Chapter 3.75: A part? Or apart?

Who are we a part of, and who do we make ourselves apart from? Who do we treat as family, and who do we treat as a vending machine?

I’m always struck by the way we think of people that we’re technically a part of as something that we’re apart from. Here’s what I mean. 

I draw more life lessons than I should from vending machines. For those unfamiliar, these are machines that have an assortment of things you can choose from, usually snacks or sodas. You put in money, you choose what you want, it gives you what you want. Unless it’s broken, in which case it doesn’t give you what you want, you beat on it and shake it around and eventually call the number on it for help or a refund. And if you don’t want what’s in the machine, or you don’t have the money to use it, it’s just a box on a wall you ignore.

That’s sort of how we’re supposed to engage with vending machines (except the beating and shaking parts), because they are essentially instruments; they are there to serve a specific purpose to provide what we want in exchange for the money it charges. But the reality is, that’s how we approach people and institutions, too.

In theory, most of us don’t approach our families that way. Family members aren’t instruments; they are networks of people like us with whom we are in mutual relationships. These relationships aren’t just instrumental; they aren’t just there to serve us. They are mutual and the relationships are ends in themselves. Even when I don’t “get anything” specific or quantifiable from a family member, there’s a value to just being in relationship with them that is worth it all by itself. A big part of that value is seeing and being seen in return by another person as who you are: a unique individual worthy of love.

We treat people who aren’t family either as family or as vending machines. Maybe the people who see this most clearly are people who work in retail with repeat customers. Whether you run the counter at a gas station convenience store or are a barista at a coffee shop, you can probably point out which of your regular customers treat you like family, and which treat you like a vending machine. Even if you don’t know their names, some people interact with you in a way that says “I see you, friend,” and other people just see a generic employee taking my money in exchange for Twinkies or coffee.

This is true for neighbors, too, though in that case, the people we don’t see as family are more like the vending machines that don’t have anything we want; they’re just background.

Where it gets interesting to me is how we treat larger institutions of people, like governments. If we think of government as a vending machine, we expect a certain set of goods and services in exchange for the taxes we pay. But the guy who picks up your trash, or the woman who answers the 911 call, those are people too. Not only that, in America, we tend to think of government as a participatory process; as citizens, one of the things we’re proud of is the degree to which we can be a part of the process of governing, through voting or speaking up or even running for office. 

But most of the time, when I hear people talk, government isn’t something they sound like they are a part of, it’s something they are apart from. And the people in official roles of governing aren’t distant family, they’re vending machines. And if they don’t give you what you think you paid for, you beat on them, shake them, and eventually call the number to ask for a refund.

I get it, I do. But it seems to me that our society might run better if we also balanced that with a reminder that everyone else in our society, even those in official government roles, were not just vending machines but family. We can still be mad at them, and we can still ask them to do better. But we might have better luck if we remembered that they aren’t instruments; they are groups of unique individuals worth seeing for who they are, just as we are. They’re not apart from us; they are us, and we’re a part of them.

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