The Cultural Roots of Discontent
Have you ever felt that there is something wrong with the world? Did you ever sense as a child that you were meant to be raised differently? Do you long for something more out of life? Do you wonder if school is more designed to teach us to tolerate a 9-to-5 sleeping and working cycle than to truly educate us? Or why outer beauty seems more valuable in this world than inner? Or why having a job or what you do for a living seems more important to people than how you feel, your health, or your relationships? Have you ever had an overwhelming desire to escape to anywhere else – a cabin in the woods in Alaska or an island in the Pacific – where people still live a simple life?
If any of this is true for you, then perhaps you would have jumped at the chance to give up your certain knowledge of how the stars and solar system work in exchange for enjoying a sense of magic and mystery, if only for one night of ecstatic wonderment.
Many people feel that their lives are unfulfilling and meaningless right now. In our current culture (illustrated later), we distance ourselves from each other and the earth. Literally, the more we are willing to degrade the earth and each other, the more money we can make. We are taught that materialism and selfishness are our basic nature and that the way to survive is to outcompete and be cutthroat. These are valued traits in our society, rewarded (whether we like it or not) with prestige, power, and access to resources.
Environmental, economic, and social issues are coming to a head right now. We are using the last of the oil and mining the last rare elements. Our currency is devaluing and our debt is catastrophic. Our prisons are filled to maximum capacity and our educational system produces less and less qualified individuals. In addition to the environmental ills we are experiencing, our social fabric is torn. We struggle increasingly with obesity, eating disorders, delinquent youth, and domestic abuse. One third of our nation lives on prescription antidepressants and many of the rest self-medicate with alcohol or illicit drugs just to make it through another day. Why, in our incredibly wealthy society, are we plagued with depression and sickness? Is this just human nature?
So far our approach to these imbalances has been to try, as we’ve tried with environmental regulations, to punish ourselves into happiness and harmony with longer prison sentences, steeper fines, and stronger drugs. Yet the problems grow: we outlaw particular environmental practices and find that they’ve merely been exported overseas. We outlaw particular behaviors and find that they go on illegally anyway, yet with more risk and more potential financial payoffs for those who get away with it.
Why, in this time of affluence, are so many issues unresolved? Is it simply the nature of humanity to deplete the earth and to be discontented and violent with each other? Or is that just a belief we have come to accept over the last few millennia, with no more concrete truth than the belief not so long ago that the world was flat?
What can we do? Change our values. We can create a culture where each person’s emotional as well as physical development is the most important work, and serves not only to better each individual but also to improve their ability to support the people around them and to work together with others in a cooperative and mutually-supportive whole. People can work together like fingers on a hand – each finger acting alone is like a severed hand, but supporting each other they create a synergistic whole that is greater, stronger, and more capable than each part. This is the way many of our ancestors lived, and it contrasts significantly with the cutthroat competitive cultural environment most people know today.
Although the idea of changing cultural values may seem daunting or unrealistic, it is a challenge we are well-suited for by nature and also completely capable of. Consider the following example. Some African nations in the 1970s and 1980s took a cultural approach to trouble they had with the ivory industry. Poachers were hunting the last of the elephants to extinction and all the laws and penalties (even death) were completely ineffective. What could be done in the face of such mindless greed? These nations tried something radical: they started a worldwide ad campaign to devalue ivory through social value systems. The ad campaign successfully attached negative social consequences to the ownership of ivory. This incredibly simple approach was vastly more effective than all the laws and punishment attempted before. Within 2 years, no one wanted any part of ivory and its market value was negligible, which ended the slaughter of elephants for the time. Recently, the slaughter has begun again with the emergence of new markets in countries with no anti-ivory campaign.
The monetary system provides another illuminating example of the power of cultural belief. Money in and of itself is simply paper and ink. The only thing that gives it value is our belief and general agreement upon its value. Even gold and silver have no value other than our faith in cultural meanings attached to them. The same is true of many of our other cherished beliefs: the only way they have value is through our agreement that they are true. If for some reason doubt begins to creep in about the value of money, for example, the money loses its worth. A great deal of doubt can really shake an economic system, as we’ve witnessed with the Great Depression and other economic downturns. The turmoil is scary, but this kind of chaos is also the mark of an opportunity for change. Why not try to replace what’s falling apart with something that might work better?
