Culture is pervasive. Culture is powerful. Culture is stealthy. Culture is long lasting. Culture is the vessel that transmits our values. Culture determines so much about us. And we don’t even know it’s happening to us. I was reminded of the power of culture a few weeks ago.
We gathered in our hometown of Bay Minette, Ala., for our annual Thanksgiving reunion. There were 13 children born into the family, but one died as a baby and the other died in Vietnam at the age of 22. Nine of the eleven living children gathered with their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Other relatives and friends came including children of the two siblings who did not come. We learned so much about and from each other. Culture is pervasive.
We communicated for many hours. We told stories. We shared experiences. We expressed our culture with the words we chose, the messages we sent, the body language we manifested. Culture is powerful.
We observed our mother being revealed in each other in ways that we had not previously noticed. We observed our father being revealed in each other in ways that we had not previously noticed. We observed ourselves in each other. While I was speaking and one of my sisters said, “That’s how Mama used to do her hands when she was making a point,” I did not even know that I was expressing myself with my hands. Culture is stealthy.
Most of us brought dishes or pots or pans of food. It ranged from collard greens to pig feet, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, chicken, potato salad, turkey, cakes and pies and various other dishes. The foods we brought and shared were foods we grew up eating. Culture determines so much about us.
As we shared the Thanksgiving moment, we observed the values instilled in us through the culture that enveloped us from birth. The value of hard work was evident. The value of standing up for ourselves and for others was manifest. The willingness to fight for that in which we believe was reflected in every experience shared. Culture is the vessel through which values are transmitted.
My father would get up before daybreak and work on the farm. Then he would go to work, put in a ten-hour day, return home and work into the night. My mother was also a really hard worker. When I go to work early and work late almost every day of the week, I now know where I learned this value. My brothers and sisters are hard workers. Culture is pervasive.
My mother was gifted with words. She used unforgettable phrases to forge teaching points. I regularly share many of her phrases. My father’s words were few and far between, but they made powerful points. Some years ago, Alabama Rep. Joseph Mitchell introduced me as a keynote speaker with these words: “Hank Sanders went to Harvard Law School. I have never heard him say one thing about what they told him at Harvard. But I have heard him say a thousand times what his mother said.” My mother was a great storyteller. Nearly all of my brothers and sisters are great storytellers. Nearly all of them recite words of wisdom from my mother and father. Culture is powerful.
As we shared on this Thanksgiving occasion, we observed things in each other that we did not realize we possessed in ourselves. My mother often said that we have to embrace our struggles. She said, “Struggle is like a bad dog. If you come up on a bad dog, he will growl viciously. If you stand there and look that dog in the eyes, the dog will stop growling, tuck his tail, and sneak away. However, if you run from the dog, he will chase you down, pull you down, and bite you all over. Struggle is the same way. That’s why you must look struggle in the eye and embrace it.” We are still embracing struggle some 50, 60, 70 years later. Culture is long lasting.
My mother did not have much formal education, having just finished the 7th grade. My father had virtually no education, having not finished the 1st grade. But they were extremely smart and truly valued education. All but two of their children attended college, and several have doctoral degrees. Culture transmits values even when there are no direct examples. We did not know we were learning life lessons with every example our parents set. We did not know we were learning life lessons with every story told.
We did not know we were learning life lessons with every experience shared. Everything others did, said and thought was part of our culture and became part of us. Culture is the vessel that transmits values and determines so much about us. Culture is truly pervasive, powerful, stealthy, long lasting and determinative.
EPILOGUE – It is rare for us to truly know who we really are. It is even rarer to know why we are who we are. More often than not, the answer is culture, culture, culture.