More Perfect Unions

The capacity of the human body to function despite being a collection of individual cells, organs, and systems is amazing. We walk around, tens of thousands of organisms working together as one, collections of nerves and fragility and power. 

Marriage is much like a body. Individuality and collective oneness coexist. Things like our shared sense of humor and curiosity about the world around us form the heart space of my marriage, our shared sense of responsibility the head. Our divergent feelings about money and how to load the dishwasher are more intestinal in nature. 

The body is also an apt metaphor for workplaces. There is circulation, the flow of energy, inputs and outputs. Like muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues, different departments working together accomplish impressive feats, wield unknowable power, and suffer tremendous pains. Just as in the body (and as in marriage), seemingly unrelated parts profoundly influence each other and the whole. 

Which brings me to Mike and Karen Pence. The Washington Post profiled the Second Lady, reprising a 2002 report that Vice President Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” Predictable controversy ensued, which Sarah and I dismissed on the podcast. We agreed that this practice, while not for us, is standard evangelical fare and none of our business. I also pointed out that judging people based on religious practices such as this one could lead to dark places because of the way we impose our personal beliefs—even and especially those born of ignorance—onto one another. 

The majority of listeners who have weighed in fervently disagree, pointing out, in a nutshell: 

  • that practices like Mike Pence’s limit the professional opportunities of women in the workplace 
  • that given Mike Pence’s role, he needs to have a high degree of flexibility to take private meetings with women 
  • that this practice reflects an attitude of objectification towards women that is problematic

I concede all points (especially the last point—and I find the attitude it expresses toward men equally troubling; if women are nothing but sexual objects that men find constantly and inescapably tempting, then men must be no greater than their desires and utterly incapable of self-control, in which case, I’d prefer they not run our country…but that’s another blog post), and I understand why our listeners are upset. I also remain unwilling to be outraged by the choice the Pences have made in their marriage and how those choices impact others. 

The workplace is always plagued by small and large illnesses, injuries, and discomforts that arise from people’s idiosyncrasies. Even the most high-functioning office has its equivalent of mild osteoarthritis—you mostly feel good, but then it rains, and the same pain that you’ve dealt with hundreds of time before returns. 

Of course the Karen Pence Rule impacts the women in Mike Pence’s workplaces. Workplaces are rife with exclusive behavior caused by the peculiarities of their inhabitants. An executive's smoking habit disadvantages the non-smokers who aren’t bonding with him during afternoon breaks. People form important business relationships over religion and the absence of religion, over having or not having children of certain ages, over the love of sushi or not. Some men will only meet with women behind closed doors, which can go wrong very fast and also be completely innocuous. Some men will never meet with women behind closed doors for fear of accusations of misconduct. Highly confidential information is discussed in bathrooms. Imagine being the non-drinker in environments where happy hour is code for strategic planning.

What we believe are individual decisions, personalities, and experiences dramatically change what happens around us. Bitterness about a botched performance review turns to a broken arm. A dispute over the unpleasant aroma of burned popcorn turns into a department’s flu. Egos can be cancerous. As much as we think we can wall off our impact, we unintentionally and substantially and often unfairly alter the experiences of those around us.

That unfairness often requires those on its receiving end to make adjustments. Like everyone else, I’m reacting to the Pence drama from my lens of experience, as a woman who has worked in a high-stress, male-dominated professional environment for my entire career. Dining alone with men and attending events where alcohol is served without my husband have been important to my career. If my male boss could not meet with me alone behind a closed door, it would be difficult for both of us. But, we would figure it out…just like people figure out the smoking and the drinking and the bathroom meetings and the burned popcorn every single day. We would go on as we go on with hundreds of non-ideal impositions created by the humanity of the workforce.

Recognizing and accepting imperfection doesn’t mean we abandon efforts at creating more inclusion and fairness. There are some behaviors and traits so corrosive that they violate true, universal non-negotiables, and we should constantly try to bring awareness and sensitivity to the rest. But perspective is important. I can imagine highly-marginalized individuals laughing at (or disgusted by) the superficiality of some of the slights I’ve described as workplace problems. This is why I think it’s so important to triage issues while thinking daily about the exercise and nutrition and care we’re providing for our bodies, marriages, and organizations.

I’m not outraged by the Pences because there will always be unfairness and inconveniences and all-out toxins in the workplace. I’m also not outraged by the Pences because I’ve never seen outrage solve a problem in the body, in my marriage, or in a workplace. In all of these organisms, outrage seems to exacerbate pain and facilitate disconnection. What has solved problems is a sense of oneness. Recognizing that my rights end where someone else’s begin, recognizing how a policy change in the IT department will make life harder in Accounting, recognizing how the frustration I carry home from the office impacts my husband which impacts my children—in every way that I look for unity, I find more perfect unions. So I won’t judge the Pences. I will hope instead that they can recognize the ways in which their personal beliefs, decisions, and actions impact others and make a little more space for beliefs, decisions, and actions that they don’t quite understand.