Our lives in a cage

We are all slaves to the routines of our ancestors. We eat at set hours, we work at set hours, and we watch television at set hours. We imprison ourselves in our set ways because for the most part, we choose to not break free.

We submit to living our lives in the cage that society puts us in. We know it. We just try to make our cage as comfortable as possible. We make this decision consciously, based on information provided by our unconscious, based on learned fears. What else are we to do? We have to eat, to advance our careers, to interact with those that we surround ourselves with.

The 2008 French film ‘A L’Aventure’ explores this in efficient detail. It tells us that the way we see things is pre-digested. What we perceive is unconsciously orientated by acquired knowledge, which conceals certain truths, and forces us into a dreary existence.  In this example from the film, the young woman Sandrine is talking with her mother about her decision to leave her boyfriend and embark on a journey of self-discovery:

Sandrine: “I’m practicing freedom… Your respectable straightjacket is not for me”.

Mother: “Don’t get on your high horse… It’s hard not living like other people… You’ll learn that at your expense”.





The 2011 American film ‘Moneyball’ also looks into behaving out of habit, both our own habits and the habits of those who came before us. It examines how perceived bias is accepted as truth.  We imprison our thoughts and behaviours in the cages of our ancestors. Paul DePodesta, whose work in baseball is the basis of the book and film ‘Moneyball’, asks ‘The Naive Question’: “If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?”


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Toe the line or else!

I my last post I indicated that each new generation is taught to submit their behavior to the unwritten rules of society. Members of this new generation of young people will initially resist but will almost always surrender within the first few years of adulthood. Howard S. Becker in ‘Outsiders’ suggests that the assumption that only those who actually rebel against social norms have ‘deviant’ impulses is incorrect. He indicates that most people experience non-conformist impulses frequently. Instead of asking why this rebellious minority do things that are disapproved of, we might better ask why the conformist majority do not follow through with the impulses they do have.

Becker indicates that the individual learns from previous ventures into non-conformity that he must adhere to certain lines of behaviour because many other activities other than the one he is immediately engaged in will be adversely affected if he does not. The ‘conventional’ or ‘normal’ person must support the local sports team or not be invited to the social occasions that revolve around that sport. The ‘conventional’ or ‘normal’ person must not use marijuana for their physical or mental issue or else be subject to a drug test by an employer who deems this behaviour as ‘deviant’.

The development of individuals in our society can be seen as a series of progressively increasing commitments to conventional norms and institutions. The ‘normal’ person, when she discovers a non-conformist impulse in herself, is able to check that impulse by thinking of the consequences acting on it would produce for her. She has staked too much on continuing to be normal to allow herself to be swayed by unconventional impulses.

Consider the young, unmarried woman who intensely desires to be married. It really doesn’t matter to whom, just that she has a nice wedding and possesses a ring on her finger. She may not have anyone that she really wants to spend the rest of her life with, and may love her free and single life, but the consequences of not being married are too much for her to live with. Without the wedding ring, and children to follow, she risks isolating herself from friends that are all now married with children. She risks constant badgering from parents, grandparents, work colleagues and others as to why she isn’t married yet, like it should be the ultimate desire for a woman to enter a formal marriage.


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New generations all submit to ‘The Man’

Each new generation of children/young adults presents a problem of compliance to the unwritten rules of society. Their socialization into the institutional order (‘The Man’) requires the establishment of sanctions. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ argue that new generations must be taught to behave and, once taught, must be kept in line. The more behavior is institutionalized  the more predictable and thus the more controlled it becomes. If socialization into the institution has been effective, outright coercive measures can be applied economically and selectively. The more behavior is taken for granted, the more alternatives (i.e. freedoms) to the institution will recede, and the more predictable and controlled the new generation will be.

The new generation initially tries to resist this. It fights back against ‘The Man’. The fact that they are fated to lose this battle does not stop them trying. Think of the baby who resists eating and sleeping by the clock rather than by their own biological demands. The resistance is progressively broken in the course of socialization  but the baby still demonstrates frustration on every occasion society forbids her to eat when she is hungry or to go to bed when she is sleepy. This will occur thousands of times towards thousands of different behaviours in the individual’s childhood. Socialization of the entire new generation will inevitably result in biological frustration.

