My Father’s Box

When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust.  But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living.  From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.

I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet.  We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire.  Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to.  He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.

We didn’t have much money, but neither did the people we mixed with. My friends were from our street, from my school.  Those who had more money and lived in wealthier areas, those who spoke with less of an accent, were labelled “posh”.

Whether we like it or not, we inherit our parents’ attitude to money. I still carry the values that came from my traditional working class background: the need to work hard, be respectable, not act above your station, respect your elders and “betters”.  My upbringing gave me a sense of fairness and a desire for equality.  But in some ways, I always felt that I didn’t quite “fit”.  I wanted an education and a career but I was the first generation in my family for which that was an option.  When I achieved them, I would often underplay my success so that people wouldn’t think I had gotten above myself.

Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us. I currently work as an area manager, responsible for a group of libraries and community buildings.  My job and my lifestyle now would be categorised as middle class.  Yet I will forever feel working class.  I can afford to do the things my parents never could, but I’m not always comfortable doing them.  I can eat in a fancy restaurant but never quite feel I belong there.  I can be intimidated visiting an expensive shop.  I value something because of its worth to me, not because it has a name that someone tells me I ought to value.  I often feel guilty spending money on myself, because the purchases are things I want but don’t need.  I would be horrified if someone called me “posh”.

I still feel as though I straddle two worlds: the world I was raised in and the one I have forged. Inside, I’ll always be that working class girl who never had much money.  And I’m proud of the woman she has made me.

Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate

The Secret to Happiness

A friend of mine who suffered immensely caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work. To work not to live. The obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, and she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.

She continues to live with the guilt.

Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sunk into depression.

Her response back then was profoundly intriguing to me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining. My life before and after this season was one hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, and life without money struggles was a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions came my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away to be tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me she couldn’t resist picking up a suit tossed outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I came. She had spotted it, good as it looked, on her way out after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class community. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp. She never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.

When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped – in fact, paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.

In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.

With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].

Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.

The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.

Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.

He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time looking for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with my two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of options she had stumbled into. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared at the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.

Notice the themes written on the mighty dollar. Happiness, guilt, blame, worry. There are more, too, in this new series on money that our guest writers have been waiting to help roll out. Look out for our oldies, thoughts on class and belonging and identity. You might see yourself in the stories. Here we go!

Ten Lessons In Case I Die

1. Don’t marry someone like your mother. Choose a woman who wakes smiling.

2. Use your strength for those who’re weak.

3. People don’t care if you’re right, especially when it means they’re wrong.

4. Try it again. Better or differently.

5. Keep singing.

6. Whatever you do, leave your signature on it. And I don’t mean sign it.

7. Follow your gut.

8. Give without expecting.

9. Move on when people let you down. There is so much more to live for.

10. Things can be worse. Remember that you’ve had a mother who’s loved you beyond her ability.

Calling

old-door-handleWriter Elisabeth Elliot has said God’s NO is His mercy.  In this posture of trust I have tasted the goodness of God. Hindsight faithfully reveals that the doors that had shut on me were pointing to portals that would swing wide with blessing.

I had always felt barred from overseas missionary work. The door to service abroad that I tried and tried wouldn’t budge. In 1996, I set foot in California for the first time on a working vacation as a guest contributor to a Wycliffe Bible Translators magazine called The Sower. Through the research and writing, I was in part scouting the missionary landscape and tapping possibilities for my place in it.

Fast-forward about ten years to the night a church leader came over for dinner. I had felt judged by this man who was passionate for overseas missions. I got the sense that he, knowing nothing of the many challenges I’d faced until then, thought me complacent in my little world. He never cared to probe, to discover anything of the work abroad I had pursued but that had never panned out for me. That night, he picked up the copy of The Sower that happened to lie on the coffee table, and flipping through, caught my byline. Taken aback, he seemed to see me in a new light.

A deep, sweet realization emerged in a talk with a friend last week. When she expressed pleasure over my writing, I pointed out that my hands don’t have the creative touch of hers and that I lack the verve and strength to serve people in the way she does.