We can follow this example with many other cultural beliefs and values. If, for example, the “consumer” refused to buy electricity made with nuclear power plants, within weeks there would be total shutdown and new production of other energy would ramp up to fill the void (unless we managed to altogether reduce our demand for energy). We can create endless laws and punishments, but as long as there is a profit to be made, loopholes will be found. When DDT was outlawed in the United States, exports of it tripled to other countries. Likewise, the United States decided that smelting ore was too toxic and the result was that the industry moved to Canada where it was still legal, leaving behind a mess of poisoned air and water.
What if instead of focusing our energy on banning harmful substances and practices and punishing transgressions, we reduced desire for them through media, advertising, and social rewards like tax breaks and social recognition? And, on an even deeper level: what if instead of focusing on stopping the harmful outcomes of a culture that isn’t working for us, we focused on creating the kind of culture what we do want? Culture is the nexus of our whole way of life. So if we want to change the way we act in the world, let’s start with our cultural values.
What’s in it for me? (The Good News)
What’s in it for me is the quintessential question that every being asks before any action. It is in our basic nature to ask this question, because it serves us well to give our energy to that which provides some benefit to us. This is also the foundation of human culture, since it is of benefit (and necessity) physically and emotionally for us to share life with other humans. Self-interest is not only key to our survival, it is also an important tool we can utilize to motivate change. Rather than viewing our self-motivation as a manifestation of greed and evil that we must battle against, we can embrace it and use it to sculpt a belief system and way of life that we choose. If we are trying to form different ways of thinking and being in the world, we need only convince ourselves that it is truly in our best interest to do so and then we can get behind it.
Culture provides a framework within which we address our needs collectively to create a shared life that also serves each individual. We enact particular cultural practices – behavioral guidelines, shared meanings, or common experiences – because at some level the people involved agree that these practices serve them, individually and collectively. In other words, a cultural practice is adopted if the people agree that there is “something in it for me/us”. This is where we have the opportunity to encourage change: if something isn’t working for us, we can choose to enact something different. Variations in specific cultural practices and beliefs are endless, but they fulfill the same basic human needs.
As an example, take the cultural definition of women’s beauty, something found in almost every culture but the permutations of which seem to be endless and sometimes extreme. It is human nature to want to appear desirable to a mate because as a species we need intimacy and family. The variation comes in what we consider desirable. In the northern Arctic climate, a very curvy woman is more desirable than a skinny one. Even a woman considered somewhat obese by our standards would be considered very attractive and beautiful there. This cultural definition of beauty serves the northern arctic people because a woman with fat on her is more likely to thrive in a freezing climate.
Or, for a more modern example of the way our beliefs and values influence our cultural practices, consider advertising and film imagery of women in the United States. Images from the 1950s glorify a curvy and voluptuous “Marilyn Monroe” type of body, but only three decades later most fashion models and advertisements showed rail-thin “Twiggy”-style bodies. Nothing had changed with women, but the values attached to different body types shifted. (How well this serves us in the long run is up for debate.)
Similarly with men, 5000 years ago and in some places today, a man was more desirable if he demonstrated heightened awareness of surroundings, strong hunting and tracking skills that would bring food to his partner family. Yet in our current culture these skills mean very little because survival value now means money-making ability. In our culture, a man’s high “earnings” make him much more desirable. (Again, whether this serves us well collectively is up for debate, but at least on a short-term individual level it benefits a woman to marry a financially successful man.) This kind of variation and mutability in what we consider a desirable mate applies to other values as well, such as what we believe is healthy. If cultural definitions of beauty and desirability are so malleable, could it be possible to try out other beliefs and values just as easily?
It is important to remember as we go through the process of revising our paradigm that there is no right or wrong way when it comes to beliefs and values. Every belief and value system is a possibility for human perspective with its own benefits and drawbacks. None can be proven “accurate” or “inaccurate,” “right” or “wrong”. Any given belief may serve us well for a while, then there may come a time when it’s no longer so helpful. We can observe how different ways of thinking affect our lived experience. When we notice a greater degree of stress, disease, and disharmony in our lives, that may be an indication that it’s time to try something different.