Berger and Luckmann indicate that maximal success in socialization (submission to ‘The Man’)  is likely to occur in societies with very simple division of labour and minimal distribution of knowledge. Therefore societies have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, limiting mass distribution of wisdom and higher learning. Keep us dumb and poor and we won’t ask questions.

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The Story

From the time we were born we were told a story. A story about our life, our society and how we must behave in it. We are told this story through the words and actions of our parents and other family members, peers, teachers and the government. But this story is not real. In fact, it is a LIE. A lie told to you by people who didn’t know any better, who didn’t know that it was a lie. They thought that they were doing the right thing, to teach you to follow in their footsteps. It’s not their fault, they too were told the story and are now passing that story on to you. And for most of us, we will just pass on the story to the next generation.

When a baby is born the brain is very under-developed, quite unique to human beings. After birth the brain continues to develop, producing trillions of connections between neurons. The brain strengthens the connections used and eliminates those not used. The young child’s environment is crucial to the way their brains are wired. The type of care a child has will determine the neural pathways, and thus mental capacity and habitual emotional responses. Our brains become ‘hardwired’ to follow the story that we have been told all of our lives. It tells us our identity, without which we seem lost. It plays out in our day-to-day lives, dictating where we work, who we have a relationship with, everything. Even our willingness to die in a war for a cause we don’t really understand.

All of the decisions that we make in our lives, be it at home, work, school, or in social situations, are based on trying to continue the story. If you have ever gotten married, bought a present for someone you didn’t really like, had fruit cake for Christmas even though no one at your dinner even likes fruit cake, are offended when someone says Happy-Holidays-ppi“Happy Holidays” instead  of “Merry Christmas”, had expectations of someone based on their gender, race or age, you have likely made that decision to follow your story. Those behaviours don’t actually serve a purpose other than the continuation of the story told to you from the time you were born to the present day.

Don’t beat yourself up about making these decisions, we have all done it, and most of us will continue to do it forever. Most of the time we don’t even know what we are doing, and wrongly put it down to ‘free will’. Even when you do understand and accept that there was a story told to you, it is very difficult to get out of it when everyone around you is entrenched in their own story, and which interacts on a regular basis with your story. No one can be expected to go and live in a cave somewhere on their own till they die, never to interact with other humans again. So what do we do?

Much of the story forced upon us follows a dominator model of social structure, telling us to follow a pre-determined path or suffer the consequences. Riane Eisler in ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ indicates that this model follows a hierarchical organisation, fear based decision making, and requires a system of beliefs and values that normalizes the story. A child learns quickly the order of rank of members of their extended family and their place in it. They learn that boys do not wear pink, in fear of being seen as either feminine or gay, and that these ARE things to fear. They learn the social norms that coordinate our interactions with others, totally dependent on culture and even social class. Deference to these social norms maintains one’s acceptance and popularity within the extended family.

Ignoring or breaking social norms, one risks becoming unpopular or an outcast. Consequences for non-compliance to the story include low level punishments such as teasing, guilt and light-hearted hassling, to more serious penalties such as resentment, alienation and distancing from those threatened by new found insight. It’s like the caged monkeys who beat up their fellow monkey for reaching for the bananas; they knew they had to impede the behaviour of the rebel monkey, but just weren’t sure why.

