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” 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.