As an example, Sigmund Freud, like many psychologists, studied the human experience of challenge and spiritual development through examining “dysfunctional” human behaviors. He attributed these behaviors, and human development as a whole, to the impact of traumatic parent-child relationships. In Freud’s view, humans develop difficult psychological “complexes” as a result of their relationship with their parents. His explanation implies that there is nothing anyone can do about it, since no one can escape being someone’s child. This idea may or may not be “true” – it is one possibility. Certainly it may be helpful for each of us to examine our relationships with our parents and children in order to learn and grow. Yet the implication in Freud’s theories that human development is inherently marked by such trauma around family relationships deserves to be questioned. Could we live in such a way that family relationships weren’t so traumatic? What if, rather than being victims of inevitable family strife, we take on the belief that each person chooses each lesson, tryst, tribulation, and joy they experience in life? This view suggests that whether consciously or not, everyone creates their experience of life, and everyone has the opportunity to change it. Which interpretation is more accurate? No one can say. Let us ask a different question, however: Which one of these ideas empowers us to improve the quality of our lives? Does it serve us to view ourselves as helpless victims of childhood trauma, or as powerful co-creators of our own reality? Why not take the high road and try an interpretation that allows us the possibility of improving our situation?
Freud’s work is helpful within the context of a culture characterized by a great deal of interpersonal conflict and trauma. Although his theories are limited because of his presumption that this level of dysfunction is inherently part of human development, his work can help us see the outcomes of our cultural paradigm and help us identify what we need to change. Fortunately, our experience of the world changes if we change our beliefs and values. Humans are cultural beings by nature, and we are made to absorb and perform cultural values, beliefs, meanings, and practices. This aspect of our nature provides us a major opportunity for transformation, as long as we are willing to believe that it is possible to live a less traumatic, more joy-filled experience.
Our job, if we are to create a different experience, is to learn to be human again. When we come from a culture which isn’t serving us well, we learn to believe that the disharmony we experience is just part of the way things are. We start to believe that world wars, perpetual “crime” and civil unrest, increasingly severe disease epidemics and famines, heartbreaking degrees of inequality, and high stress levels in our personal lives are all somehow natural, inevitable, simply part of the natural order. In learning to be human again, we revise our beliefs about who we are as humans and what is possible for human life. We dare to believe that perhaps life hasn’t always been this way, and that it might be possible for humans to live a more balanced and harmonious life.
Imagine what it might feel like living in a small close-knit group of people who support each other to live a balanced life – people free to work and rest as they need to, childcare shared so that no one feels burdened by children’s needs, each individual supported to grow and mature and contribute to the well-being of the group. This sounds idealistic, but people lived this way for hundreds of thousands of years and still do today where allowed to. Our oldest human ancestors developed thousands of different cultures based upon fostering cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships wherein the vast majority of time and energy was spent supporting the full development of each person’s emotional as well as physical being.
We can’t find out what is possible unless we dare to try something different. If we want to change our world, away from environmental catastrophe and social strife, we must change our beliefs. There are bound to be challenges along the way, but that is a natural part of change. If a belief or value we try doesn’t work out, then we learn something and change again. This is the process of building a bridge from where we are now into a whole new way of being.
This book illustrates how some of our current cultural values don’t serve us well right now and suggests some alternatives to try on. These alternatives are merely suggestions and we do not intend to imply that they are the only way forward. They are just some ideas of what people could try. The primary intention here is simply to offer a new approach to the human situation which encourages people to view current social and environmental ills in terms of cultural values and take responsibility as “co-creators” of those values.
The discussion begins in Part I with a point-by-point examination of some core cultural values and suggestions of different values we could replace them with. Part II moves on to an illustration of key aspects of genuine human nature – for it helps us to clearly see our cultural training if we can identify what truly motivates human beings at a basic, time-tested level. Finally, Part III offers practical tools for people to make a paradigm shift in their lives. The Appendices provide a vision for a sample transition program to support people in crossing the culture bridge to a new way of being.