The dominator elements in our society are then perpetuated by our education system. Formal education is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation, with schools designed to support the old ways of authoritarian, inequitable and fear-driven social structures. This may have been appropriate for autocratic kingdoms constantly at war, but it is not appropriate for supposedly peaceful, democratic societies. Much of current education, reflecting our culture in general, is designed to prepare people to accept their place in rigid hierarchies of domination and unquestioningly obey orders from above, whether it is from their teachers, family elders, boss at work, or the government. Formal education often models uncaring behaviours, instructing children that abuse by those who hold power is normal and right. This teaching often relies heavily on negative motivations such as fear, guilt and shame. It forces children to focus on unempathetic competition (for grades etc) rather than empathetic cooperation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to follow the story told to us, nor do we have to pass the story on to the next generations. In general, parents do not have a strong sense of the importance of their influence and modelling of behaviour on the subsequent behaviour of their kids. Children are given mixed messages about what it is to be a human being functioning in society. From the time they are born they are told to be kind, peaceful and giving. At the same time their role models at home and on television teach them to be cruel, violent and selfish. Which do you think they will believe? If there is one thing that I have learnt, it’s that children will follow actions much more than words.

It has become very easy, but simply not enough, to fault young people for making poor choices. We are all responsible for the choices we make. But to make good choices, we first need to understand the alternatives. Social change has happened by people brave enough to challenge the stories that they were told, the social norms dominant in the society which they live. Look at the positive reforms in the last hundred years to end discrimination against people based on their race or gender. Racism and sexism still exist, but there is no doubt that equality in 2012 is much more advanced than in 1912. There are alternatives to the story we were told.

We need to ‘softwire’ our mind, to allow the brain pathways to become fluid enough to look outside of our story, to seek our truth. We need to help others to ‘softwire’ their brains too, to look outside of their story. We need to find within ourselves, and within our society, what Riane Eisler describes as the partnership model of social structure, characterized by democratic and egalitarian organisation, fear-less decision making, and values that challenge traditional beliefs.

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Removing the obstacles to self-actualization

It is the responsibility of all of us to try to lift others up the hierarchy of needs, starting with our children and adolescents. Governments, parents and teachers have a crucial role in removing the obstacles to self actualization for our young people.

Starting with the physiological needs, it is tragic that in this day and age we cannot provide enough food and clean water for everyone in society. We actually can, but choose to distribute these most basic of human resources in less than equitable ways. If a child starts the day without a decent meal in the previous 24 hours, or are worried where the next meal is coming from, they are unlikely to learn much that day. This stops the path to genuine knowledge and wisdom before it has even begun.

Once the physiological needs are taken care of we must remove the obstacles to the sense of safety an individual feels. If the young person is bullied at school or a victim of domestic violence at home, they will not be able to develop a sense of belonging, a vital step to realizing their full potential. Governments, parents and teachers alike have to provide children with the security and belonging to both keep them from harm and give them the love that they need to grow as individuals.

Self-esteem needs are acquired when our young people have the opportunities to gain competence in something they enjoy, independence from family and friends, and finally genuine self-respect. We can provide these opportunities at home, school, sporting activities and recreational pursuits. We must be careful at this stage however, not to over-compensate by praising the individual to such an extent where it isn’t genuine and actually back-fires, causing the individual to not push themselves into anything challenging (Bronson & Merryman).

Young people cannot always identify with someone who has come to self-actualization. A parent or a teacher who lives in accordance with his or her core essence possesses an authentic strength which does not express the character of domination and power, but shows inner strength and compassion. Young people who are guided by a parent or a teacher with this authentic strength will be able to identify and connect with this strength. This will lead them to their own core essence.

Dutch educator Freerk Ykema suggests that if young people do not have a teacher who has reached self-actualization, it will be more difficult for them to find their way on their own. To some extent, this is why many adolescents seem to experience a lack of direction. If there is no contact with one’s own inner compass, everything in life seems unimportant or senseless. This explains the teenage move to high-risk behaviour, drugs and alcohol, negative social relationships, and suicide. These are all escape routes for a young person not on the path to realizing their own true potential.

Young people have their own dreams. They are searching for others who may point out the way to fulfil their dreams. They don’t need to be told “this is what you must do in life”. They need help in finding their own inner compass. Once they are in tune with their own inner compass, they WILL find their path. Others may not agree with their choices, but they will be THEIR choices.

This is where teachers become so vital in helping their students on the path to self-actualization. Most parents are so busy dealing with their own stuff, stuck somewhere in the middle levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that they don’t have the ability to really help their own children with the higher order needs.

