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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: The Little Engine that could … choose

Published: Monday, July 1 2013 3:34 p.m. MDT

The Little Engine That Could app from Penguin.

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Everyone should know “The Little Engine That Could.” If you don’t, either your parents failed you or you are failing as a parent.

I am only partially joking.

The story of "The Little Engine Who Could" is the quintessential tale of positive thinking and hard work that lead to success.

Our parents wanted us to grow up positively pulling our freight to the top. Further, we as parents want our kids to dream big and do their best. We want them to be little engines. It is the American Dream. Anyone, even the little guy with enough self-motivation and self-discipline, can climb any hill and pull any load. All they have to try is to think so and do so.

The history of this wonderful child/adult story of perseverance and grit dates back to 1906 as a sermon published in a New York newspaper. The Rev. Charles S. Wing in his oration exhorted his parishioners to greater heights with the story gleaned from Swedish tradition. One could see how that would be just the right topic in a religious message of that day. There were boatloads of immigrants from Europe pouring into New York Harbor desperately seeking a better life. They worked in the sweatshops of those days. They lived in slums before there were ghettos. Having faith in freedom and America made the Little Engine a perfect subject of hope.

Rogers and Hammerstein must have thought about the little locomotive and steep inclines of the Alps when they wrote for the Mother Superior in "Sound of Music" to sing, “Climb Every Mountain.”

The Little Engine was the train yard boss’ third choice. The two previous larger, stronger machines had tacitly declined by saying the load was heavy and the grade was steep. They didn’t come right out and say it was too tough or that they weren’t willing to try. Perhaps they were waiting for an incentive like an executive bonus of a larger supply of coal and a squirt of extra grease.

There is a problem. We miss the prequel. The power of the story is more than the lesson of “I think I can; I think I can.” It is the antecedent realization that at a moment of challenge regardless of the odds, a person can make a decision to try. The power of choice ignites the positive attitude. One cannot start to think or try without knowing there is an alternative to doing nothing. We must remember that in spite of cartoons to the contrary, train engines like our little friend and his buddy, Thomas, or the Disney Casey Jr., are a mass of metal.

They are not conscious. They have no soul.

Too often in our lives we act like the large older trains that merely see or describe the problem without understanding we have an opportunity to be heroes of parents and children everywhere. Defining problems is helpful only if the next step is to make a choice. Fractionating the hill into every small turn of the wheel creates tangible goals. Looking worriedly at the future summit blinds the next inch. Attentiveness to the moment permits the brain to focus and dismiss doubt and fear.

However, first we have to know that we can. This is not the can of pulling a long line of train cars behind us. That can be the easy part. The tougher starting point is the discovery of the can of agency. Train engines, unless they are subjects of stories, are not agents. They do not vote in real life. They are obligated to follow the path of the tracks.

Humans, on the other hand, hold elections of actions every day. If we know that we do have the power of choice it makes possible the chugging-chugging along.

We are not chunks of steel and wheels. We can decide to decide. I choose I can; I choose I can; I choose I can.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for over 30 years, a hospitalist and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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