Cats, Dogs, and Bike Riding
How Life and Theology Imitate Riding a Bike
Scripture tells us that the body of Christ – the church – is a single body composed of different parts, the individual members. Consider Romans 12:4-5 --
“Just as there are many parts to our bodies, so it is with Christ’s body. We are all parts of it, and it takes every one of us to make it complete, for we each have different work to do. So we belong to each other, and each needs all the others.”
The meaning is clear – each part in its own special way helps the other parts.
When we ride a bike, for example, there is an incredible harmony that exists, and which must exist. All the parts of the body of the rider, as well as the parts of the bike, act in harmony or unison. This happens because a bike and rider act as a mechanism, a collection of parts with joints and hinges. The word “mechanism” is an important word. We must realize that the word mechanism has a precise meaning – in mechanical engineering, at least. A mechanism can be caused to move or to shift. Although a bike and rider are composed of linkages, components, and pivots, and even actuators like human muscles and bones, the bike and rider act as a whole – or as one body. If one moves the upper torso, for example, the result is that there will be adjustments or movements in other parts and simultaneously so.
In aerospace engineering terminology or parlance, we jest saying that the “tail wags the dog.” The meaning of this is that each part is connected and working in harmony or unison with all other parts. The motion of any one part or component isn’t an isolated event. It is not customary for the dog to wag its tail without each and every other part of the body’s body wagging in response. In this sense, a dog wagging its tail is a mechanism.
Does the dog wag its tail, or does the tail wag the dog? It really is one and the same because one can’t occur without the other being true. The dog and the tail are connected together – and thus parts of the same body -- and act in unison.
In contrast, a cat perched wherever cats perch might twitch its tail, but only the tail moves. The rest of the body of the cat is rigid or cemented in place, or statically planted to the ground or wherever else the cat might be at the particular moment. In engineering terms, the cat’s body as a whole is a “structure,” something quite different from a mechanism. Yes, the tail might move, but it is only the tail that moves as the tail moves relative to a structure that is held rigid.
Bicycles are analogous to dogs, in that every motion of any part of the bicycle, including its rider, will cause or create, or even manifest, sympathetic and simultaneous motions in all of the rest of the parts. The dog’s entire body acts as a mechanism – all parts act in sympathy or collaboration. Analogously, the bicycle and rider in motion act as a mechanism.
Tricycles as well as bicycles with training wheels, in contrast, are actually rigid structures, or what we can call over-constrained mechanisms. In essence, tricycles and bikes with training wheels act like cats, whereas bicycles act like dogs. For tricycles and bikes fitted with training wheels, the number of constraints is in excess of the number of joints, and as such the pieces don’t sway or move in response to motions of any one part. A cat’s body is fixed although its tail may twitch. In contrast, a dog’s body will whole heartedly participate in the wagging of its tail, hence “the tail wags the dog.” Bicycles are like dogs, because all parts respond to movement when any single part moves.
When children are trying to learn to ride bikes, they frequently adopt behaviors similar to cats. They will move one limb or do a shoulder-shift, but that motion is merely the movement of one appendage superimposed onto an otherwise rigid or static structure. The child’s body is or behaves essentially rigid, and the tricycle as a three point structure is likewise rigid. Because movement is denied in a structure, one can’t develop feedback processes, at least by sensing movement, to help stabilize the structure.
Of course, it may be said that a tricycles does move about, so what is the big deal? The big deal is that the tricycle’s movement is a result of the structure itself being on three wheels (or more), not that the structure is responding naturally to the movement and being an active and graceful participant in the movement. In essence, a tricycle and rider are going along for the ride, as opposed being a part of the ride.
Let’s consider when a tricycle rider, or a rider used to training wheels, goes from a cat-like structure, to a moving or fluid dog-like structure. All sorts of difficulties occur when a rider adopts static appendage moves when they are actually in the midst of riding a mechanism – a dog instead of a cat. The rider in this case, using static strategies, acts in a manner incongruous to the dynamic movement of the bicycle. It comes as little surprise that children with motor and movement problems can benefit from equestrian therapy, as the horse is dog like, thus fluid and moving. Hence, the developmentally challenged rider on a horse is exposed to and thus, is able to acquire some of the fluidity of the horse – or the environment created by a horse. We also note that in both the cases of horses and bicycles, once the challenged rider is successful they acquire and improve in their motor balance and related skills at a rapid rate. A child dealing with training wheels as a solution will often make stingy progress, but when the same child is place on our horse-like adapted bikes, the motor learning occurs at an astounding rate.
Becoming a successful bike rider ultimately requires that the rider act in a fluid manner, so as to become one with the bike. Moreover, the bike is a mechanism and not a static structure. In a mechanism, “each part in its own special way helps the other parts.”
It should come as little surprise that this same holds true for parts of the body of Christ. That is why we can say that “life and theology imitate riding a bike.” Of course, one could argue that riding a bike imitates life and theology, but we see it the opposite way – the bike comes first, and life and theology are imitations of bike riding, not the other way around.
May you be forever blessed as ride your bike through life.
A new Christian going through discipleship is like a rigid child on a bike with training wheels—progress, yes, but very stingy. Only when the young Christian mounts a bicycle without training wheels—becomes involved in ministry or service to others—does he/she improve in his spiritual motor balance and related skills. Sunday School classes and Christian Education offerings are the training wheels of the Christian life. Ministry, leadership and the use of our spiritual gifts to encourage others are the bikes or horses that God calls us to mount and become one with.
This addendum is courtesy of Joe Schluchter, St. Louis MO