I suddenly got chills.

I saw, after all these years, that anything I arguably could have accomplished as a missionary would have remained limited in scope. But the words I have put down, here and in global publications, reach more people than I would teaching English or laboring to build a hut somewhere. I heard God’s answer to the misperceptions of the man who had wanted more…activity out of me. I don’t always have to be talking faith. My writing is my art and the art, my worship.

My worship, my calling.

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. Revelations 3:7

The Race: Caucasian in Oregon, Part 14

1 Whitney1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

An analysis of my DNA by Ancestry.com shows that my ancestors came from Western Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia and Spain, which makes me about as Caucasian as one can be.  I find my ethnicity interesting from a historical perspective. On a personal level, I believe who we are as individuals is much more important than our ethnicity.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Southern Oregon – northwestern United States – surrounded by national forests. I was raised in a small, rural town in Northern California. My first move was to University of California, Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s. From there I moved to Liberia, West Africa where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years. I returned to the US, taught briefly in an all-black school elementary school in Philadelphia, and then moved to Atlanta where I traveled throughout the Southern United States recruiting for Peace Corps. Finally I returned to California.

Growing up in a small town with conservative parents gave me moderately conservative – though not prejudiced – values. Berkeley radicalized my view of the world and introduced me to cultural diversity. The kid from Diamond Springs found himself sitting on the floor of the administration building, protesting University policies on student activism, singing “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez. Liberia further changed my perspective on race and ethnicity. First, race was not a significant issue; it simply faded away for me. Second, working closely with tribal people introduced me to a world outside western culture. I learned how dramatically our view of the world is impacted by the culture we are raised in. Finally, I became acutely aware of the negatives aspects of ethnocentrism. Americo-Liberians, ancestors of freed slaves from America, ruled Liberia and considered tribal people inferior, while the tribal people gave their primary loyalty to their tribe and considered people from other tribes inferior. A combination of Americo-Liberian politics and tribalism would lead to Liberia’s Civil Wars and the deaths of some 200,000 people. I’ve written on the tragedy of Liberia.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

It wasn’t. One elderly black woman and two Mexican-American families lived in Diamond Springs. The Mexican-American kids were among my best friends and I spent a lot of time in their homes. The student makeup of the high school and community college I attended weren’t significantly different.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language.

The only real bigotry I personally experienced was when I was recruiting for Peace Corps at black colleges in the South in the 60s. Racial tensions still ran high. Black students disliked me for the color of my skin, not for what I believed in or had done. I regarded the experience as educational. I think it would be valuable for everyone to experience (briefly) what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

Over the years I have developed my friendships mainly around my work, regardless of ethnicity. Everyone’s ‘people group’ has a degree of ethnocentrism built in. We could all use vaccination against stereotypical and prejudicial thinking, with booster shots along the way. Tribalism is alive and well.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

A young man who worked for me in Liberia has been one of my closest friends ever since. Sam came from a small village where he was born in a mud hut. I helped pay for his high school expenses in Liberia. Later he would go on to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree from Brandeis University, a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University, and an MD (Doctor of Medicine) in Liberia. We still talk frequently and he refers to himself as my son. My work as an environmental and public health advocate frequently involved developing close working relationships with people from various ethnic groups. Beyond that, my five closest friends, including my wife, are white.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?  Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Shared interests, not racial affinity, drive my friendships. Among my closest friends are people who have fought beside me in environmental and public health battles, and joined me on the long distance backpacking and bicycling adventures I’ve led. I will say that the majority of the people I am close to share my values, including tolerance.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

If I had young children, I definitely would. Now I keep myself active in things that interest me. I might add that my blogging happily brings me into contact with a very diverse population from around the world.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

