The human mind is a mysterious place…seemingly reliable and consistent in many ways, but also crowded with unseen, unsorted, undigested and deeply conflicted content.
Humans naturally become acculturated by the society in which they are raised. The core of that process is an imprinting of a belief system and a complex layering of often conflicting “truisms” derived therefrom.
The end result is not unlike that which is demonstrated at its simplest level by a classic Gestalt example: An instructor holds up a dinner plate, rotates it 45 degrees, and asks students to describe the shape they see. Invariably, the response is “round.” Of course their eyes see an oval shape, but the mind “sees” a plate. And, since plates are round, the mind instinctively translates (reshapes) its visual reality into a “virtually” conditioned response.
That same dynamic defines a similar contrast (and/or conflict) between one’s human (core) identity, and one’s socially assimilated, multi-layered cultural identity. The former is simple, direct, hardwired, and empirically honed to achieve human biological success in the natural world. While the latter is a transient, generational phenomenon that evolves somewhat capriciously from sustained social interaction that increasingly defines personal success or failure in terms of a virtual societal reality; one that inherently obscures, constricts, and otherwise marginalizes one’s core sense of self.
If you were stripped of your culturally conditioned persona, would you no longer recognize who you are? If the measures, standards and judgments that have culturally defined (or limited) your self image were removed, who do you think would remain? Would it be similar to the difference between your sense of self when taking a shower in the privacy of your bathroom, and the amplified sense of self-awareness you feel when interacting (fully clothed) with others in a public place?
Imagine what it might be like to carry no cultural weight; to never judge or appraise anyone or anything (much less yourself) by culturally defined standards. Then…would you be tall enough? Slim enough? Would your breast size matter? Would your hair be the right color? Would your tattoos or piercings (if any) still have meaning? Would your educational level or occupation continue to make sense? Would there be any change in your acceptance of current relationships, romantic and otherwise, if cultural conditioning were removed from the equation?
If you erased all the conflicting cultural ‘rights and wrongs’ from your perception of who you are, and then looked in a mirror…who would you see? Would you be unrecognizable? Would you feel human in form only? Would you no longer have familiar feelings, or react to suffering, meanness, or kindness in others in the same way? Or would you still have those same feelings, only with a much clearer understanding of the realities that evoke them?
These are just a few of the things you might ask if you can recall the wonder of your (very) early childhood, and retain a lingering awareness of the difference between who you were then, and how you have become since. Has that child been fully assimilated in the process of acculturation? Or has that child become an adult with two distinct identities–one that is superficial and ‘consciously’ dominant, and another that’s foundational and largely sublimated? If the latter, is there any way to clearly distinguish between the two? Can the layers of one be stripped away enough to disclose “the real you” underneath? And, if so, how might your vision of life (and self) change when no longer seen through a cultural prism?
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The clip below (opening segment of the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy“) is a light-hearted, yet eye-opening illustration of how an identity schism begins to evolve in direct proportion to a culture’s complexity. Also, anyone who is interested in assaying the relative maturity (and/or wisdom) of indigenous vs. ‘evolved’ cultures should definitely see this film in its entirety. It is, in that regard, a masterpiece.
The following videos underscore both the physical and cultural forces that effectively reshape our sense of self.