When a teacher can become self-actualized themselves, they are able to model the inner strength, emotional stability, pure morals, free from prejudices or fears, which can have a massive impact on the individual child or adolescent.

They may not always seem like they are learning anything, but the young person with a good and wise teacher will benefit from the relationship long after they have left school.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The work of Abraham Maslow showed us that humans are all potentially good and wise beings, it’s just that things get in the way to prevent certain needs being met that would allow of us to realize this potential.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has physiological needs like oxygen, food, water and sleep at the bottom. We need these the most often, and luckily for us are usually the easiest to come across.

With physiological needs satisfied, safety needs such as physical security, health, financial security and employment are the next level of need to take precedence.

Social needs such as friendships and family relationships are the next level required in the individual’s growth. This need for a sense of belonging I have written about regularly is a necessary step on the path to self-actualisation, but ultimately needs to be moved on from in order for the individual to realize their full potential.

Self-esteem needs include status, recognition, self-respect, competence, self-confidence, independence and freedom. These can be achieved through work, school, leisure activities etc, and are necessary to attain before moving on to the final stage of growth.

When all of these needs are met, the individual has the opportunity to become self-actualized. All of the lower needs must first be met in order to reach the pinnacle of human existence. Self-actualization is about finding our true self, letting go all prejudices, having pure morals, relinquishing all beliefs and fears, attaining wisdom, mastering emotional stability, and having a fully developed inner compass.

At the risk of using one of my least favourite words, self-actualization should be the goal of all individuals during their time on this planet. The sense of inner calm and happiness makes the struggle to get there all worth while. All decisions and actions after self-actualization benefit both the individual and society as a whole. Someone fully in tune with their inner compass will always act in way to truly benefit their community.

It goes without saying that the vast majority of people will never attain self-actualization. Thus they don’t become what Maslow describes as good and wise beings. They all had the potential to, but along their path certain needs were not met. Think about people you know, or know of.

Think of the person who struggles to put food on the table or is a victim of domestic violence. How are they supposed to get anywhere near self-respect and independence, let alone anything higher?

Think of an incredibly wealthy person that is so fearful of losing their money and intent on buying people’s affections that they get stuck somewhere between safety and social needs.

Think of the people in your own family who have become so addicted to the comfortable numbness of the love of their tribe and the sense of belonging to something safe, that they do not even want to look past to see what else might be out there.

The next post will address removing the obstacles to self-actualization.

Abraham Maslow 1908 – 1970

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The fear of disapproval

Why do people settle for a lifestyle other than their true path, the way they really want to live? Ultimately, it is the fear of disapproval, or even outright rejection, from loved ones that cause people to move into the somewhat comfortable numbness of Shouldland. But it is often just the fear that turns people off of their path, not any actual disapproval or rejection.

Avril Carruthers reveals that to counter the fear of disapproval we need to develop the ability to self-soothe. We need to make our own opinion of ourselves more important than anyone else’s opinion of us. It means we remain self-determined rather than dependent on the opinion of others for how we feel about ourselves. If we can soothe ourselves when we fear rejection, or even if we are actually rejected, we can stop hiding and be ourselves.

This is easier said than done. The comfortable numbness of Shouldland can be addictive. Like a substance addiction it can initially feel really nice but will always hurt us in the long run.

When we finally take responsibility for our character, and begin to act in the present and with intent, it might feel a little weird. Like learning to ride a surfboard, we might wobble and fall a few times before becoming stable.

What can make this hard is when we don’t relate to old friends as we once did. Some relationships may drop away, not without some pain and regret, and it may take a little while for new friendships to appear. Where our old relationships once contained shared values and interests, we can find that this is no longer.

This can be a time when we slip, even only temporarily, back into our old patterns, our old character. This is when we need to be really strong, and maintain the ability to self-soothe.

We discover that the reasons we were relating to certain people was generally dictated by how we saw ourselves according to how we were conditioned, and therefore not really true choices at all. Our characters chose other characters as friends. Our characters chose our lifestyle.

When we decide to take over our own lives, true friendships and not characters are needed.

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