Sunday, October 25, 2009

The MN History Center and Pink's Empathy

My son and I walk up the ramp into what looks like the side entrance to a World War II paratroop plane. Inside, I push the start button, and we take seats on the bench opposite what appears to be the inside wall of the plane.

A media presentation appears on the wall with a black and white photo from the 1940s - the soldier, with his family. He tells his story of enlisting, choosing to be a paratrooper, going to war.

Then the lights dim, the media presentation goes away, and we hear and feel the sound of jet engines below us revving, rumbling, taking us aloft. Opposite our seats, a dim light in the windows reveals the ocean below us, with signs of a few boats at a distance. The pilot's voice comes on.

It is June 6, 1944, D-Day, and he tells us we are approaching the Normandy coast. The red light is on at the side hatch. He reminds us that when it turns green, we will be clear to jump...

There are flashes in the window. We are hit. The plane is going down.

The entire ride is less than eight minutes, and yet, for the first time in my more than five decades of being alive, I have the visceral sense of the nature of the sacrifices that my parents and their generation made for me. The books never did it; the movies never did it; I had to have some small bit of the experience myself.

The simulation is a part of the Minnesota History Center's current exhibit "Minnesota's Greatest Generation." It is one of many recorded personal stories that fill this exhibit, one that will stick with me.

Its power, it seems to me, comes from the use of at least two of the "right-directed senses" outlined in Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind - story, and empathy. As my son pointed out, we will probably never really understand how it feels to go to war without having had the experience. But at least now I understand that, and can empathize more deeply.

In his chapter on empathy, Pink quotes William Butler Yeats: "People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational expression end by starving the best part of the mind." And in the chapter on story, he quotes Roger Schank: "Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories."

As I reflect on my immediate few moments of realization after leaving the simulator, I am struck by the truth of both quotes.

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