"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Don’t Shoot the Messenger; Deconstruct the Delivery System

My downstairs neighbors seem noisy. But I have a suspicion that they aren’t really all that noisy. The problem may be the design of the building that simply amplifies their very normal amount of noise. We’re likely noisy too. I know Clara’s noisy.

I’ve become a true California driver. Californians really do drive differently than PacNW folk. There’s less room for timidity as a driver here; you decide to change lanes, and you do it boldly, and people make way for you, because that’s just how it works. When I was in the northwest for Christmas break, I made a few people angry with my aggressive driving; they acted offended that I’d “invaded their space.” But I was just doing what I’d been conditioned to do after several months in the bay area.

People at Safeway seem to have constant troubles with my sandwich and coffee orders from the deli and the in-store Starbucks, respectively. They do not seem to listen well, either making me incessantly repeat myself or just botching the order. It’s possible these people are incapable of a better job performance, but I doubt it; I suspect the problem is not in them, but in their training. The problem may not be the individuals, who are probably really nice people with a variety of talents and competencies; the store itself may not be setting them up for success, perhaps not due to cold indifference toward their quality of customer service but, rather, due to lack of resources.

We recently had a doctor’s appointment for Clara (routine) at a clinic we’d been to before. We were on a tight schedule as I had to get to class that evening, and were really counting on our appointment starting when it was supposed to, or at least shortly thereafter. We had to wait an hour for our last appointment. Whatever, that happens, I guess. But we arrived extra early this time and specifically asked about their level of busyness. We were told by a well-meaning receptionist that it would be “soon.” It wasn’t soon. Later, a different receptionist reassured us we’d be right in. Someone went to check on our appointment, and seemingly forgot about us. We finally clarified to the staff that we would have to cancel and reschedule (not happily, as this appointment concerned the well-being of our daughter), and we were told we’d “be right up,” that the assistant was “coming to get us now” to take us to the doctor. A minute later, yet another receptionist told us it would be 15-20 minutes longer. So we left. I was annoyed at the inaccuracy of all these time assessments, especially because we so specifically made a point to be aware of this. I was annoyed at the staff, the messengers. But I don’t think it was really their fault; perhaps they’ve been trained to placate in this manner and told this is good customer service. Perhaps they are understaffed and underfunded. (Perhaps we shouldn’t have so tightly scheduled our day, but then again, there weren’t many other available times, indicative of another dimension of this problem)

I present these four anecdotes because I believe they share something in common: they are all problems that seemingly lie in structures, not individuals. I’m helping teach a class on contemplative social justice this term in which one of our goals is to uncover the ways in which many of the problems we encounter do not lie in the personalities of specific individuals but in the nature of systems and structures of which we are a part.

This could be a workplace, classroom, church, committee, or a city. Or could be a broader, more normative pattern of “rules” like a church culture, or an –ism, like racism, sexism, etc. You can probably think of other examples of this kind of phenomenon.

The problem in a system could be the people in it; get rid of the people, replace them with new ones, and problem solved. But perhaps you’ve been a part of an organization where the boss/pastor/leader who everybody thought was the cause of all ills is removed, and yet, the problem endures. Often times a culture or normal pattern of operation is so established that even after a specific individual has left the system, the dysfunction remains.

Thinking more "structurally" about the world has increased my sensitivity to the way this kind of thing happens...to the way systems function and are capable of both great good and great harm. For example, how often do we deal with problems with some kind of an action that amounts to putting a band-aid on a wound rather than taking the necessary steps to actually expedite the healing of the wound? There may be a place for isolated actions that don’t necessarily in themselves effect systemic change (e.g., maybe you think abortion is a bad practice and so you speak boldly and publicly against it); but in some cases real change might only come about if the system itself is fixed (e.g., what social/economic/cultural conditions lead people to consider abortion in the first place)?

Maybe on a more basic level, thinking structurally is challenging me to be much more gracious and forgiving. Sure, people are, to an extent, responsible for their actions and should be held accountable; but often times it’s really not simply their fault. It’s not just that the individuals are flawed; they exist in a flawed structure that shapes and influences the way they act. Forces beyond them, surrounding them, and preceding them are at work; the problem often lies in these forces, not just in the individuals.

And so I've begun to ask myself and hope to continue to do so the next time someone gets under my skin, or someone is marginalized or treated poorly, or the next time I feel restricted, oppressed, pinched, constrained, bound: does the problem lie in a specific individual (it might), or is the problem systemic?

There are many forces at work, and things aren’t usually black and white. Maybe it is that person’s fault at Safeway for messing up my order again. But maybe the problem goes way beyond them (and as Joann has pointed out, sometimes people operating in a bad system know it's bad but work hard to be "good cogs"). I may not know who to blame or what to do in response. But at the very least, people who "wrong me" deserve some grace, some understanding.

I think it's easy to villainize people, to objectify an individual person as "the problem" and place full blame on them. I often do this in the moment, when I'm annoyed or "thwarted" in some way. But often the problem is much bigger than any one individual. Again, people deserve a little grace.

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