat Trap in the Farm HouseSeptember 18, 2009 12 Comments
A few months ago, while attending the 95th session of the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, I heard my most favorite preacher of all times, the Rev. Dr. Claudette Copeland use a brilliant illustration that got me thinking about systems thinking, networks and collaboration. I will surely integrate this illustration into my consulting and training practice, and recount it herewith for your enjoyment and cogitation:
The Rat Trap
A rat looked through a crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife opening a package. What food might it contain? He was aghast to discover that it was a rat trap. Retreating to the barnyard the rat proclaimed the warning; “There’s a rat trap in the house, a rat trap in the house!”
The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Rat, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.”
The rat turned to the pig and told him, “There’s a rat trap in the house, a rat trap in the house!” “I am so very sorry Mr. Rat,” sympathized the pig, “but there is nothing I can do about it but pray. Be assured that you are in my prayers.”
The rat turned to the cow. She said, “Like wow, Mr. Rat. a rat trap. I am in grave danger. Duh?” So the rat returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s rat trap alone.
That very night a sound was heard throughout the house, like the sound of a rat trap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see that it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital. She returned home with a fever.
Now everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the barnyard for the soup’s main ingredient.
His wife’s sickness continued so that friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them the farmer butchered the pig.
The farmer’s wife did not get well. She died, and so many people came for her funeral that the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide meat for all of them to eat.
So the next time you hear that someone is facing a problem and think that it does not concern you, remember that when there is a rat trap in the house, the whole barnyard’s at risk.
I, along with the several thousand others in attendance at this historical gathering of professional storytellers (a/k/a preachers), was tickled and intrigued by her use of this fable (and particularly upon her noting that, after all was said and done, the Rat — for whom the trap was set — got away!). It made me think:
- of the basic truth that indeed, we are all connected
- that what affects me today will at some tomorrow ahead, also affect you
- about how an appreciation of systems, systems thinking and networks is so vital to our approach to understanding, diagnosing and solving intractable social problems
- about Lani Guiner’s miner’s canary analogy as another successful example of the use of literary device in the analysis and messaging of complex, structural social issues.
On that last point — Dr. Copeland’s masterful employ of this illustration made me think of our responsibility to integrate (and oftimes introduce) systems thinking and complexity into community and civic conversations via accessible means (story, metaphor, simplicity, visual aids, plain speech). We need distill and deploy complex analytical tools in ways that aid, not confuse, the problem-solving, meaning making, analytical project at hand. Its easy to get confused, and to confuse, when talking about systems thinking. In fact, in recent work with a client of ours, I’ve noticed that even the use of the word “system” itself can be a detractor from the analytical and messaging work of collaborative problem-solving.
Some questions I’d welcome your responses to are as follows:
- What methods do you find most useful in introducing systems thinking into community and lay conversations?
- Or, what are some of the perils you’ve encountered when trying to introduce systems or complexity into a conversation? What lessons have you learned?
- What do you make of the fact that, eh…the Rat got away? Is there a systems analysis parallel commentary to be made here?
- How might the story unfolded differently if the chicken, pig, cow — or at least some of them — had an understanding that they were just part of an ecosystem, a network, a system that made them part of the Rat Pack (couldn’t resist!) despite their siloed, self-consumed, identities ?
- What does any of this say, then, about approaches to complex (or even complicated) issues that lack an appreciation for systems or complexity?