When I married Peggy, her children were already in high school with broad cultural experiences under their belt, having lived in Panama, Germany and the Philippines. Both our children and their spouses have been great at introducing their children to cross-cultural opportunities.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I confess to being something of a loner, the perfect wallflower. My siblings were older and with a challenging home environment, I spent a lot of time by myself when I was a child. I learned to like it. When other kids were off playing baseball, I was happily off in the woods with my dogs doing an inventory of the local skunk population. I once took off on my bicycle and spent six months by myself doing a 10,000 mile tour of the US and Canada. I would still rather stay home and read a good book than go to a social function. The only time I felt deeply out of place was my freshman year in high school when I spent a year refusing to look at girls, any girl, in the eye. I totally lacked confidence, something that stemmed from the conditions at home. I definitely was not part of the in-crowd. And I wanted to be. It was miserable. It took several years to recover. But I’ve spent most of my life doing things that required social interaction and acceptance: running organizations, organizing campaigns, working as a lobbyist, etc. These responsibilities have opened many doors, but the sense of being an outsider has never totally left me.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

The world is something of a mess, right? We need the talents and abilities of everyone working together to make it better. Every time we limit a person’s potential because of race, creed, sex, sexual preference, age, or whatever, we all lose. I think we are taught prejudice and it is deeply embedded in all societies. I also think we naturally fear that which we don’t understand and in many ways we haven’t shed the tribal instincts we inherited. Our minds are hardwired to think in stereotypes. The more our world shrinks and the more our survival depends upon working together, the more important it becomes to shed racial stereotype and judgments.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

We all need to search our souls on occasion to uncover our prejudices and to explore how they impact our judgment. Going out of our way to help people feel they belong is an act of kindness. But it is also pragmatic. Prejudice begets prejudice. While this exercise has focused on the ethnic side of prejudice, not judging or limiting people because of their sex, faith, sexual preference, age or religious beliefs is of equal importance. Making assumptions about someone because of these characteristics can be as harmful to our society as making assumptions about someone because of their ethnicity. For example, I may be ‘retired’ and a grandparent, but neither defines who I am or what I am capable of. Finally, we need to evaluate the institutions we are part of as well as ourselves. For example, does our church teach that women must defer to men, or that gay people are sinners, or that people of other religions or nonreligious people are somehow inferior? Or does it teach that we are all equal in the eyes of God? Exclusivity is an open door to prejudice. Likewise, what do we learn in our places of employment, schools, and the groups we belong to? We have an obligation to promote tolerance in our organizations and groups as much as we need to broaden our own views.

Curt at Wandering Through Time And Place

What If You Weren’t Afraid?

Fear dictates a lot of what we do, say, and don’t. Over the years, my husband and I have peeled back the face of harsh words, avoidance, and everything in between to lay bare this tyrant in the heart. The things I want from him will often lead back to my fear of finding myself out in the cold with hat in hand. In those moments I’m the little girl her parents let down, even while I now understand that they had done their best. Holistic Husband will hesitate to share with me what he really thinks, afraid of rejection. I am short with my boy for shedding clothes outside because I am afraid he will get sick. Not a 100 pounds, I could not relate to anyone with eating disorders. Until a few years ago when I showed myself I could overeat. I knew better. I was the health and nutrition consultant among moms, with over a decade of study under her belt. The worst thing you can do with your food is do too much of it. I realized something wild. Though my husband spared no expensive to meet our needs, the compulsive eating started from fear of going hungry.

There are many things we hold back from trying, scared to fail. We worry about what others will think and end up spouting dumb words or holding back when we should speak up. The wind of peer pressure blows on our kids everyday, right through the morning window when they decide what to wear before pushing them toward and away from other kids.

How would these things look different in your life, if you were not afraid?

Your relationship with your sweetheart
How you parent
The people you tend to befriend
The relational boundaries you draw
How passive or aggressive you are in conflict
How often you say no
How and why you study
What you would say in a job interview
Where you work
How you work, the hours you put in
Your relationship with your self, in exercise or ways you nurture your body and spirit
Your eating
Your career
Your blogging
Your art
Your dance
How and what you write
What you buy
The goals you set
Add your own.

Feel free to think before getting back to me.