As we enter the holiday season, the usual topics of discussion appear; family relationships, politics, loneliness and aloneness, food abundance and food insecurity. All topics worth of discussion, examination and action at any time of year. Ultimately, the value in examining these issues is to address the underlying questions of how we live our lives, how we relate to others, what kind of (social) world we want to live in and what we are willing to do about it.
Habits of culture versus individuality
Our lives are the outcomes of all the thousands of decisions we make every day. The decisions we make are largely the consequence of habits we have created. The habits we create are the outcome of many cultural and environmental pressures, some rational, well thought through strategies, and some are “gut” feelings. It is often hard for us to distinguish exactly in which category each habit and decision falls.
What may feel like a rational decision at a certain moment in one’s life, may just be the outcome of the expectations of the culture that one grows up in and not necessarily the best balancing of the desires, needs and abilities of a particular individual. Going to college, having an arranged marriage, choosing to be a parent or having a career are all to a large extent culturally defined, often differentiated by class and gender and expressed as stereotyped role expectations.
Those who decide to buck the expectations can expect to experience some push-back, ranging from very subtle to very harsh and overt. Often, the push-back will include the argument that making a different choice is just not smart and will lead to predictably adverse outcomes. In other words, the cultural discomfort is couched in “rational” argument.
Of course, there is often good reason to follow the precepts of one’s culture: there is a lot of lived experience and wisdom locked up in our cultural habits. However, in a fast changing, interconnected and increasingly global world, the ability to differentiate between a wide range of cultural opportunities presents an enormous advantage for any individual who has the internal skills to know which decisions and habits are primarily cultural and which are based on a clear appraisal of what fits their unique being.
The untangling: compare, contrast and gut check
To develop these internal skills, one first has to be aware of the cultural soup that one swims in. This requires some exposure to other cultures: if we only ever know one culture, we have no ability to compare and contrast. The differences that we observe allow us to examine the pro’s and cons of our own and the other culture’s way of doing things. In this process we have to be vigilantly aware that whatever our culture prescribes, by definition will feel “natural and logical”. It takes a truly honest and inquiring mind to pull this off. Practice, intellectual honesty and empathy are a must.
As we examine the alternatives to our cultural habits, the true measure of “fit” will be provided by our gut check. The gut check is a way to gauge the emotional and energetic significance of whatever we are engaged with in the moment.
The gut check is the awareness of a physical experience of increased energy, excitement, warmth, chills or impulse to move… to just name a few possibilities. When we can reasonably connect that feeling with whatever we are engaged in, it is a sure indication that the object of our attention has emotional significance to us and worthy of further examination. While not objective truth, it is the closest thing that we have to determining what gives life to who we are in the moment. If we consistently make decisions based on what is live-giving to who we are at any moment in time, it seems a fair prediction that our lives will be more fulfilling, more meaningful and richer than when we follow a generic, culturally prescribed path to life, love, health and community.
I invite you to try this at your next family and friends gatherings. Pay attention to how certain habits, ways of being and communicating feel to you. Is it really a fit? Does your gut check say this is me, or not so much? I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences.
Happy and healthy holidays!