The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 25.0°F | Partly Cloudy

The General and His Teacup

Dawen Choy

Those of you who read my column two weeks ago ["Mother Knows Best," Oct. 9] might remember that my room suffered flooding during the recent East Campus fire; some might even remember that I was frantically trying to save my computer and hi-fi stereo from the water. When I woke up to water falling on my face, my first reaction was to get the vulnerable electrical equipment out of the way, because I thought the ceiling was leaking as a result of heavy rain, something which had happened last spring.

It was only when I pulled up the blinds to close the window that I saw the flashing lights of the fire truck outside and realized something was amiss. On hindsight, I guess the sheer volume of water coming down should have been a clue too. Even after that discovery, however, I still wanted to shift my equipment to safety before evacuating. At that time, some official-looking people came onto my floor, walked around inspecting the rooms, and ignored me completely. I took that as a sign that there wasn't any immediate danger, so I felt justified in delaying evacuation for a while longer.

Still, I did not dare to stay too long; I just unplugged everything and moved my hi-fi, computer and piano to my girlfriend's room next door, leaving everything else to the mercy of the water. I would've preferred to stay longer, but the situation was uncertain and potentially dangerous, so it seemed wiser to evacuate.

Now, I have participated in countless fire drills and was well aware that the foremost safety rule during a fire is to get out as quickly as possible without worrying about one's belongings. Yet I knowingly ignored the rule and put the safety of my equipment above that of my own. As it turned out, the fire was extinguished even before the fire department arrived, so there was never any real life-threatening danger to me, but that does not ameliorate the mistake I made by disregarding an important directive about fire safety. What I did really was inexcusable.

But what is more disturbing is that disasters have a way of unmasking a person's true character, and in my case I think this incident has shown that I attach excessive value to my material belongings, so much so that I exposed myself to additional risk in order to stay back and carry them to safety.

I guess one may argue that it's forgivable to cherish something so much you're willing to risk your life for it, but certainly I don't think material goods belong to that category, no matter how valuable and expensive they may be. And much as the image of a dedicated scientist rushing back into the burning laboratory to save his data and experimental equipment is seductively heroic, nevertheless that too is a foolish thing to do. You can always buy equipment again; data you can take again. But if you gamble with your life and lose, there's no second chance. Considering that saving my computer and hi-fi system isn't even half as noble as saving scientific data, what I did definitely cannot be justified.

Admittedly, it is difficult to guard against the temptation of materialism. In my two years here, I have accumulated a great many things, including personal furniture, consumer goods, books, course bibles and magazines. I've usually justified these acquisitions by the comfort they add to my life, but they also cause problems when it comes time to move. It is no great physical insight that more mass equals greater inertia, and for that reason I'm extremely loath to move out of my room. Even though there are times when I wish I could switch to a better room - the radiator in my current room is noisy, the ceiling has been proven to leak and the floor is a hideous green - the impulse quickly subsides when I think of how many things I have to pack and move.

Once again, there has been a price to pay for materialism, even though in return it can provide some level of creature comfort. I guess there is nothing wrong with buying and acquiring things if it brings you pleasure and enjoyment, but that should also be tempered with the perspective that we did not bring anything with us when we were born, and when we die we cannot take anything away with us either. So why did I risk my life over items I would eventually dispose of when I graduate and go home in two years' time?

There is a story from Zen Buddhism about a general who was admiring his collection of precious antique teacups. As he held one of them up to the light to examine its exquisite workmanship, it slipped from his hands and fell towards the floor. Fortunately, the general's battle-honed reflexes kicked in instantaneously, and he managed to catch the falling teacup in his cupped hands just inches from the ground.

Sweating profusely from the close call, the general gazed thoughtfully at the fragile teacup in his shaking hands and came to sudden enlightenment. "I have led armies to battle against overwhelming odds and never once have I felt fear. I have fought vicious barbarian hordes from the north and stared death in the face, yet I've never lost my composure. Why should I tremble when a mere teacup falls from my hands?" With that realization, he tossed the teacup over his shoulder and walked away calmly even as the teacup smashed into the ground behind him.

If only I were as wise as that general!