I was walking to the supermarket today and was reminded of the importance of culture in our lives. Here in Tacoma, WA when someone approaches on the same sidewalk, we automatically move off the sidewalk or cross the street in order to maintain distance during this time of Covid19. The same could not be said of people in Scottsdale, AZ, who tend to stick to their path regardless of circumstances. One of the things worth studying once we get through this pandemic is the role culture has played in mitigating or exacerbating transmission.
Culture, to humans, is a bit like water to fish as recounted in the opening story of this commencement speech by David Foster Wallace (You can read/listen to the entire speech here):
But the water analogy doesn't go very far, because there are many different kinds of cultures, and a person can simultaneously inhabit a handful of them -- workplace, home, neighborhood, school, workplace, profession, friendship circles, support groups etc. Culture isn't just about the language we speak, food we eat, art we produce, music we listen to...it's also about the unwritten rules we follow and how groups of people come together and self-organize in order to achieve something we can't on our own. There are hierarchical cultures, autocratic ones, creative, laid-back, high-performance, disciplined, competitive or cooperative ones. It's much more difficult for me to eat healthy when I'm in the States where portions are large and unhealthy food options are so cheap and ubiquitous. On the other hand, healthy eating is just a natural part of living in the Blue Zones (places such as Okinawa, Japan or Ikaria, Greece where people have a higher chance of living beyond 100). Culture acts as a force that keeps individuals on a certain path; it is a powerful force of inertia.
That's why, for an individual to grow, it often requires stepping outside of one's usual cultural spheres. That's the beginning of the hero's journey when the threshold is crossed. As a person seeks to grow, there is a period of questioning and experimentation. That change is often unsettling to people who have known us in certain contexts and are used to us behaving in predictable ways. Attempting change always takes courage, but it's even harder when one is constantly running up against resistance from those whose acceptance we don't want to risk losing. Because we are social creatures, it is much easier for us to be carried by the flow of culture than for us to swim against the tide.
Facilitating personal change is much easier if the change we're seeking to make is a natural part of the culture in which we immerse ourselves; it's much easier to be a commuter cyclist in Amsterdam than in Hong Kong, for example. It's easier to be a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley or a filmmaker in Berlin or Los Angeles. It's easier to stay motivated about learning something new if we attend school or join a club. And it's easier to be hopeful and brave when surrounded by people who model and encourage these traits. Sometimes, when healing from deep trauma, it's necessary to temporarily move where nobody knows our name or the old us, a safe place where the old triggers or distractions are no longer present. Once we have learned to identify and diffuse our triggers, we can then return to our old cultures a changed person who is able to cultivate nurturing relationships and resist dysfunctional ones.
For those who don't have the luxury of just uprooting and moving to a new place, a solo retreat for even a couple weeks can help kickstart changes in habits. The key is to learn to be an active user/adopter of cultures rather than be passively shaped by them.
Photo: View on the Alta Vista Trail in Paradise, Mount Rainier, WA. Being close to nature makes it easier to enjoy an active, outdoor lifestyle and to appreciate that life is cyclical and how much of life is beyond our comprehension and control.