Last night sitting with a handful of close friends, I stated from the gut what Josh framed and mounted as significant. "I'm used to you being the smartest person in the room," he said, straight-faced and sober, "but that was probably the most profound thing I've ever heard you say." It always feels awkward to look at the faces of the other people in the room when someone pays me a compliment like that, so I just didn't. "You're on the knife edge," he continued. "You're more in touch with the history of our race, with the Human Story, than any one of us here."
I'd just been sharing how difficult it is for me to function as a dad, a husband, and a provider when I'm so scared and confused about the nature of God. Because five years ago my wife and I lost our first son in a freak 1/1,000,000 blunder by medical professionals at Providence Everett Hospital's labor and delivery ward, and we've spent the hours, days, weeks, months, and years since then putting our lives back together, asking ourselves, each other, friends, and strangers, "Who is this God actually?"
My senior design project When Words Fail attempted to express the intersection of anger and humor intrinsic to grieving individuals, offering the community around them tools for engaging the grieving person in their midst. It's easy to preach at, easy to placate, even easier to ignore those suffering from tragedy and the loss of loved ones because any honest communication requires a certain amount of empathy, reflection, a brush with our own mortality. It's so uncomfortable most people actively avoid it; a kind minority try to help despite their own discomfort but because they don't know how, they mess it up; a very few expose themselves to the mess, enter in, and provide the kind of comfort a grieving person needs. I hoped to make that number grow by a few more through my senior project.
Blundering down our path of loss and grief with our eyes open as often as possible, my wife and I encounter fascinating opportunities for design to affect this ever-dwindling population of humans with soul ties to our ancient ancestors who knew death around every corner. Fewer of us die in childbirth anymore; fewer of our babies die. Fewer of us are crushed by our dwellings collapsing, or live otherwise unnaturally short lives, thanks to the miracle of modern science and medicine. But we're still human. One defining aspect of the Human Story is its brevity.
For instance, when I wait tables (my staple employment during design school), I don't greet my customers by asking, "How are you tonight?" Because for every dozen or hundred people who reflexively and sincerely respond with the standard line ["Fine, thanks,"] there's one who feels a knife twisting through their intestines at my cheery and unintentionally flagrant question. Either they lie to me—because I'm a stranger who has no business knowing how miserable they are, or they're too tired and weary to tell another person today, or they're just desperate to forget for a few minutes—or they bring up the truth and make everyone feel terrible. It's not a great position, so I coach my fellow staff to use alternative tableside greetings.
Another instance: medical professionals who walk into our hospital room and cheerily inquire if this, our daughter, is our first child; how many pregnancies we've had before; isn't the miracle of childbirth just a wonderful, dreamy feeling? And we ask with bridled hostility, "Have you read our chart?" No, they answer. They just walk right in, guarded only by their professional disposition and armed with their charming smile, with no regard to the specific minefield they're waltzing through. We hope to begin a movement among American hospitals to visibly mark the outside of a patient's room with a universal signal demanding particular sensitivity to their case, easily identifiable and convenient for anyone entering the room to tread lightly and avoid accidentally blowing someone up.
That's part of the Human Story, too. Fragility, frailty, futility, failure. (All these f-words. Is this the reason bad grades in school skip letter "E" and go right to "F"?) For someone who's tried desperately to be a Good Boy my whole life, succeeding and striving and impressing people with my abilities and strong character, I have a hard time accepting the wobbly pieces of my existence. Isn't God supposed to protect good people from bad things? Aren't medical professionals supposed to act... professionally? Don't good intentions count, in place of legal or relational blunders?
This frailty, this vulnerability, relates to play design. If we forget we're mortal, if we stop designing for people who get hurt, if we stop empathizing with those weaker, less experienced, and more afraid than we are, we stop playing well with humans. Because everyone is mortal. Everyone gets hurt. Everyone is weaker than something, less experienced in some way, and more afraid than they want to admit. These are the humans we're designing for, not the Photoshopped, database integered, social media representations of our fantasies.