Accumulating a Life

Accumulating a Life

I read an interview recently about how small, seemingly inconsequential biases can accumulate to create larger inequalities. Each time a man repeats and gets credit for a woman’s ideas in a meeting because we hear men differently. Each time a black child’s behavior is reprimanded more harshly than a white child’s because we see black children differently without even realizing it. Each time a job applicant is not pursued because of an ethnic name and our preference for the familiar. Small individual acts (“micro-aggressions”) add up to big impacts on both individuals and organizations.

Systems of wealth and credit, education, and the legal system all collect both privileges and discriminations, however small, into cumulative effects. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the impacts cross generations.

It’s a theory that helps us understand how racism and sexism function long after those explicit attitudes may have fallen out of fashion and faded. But it also helps explain much that that is beautiful and good.

Life itself, after all, is an “accumulation mechanism.” Each day builds on those that have gone before it. Each choice, for better or worse, wears the grooves of habit into our character and personality. Evil and hate and fear grow because of what we add to them. Love and kindness and beauty intervene because we do.

Our lives and our world become what we make them because of two things: what we add to them, and what we accumulate with.

So many decisions, acts, and words make up our lives – from what time I get up in the morning to how I great my neighbor on the sidewalk. What I spend, what I eat, whether I take the elevator or the stairs. What I choose to be intentional about and what goes on autopilot – and what kind of habits I’ve loaded into that autopilot. But things I have no control over make up my life as well – from what time the sun rises to how my neighbor greets me.

And there were things given to me before I even knew it that make up my life today. The genes and words of my parents, and their parents. The choices of teachers and friends and strangers, both living and long gone.

So many things come to me whether I chose them or not. But what I can begin to choose along the way is how I receive those things – how I sort them into meaning and significance, and whether I hold onto them or release them.

Consciously and unconsciously, we choose what to collect both of our own actions and the actions of others’. We sift words and acts, holding onto some and releasing others to oblivion. Much of this is unconscious. Early in life, the voices of family and authority – tempered by personality – teach us what to keep and what to ignore, and those filters function with a strong confirmation bias throughout our lives.

But life itself also gives us opportunities to flush out some systems and accumulate differently. Each day is new. Forgiveness and release can transform what has collected. Meaning can be reassessed and rewritten. And while we may never truly start from scratch again, we can change what we are accumulating.

That’s true for each of us as individuals, and it’s also true for us as a society. But that’s harder.

Because the filters that let some of us keep good things make others lose them. And the systems that give some of us room to make mistakes and grow don’t give others those same opportunities. Too many of us are only concerned with how the mechanisms for accumulation work for us, and we insist they must be working the same way for everyone else.

Principles can be deceiving. In theory, they work the same for everyone. But while in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice, there is. Principles have to be judged by their real impact across the board, on a broad range of individuals and an array of different situations.

Too often, in our lives and in our society, the most vulnerable are sacrificed – the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and the most vulnerable among us. And too often, we don’t even want to know it’s happening, so we let the accumulation mechanisms keep running without asking if we really want what they are collecting. If what it’s building are really our best selves and our best world.

Our best selves and our best world are worth building, if we can find the courage to try.

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Doing the Impossible

Doing the Impossible

I am not a runner.

When I was growing up, the southern humidity made me sound like I had asthma when I tried to run, and I had doctors’ notes to get me out of PE running requirements through college.

Seriously. I’m not a runner.

It took my seminary boyfriend (who’d finished the Chicago Marathon himself) surprising me with a visit to a running store and an adamant, “We’re not leaving until you buy running shoes!” to get me to give it another try. And if I was going to spend that much money on a pair of shoes, I was at least going to try.

I was in my mid-thirties. It was January in Chicago. And a few blocks at a time, it worked.

At first, I really couldn’t run more than those few blocks, but he would run backwards in front of me while I walked and caught my breath, and then coax me into a few more blocks. In the freezing air, I felt like I could breath, and slowly but surely I built up to a whole mile, then two.

I still wasn’t a runner.

When he broke up with me (taking my post-graduation plans with him), running helped me survive him. In the gym or on the pavement, I could funnel the energy of hurt and anger and frustration through my feet until I was exhausted. And I began to realize that running regularly – five or six days a week – was giving me an ability to handle stress I’d never had before. I could stay focused on work and studies, and things that felt impossible to handle weren’t overwhelming me.

I wasn’t a runner, but I kept running.

A few years into two or three mile morning runs, a friend, Josh, who was new in town overwhelmed me with his enthusiasm and I agreed to register for a half marathon. That’s 13.1 miles, and the race was the third week of July in Chicago.

It was clearly impossible, ridiculously unthinkable. An absurd decision.

But I’d paid the registration fee (races are expensive!), and Josh kept telling me I could do it. Keep running three miles each morning before work, and start adding one mile at a time each weekend. And if I was going to spend that much money on a race, I was at least going to try.

And one week at a time, I did.

By the time I was up to seven miles, it felt impossible. It was getting warmer out, and I knew I couldn’t make it. But…maybe I could run to that tree up ahead? And then to another one… And then to the cross street… And then… I’d run seven miles. It wasn’t possible, but I had!

And then it was eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Every week I was doing what felt impossible, and by the time I ran that half marathon with my friends, I’d started wondering what other impossible things I could do. I joined a dating service and went on first dates with strangers. Found a new church. Met remarkable people doing amazing things to change the world. Eventually changed jobs. Moved into the City. Adopted a grumpy old man of a cat.

And kept running, even though I’m not a runner.

I never enjoy running. I enjoy the being outside part – the sun, the breezes, the Lake, the people and dogs. But I don’t enjoy the running part. It never feels good, sometimes it just feels less bad than other times. But life always feels better when I’m running regularly. Even when it’s hard and I don’t know what to do, I can go for a run and know I can do the impossible.

Running isn’t about running for me, it’s about living.

This past Sunday I ran the Chicago Marathon – all 26.2 miles of it. I did it in memory of my father, because I’m living years he didn’t get. I did it for friends who’ve lost people they love to ALS, the same disease that took his life when he was just 31. I did it because I love this City, and running through its neighborhoods with the sun and the breezes and the Lake and the architecture and the people felt like a celebration of that love. (Chicago was showing off Sunday!)

And I did it for me. Because it was time to do something else impossible – gloriously, ridiculously impossible! And now I’ll see what other impossible things I can do.

I’m not a runner, but I run because it’s taught me not to be afraid of impossible things. And I run because there are more impossible things to do.