As a senior citizen I often find myself reflecting. Often this reflection is around my impact on others over time. This leads to reflection on the impact of culture on others. Ultimately I reflect on my own inadequacies and how those feelings often directed my behavior. Sometimes I see inadequacies as coming from specific events – like when my father spanked me at age five. Each of us has some example of injustice in our life – but general feelings of inadequacy are imposed through osmosis – the driving energy of our culture – either affirming or denying our sense of self. I am not a psychologist – this post is entirely the honest reflections of a man transitioning into that last stage of life.
I remember my first awareness of osmosis-driven self image in the 1970’s. My wife and I had consciously decided that I would work and she would stay home, manage the house, and raise our three children. She would pursue a career after the children were well established in school. (She has now been teaching fourth grade for about twenty years).
My oldest daughter was eight and we were having a casual chat. I asked, “Daughter, what do you want to be when you grow up?” (That is how we talked back in those days).
She responded matter-of-factly, “I am going to be a Mom.” Not much of a surprise there – given her environment.
But then I asked, “If you were a boy, what would you want to be?”
Her eyes brightened and she said with unusual enthusiasm, “Oh, if I were a boy I would be a fireman or a policeman or I would fly airplanes.”
I winced, stung by the idea that we had instilled in our daughter a sense of her place in the world – directly related to her gender. She had learned her place through osmosis – no one had ever told her that women could not participate equally with men – she unconsciously deduced the idea from her environment. In addition to the home environment she saw women as teachers, nurses, or bookkeepers. (Accountants were men).
I remember in the 1950’s, growing up in a mixed race neighborhood, we told racial jokes as a matter of normal discourse. We also told ethnic jokes, jokes about the Polish or Italians living in our town. I have updated those jokes and replaced the former ethnicity with ‘Redneck.’ Another favorite joke line followed the ‘little moron.’ Why did the little moron throw the butter out the window? He wanted to see a butterfly. Jokes like that. These have been updated to ‘blond’ jokes. Lawyer jokes have been transformed into Catholic Priest Jokes.
When I reflect back on those days – those casual days of racial or ethnic jokes – knowing now that a sense of well being is absorbed through osmosis – I am embarrassed. I am ashamed that I participated, however innocently, in diminishing the self concept of other peoples.
Any self concept, any value, any perspective, learned in youth – through osmosis – follows us all the days of our lives. We often have a sense of right and wrong, which we sometimes call our conscience, based on prejudiced childhood learning. We feel the conflict. Intellectually we might have learned other values – but in our guts we feel something is wrong. This is the case with just about any discrimination – we don’t know why we don’t completely trust black people or white people or Jewish people or lawyers or educated women or rich people. But our gut values continue to speak to us. We don’t know why we sometimes feel inadequate – but we do.
We view the world through our own self-concept, and of our concept of others. We interpret events through the filters of our youth. We respond with behavior that reflects the ill-learned image of the world around us. How can something that feels so right be so wrong?
A negative self concept will certainly interpret the world very differently than a positive self concept. The negative says, “It always happens to me.” The positive says, “Whew, I’m sure glad that doesn’t happen much.” The negative says, “I did my work – I hope it was good enough.” The negative dreads tomorrow. The positive says, “It was a pleasure doing that work. I look forward to tomorrow.”
In the year 2010 we find many people of working age – in that twenty to sixty age range – who grew up in cultures that did not affirm their individualism. I am thinking about women, black people, people raised in poverty, children raised in abusive homes, immigrants, and working class people who know their place in the class structure. We cannot see the emotional scars – but we can see the behavior. We are judged by our behavior – not by our intentions. People often misbehave out of a negative self image and they cannot see that their behavior was in any way offensive.
I know that I have become defensive in my life when others challenged my behavior. As an old man reflecting back I can see that my defensiveness was uncalled for – well, sometimes I am able to see clearly – but old inadequacies follow me around like Marley’s Ghost, haunting my life with fear of something I cannot define. One sad outcome of having misbehavior criticized is that our inadequacies are reinforced. We dig a deeper hole.
When I was in my early thirties I had some well informed self confident friends who did not judge me – but they challenged me to learn more about myself. I began an on-and-off process of spiritual and personal growth counseling. I went to counseling sessions, read self help books, participated in bio-feedback, struggled with truth, attempted change, failed to change, and managed to change a few of my reactionary behaviors. Some of that probably came with general maturing – but some of the changes were hard work, conscious endeavors to be a better person. People have said things like: life pain is the process of spiritual growth. If that is the case then I would like to take two weeks off from spiritual growth. I sometimes joke that when I am 83, laying on my deathbed, I will say, with my last breath, “Oh, I finally get it.”
I have always been a student of people, a student of politics, a student of culture, a student of religion, a student of the written and spoken word, and sometimes a student of spirituality. I am blessed with that nature – the nature of curiosity. I watch modern political movements that are based on discriminatory belief systems, on frustration, on old unidentified anger, and on misconceptions about economic and political systems.
I hear people say, “Why do those black teenagers act like that? Why do they carry guns and shoot each other? Why do they wear those baggy pants hanging low on their back-sides?” I witness this same phenomenon and realize the rebellion against a difficult and prejudiced society. The negative self concept learned as a child (black people are less able than white people) spills over into their adult life. They drop out of school because their self concept says, “What difference does education make to a person like me.” This is not meant as a criticism of black people – it is meant to try to understand the cultural drivers that dominate entire cultures.
I hear people say, “We should not tax the rich because they give us jobs.” (that one really befuddles me – but I understand the people making the statement feel their own inadequacy to be industrious without the help of a rich banker). The opposite also happens to the same class of people raised in poverty – tax the rich, they are evil people who steal from the poor. Either reaction is extreme and comes from a distorted sense of the person’s proper place in a class oriented world.
I hear women say, “We want equal wages for equal work. We want more women in upper management, on corporate boards, in political office.” Noble ideals all. The continued diatribe is that corporate America holds women down with a ‘glass ceiling.’ I submit that many women in the work force do not work hard for promotions because they are haunted by an unstated self concept – one that says women are subordinate to men. I don’t mean to be critical of women – I am just saying that old values are hard to shake.
What about Hispanic immigrants? What about Arab immigrants? What about those of the Islamic faith living in America? What about the impoverished? What about those with different sexual orientation? What about the children of those unfortunate enough to be different from the mainstream. What are the messages we are sending – messages that will resonate throughout their lives?
Personally, my greatest pain comes when I hear some negative self concept from my adult children. They are usually unaware they have said anything amiss – that is the problem – the negative attitude just feels so natural. The sense of inadequacy raises up to challenge any good fortune. It is only on long overdue reflection that I can see my role in the development of the self concept of my children.
Is is only on long overdue reflection that I can see my role in the development of the self concept of the black children of my old neighborhood, of the impoverished in my neighborhood, of the perceived rich kids in my school classes, of the children of other faith systems that suffer Christian discrimination.
The sense of inadequacy has deep roots. We can trim the branches, prune the limbs, spray weed killer – but the roots run deep and are not easily removed.
I am fortunate to have been born a white male in the middle of the 20th Century. But my economic station, my neighborhood, my school teachers, and others ultimately programmed me without speaking a word. Marley’s Ghost lives in my garage. He comes out now and then to remind me that I have more work to do.