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.

Holding the Door

Holding the Door

Driving to work this morning I heard a story about Nashville artist Jason Isbell. Isbell is from rural north Alabama near the Tennessee state line (a couple of hours west of where I grew up). He’s a thoughtful and curious songwriter whose songs are full of the nuances of humanity and real life, and he feels the tensions of the history-haunted south.

I’m a white man living in a white man’s world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be hers one day
But her momma knew better

…I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through their burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton

I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Oh, the times ain’t forgotten

…I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation
I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation
I still have faith, but I don’t know why
Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes

(from “White Man’s World,” by Jason Isbell)

Isbell has found an audience beyond country music, and that audience is growing. “Doors are open to me and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna walk through ’em,” he says. “But I’m also gonna try to hold ’em for somebody else before they slam in their face. And at the very least, at the very least, discuss it with people.”

It’s a good image: holding the door open for somebody else. He sees what’s happening for him, and he recognizes others aren’t getting the same opportunity.

When I was in college, I took a class in Apologetics. I attended a fundamentalist Baptist university, and that class was part of the theology program. It was a large class, and I was one of only a few women. Apologetics is about how Christians answer hard questions, and I had lots of questions (that had something to do with why I took the class!). But I could sit forever with my hand in the air and never get called on by the (generally good natured) professor. He was never rude or unkind to me, but it was like my hand was invisible. After a few weeks of this, the student who sat behind me, Nate, started raising his hand if mine had been up a while. When the prof called on him, he’d act confused and defer to me to ask my question first.

He held the door open.

Later, in my first real job, I worked as the one-woman office staff for my pastor’s speaking ministry. I had a great relationship with both my pastor and my boss and a good relationship with the other men on the ministry’s board. When they decided to launch a national radio ministry, we began to work with an agency that produced and distributed many of the most well-known evangelical radio ministries. Things were still in development when the president of the agency, Jon, and I met at a conference, and we hit it off. He began to informally mentor me, and when it was time for him to fly in for his first meeting with the board, he asked if I would be in the meeting. I’d never been in a board meeting before, but it was clear Jon expected me to be there. My boss decided I could sit in a chair in the corner of the room and take notes.

Jon arrived, and after the introductions and greetings had gone around the room, he spoke up and said, “Before we get started, can we find another chair? I’d like to make room for Jennifer here at the table.” He shifted things around and held a chair for me right beside him.

He literally and figuratively made a place for me (the only woman in the room) at the table and was intentional about including me in the ensuing discussion.

When it was time for our people to fly out to California to meet with the agency production and distribution teams, Jon told them, “Don’t bother to come if you don’t bring Jennifer!” So off I flew. I learned a lot on that trip, and future board meetings included me. Jon saw I had something important to contribute, and the men started to listen when I spoke up.

Jon held the door open for me.

Doors don’t open the same for everyone. For some of us, generations of access to education and systems that were designed for our benefit turn a lot of doors into the kind that see us coming and slide open with a whoosh of anticipation. We hardly even know a door was there. But those doors don’t recognize everyone, and others of us have to exert a lot of effort to push and pry them open. Sometimes it just requires more than we have. And sometimes the doors are locked to us.

If I can pay attention and recognize the doors, if I can notice when those doors that open for me aren’t opening for someone else, that’s when I can hold the door for them.

And maybe if enough of us notice, we can get the doors re-programmed, or just take them out altogether.