I endured a micro-aggression this week that gave me some odd hope for all the thin-skinned scholars trolling our campuses. They feel determined to rectify statements and suppositions that, in their minds, are “just wrong.” I don’t find myself sympathizing with their complaints any more than I did before, but I have stumbled on some good that may come from their outsized outrage.
Here’s what happened. I had a houseguest over the weekend who surprised me by laundering the towels her family had used before they left. I found them folded neatly on top of the dryer. I might have believed she had never used them at all, except I fold my towels in thirds to better fit the cubbies where I keep them.
I went to refold the towels only to discover — trigger alert! — she had folded the bath towels first in half to make the towels nearly square. I have always and forever folded towels first lengthwise. Once the shape resembles a thick scarf, I fold it twice along that longer axis, first in half, then in thirds. It’s automatic.
The difference between the two methods is unimportant — literally, of no consequence. Nothing I expect of a towel is compromised by my houseguest’s folding pattern. So why did it “feel wrong” to me? Why do I fold my towels the same way every time? Why is it not random?
Because we don’t like random. We like order, patterns, sameness. So we invent it wherever we can and much more than we recognize.
With folded towels but also with many other things, I favor “tall.” Growing up, I picked the same shape pumpkin from the U-pick patch every year. My house has been remodeled twice, each time making things taller.
Tall feels good to me. I was a skinny kid growing up, and now I imagine that I absorbed my mother’s friends’ comments: “My, my! Look how tall he’s gotten!” That pleased my mother, and so it pleased me. Tall became good. I refused to wear anything but “slim-cut” pants until I was cut from the high school basketball team.
My brother Bill grew up with a slightly different story. He was only slightly more stout than me. He probably heard something different during those formative years. He chose tennis as his high school sport. His house has a pool, but no upstairs. His pumpkins always looked like vine-ripened tomatoes, sitting beside my Roma-tomato shaped choice.
We never fought over whose pumpkin was bigger, or even better. But each of us would have cried if we were forced to carve a jack-o-lantern from the “wrong” shape.
We navigate the world every day with a thousand unspoken assumptions. There’s no need to speak about them because they don’t matter and we all know it. But still — something “feels right” and something else doesn’t. It really is a feeling. The sameness offers comfort — the world is known and confirmed.
Which hand is filled with shampoo between lather, rinse and repeat? Do you clip your dominant hand’s nails first or last? When you lick an envelope closed, which side does your tongue wet first?
The honest answer to most of these questions is that we don’t know. But it’s almost always the same way, whether we know it or not. Doing it differently won’t “feel right.” So we do know — we just don’t know that we know.
The worst aspect of the campus micro-aggression phenomena is the idea that young people are overly sensitive about the tiny pains — most of us would call them annoyances — they must endure. Once we wake up to how ubiquitous those inconveniences really are, a small dash of empathy is all that’s required to reveal a world teeming with diversity.
Each other person is as sure as we are about what “feels right.” That feeling is shaped for each of us by unique experiences and memories. We’re all busy making meaning in our world, and each of us is doing it differently.
That way, all the pumpkins in the patch find happy buyers.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.