Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Cultural Tails (Tales) - The Story Everyone Tells

de·us ex ma·chi·na
/ˌdāəs ˌeks ˈmäkənə,ˌdāəs ˌeks ˈmäakənə/
  1. an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.

Our lives are a series of stories that evolve in quantum ways every second as we are affected by the realities in our environments and the decisions we make surrounding them. Much of what goes on around us is beyond our control. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology, it's phenomenological in the sense that,
the discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.
How capably we are able to engineer our own stories depends on our ability to accept that the phenomena that surround us is essentially beyond our control. Sometimes, as in literature or theatre, a deus ex machina is helpful in resolving the seemingly hopeless life situations that are ultimately beyond our control, but not beyond our personal influence and ability to internalize and accept. Partly as a response to what I wrote recently about how the path of teaching chose me, and also just because it's front of mind, this resolve is what I want to talk about today. 

Essential to the stories of our lives, recognizing deus ex manchina that have unexpected power to resolve a sense of hopelessness, or what Victor Frankl would characterize as a lack of purpose, is critical to our resilience and happiness. Viktor Frankl's (1946) Man's Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question "how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" He observed that prisoners who found something to do every day appeared less vulnerable to the guards, and subsequently were judged as useful in one way or another; not as expendable. I simply cannot even imagine the horror of that reality, but nonetheless, it was documented by Frankl, (perhaps that was his purpose in attempting to make any sense of the horror,) and it makes sense to me.

I took away from this book the notion that without purpose, there is nothing. I think I already knew this on some level, but not to the point where I was considering the concept as part of my minute-by-minute navigation of daily challenges. I have come to realize implicitly that purpose needs to be at the core of everything I do. Purpose is a deus ex machina that resolves nearly all hopeless situations in life. It's a very critical one and we may need help finding it sometimes, but we have to have it. Hope is an action word.

Resilience is also a deus ex machina that positively influences the hopeless realities of our life stories; the ability to bounce back from adversity and keep moving toward a purpose. Nasim Taleb argues that emerging stronger and more capable of handling seemingly hopeless situations is beyond resilience, something he refers to as being antifragile. From Wikipedia,
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. According to Taleb, the opposite of fragile is antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better". The phenomenon is well studied in medicine, where for example Wolff's law describes how bones grow stronger due to external load. Hormesis is an example of mild antifragility, where the stressor is a poisonous substance and the antifragile becomes better overall from a small dose of the stressor. This is different from robustness or resilience in that the antifragile system improves with, not withstands, stressors, where the stressors are neither too large or small. The larger point, according to Taleb, is that depriving systems of vital stressors is not necessarily a good thing and can be downright harmful.
Objectifying stress is an interesting concept. I have always wondered as a person that experiences a lot of it, what if stress could be characterized as having a purpose? Antifragility might be that, and certainly if so I woule deem it as another deus ex machina that has the potential to resolve hopeless situations in the stories of our lives.

I think the most difficult to employ deus ex machina we have at our disposal is forgiveness. I have manifested much hatred and anger within the story of my life. Boiling that down, however, what others have perceived as my hatred and anger tin my heart were in reality very complicated versions of disappointment and emotional damage. I am inherently sensitive; I get hurt easily. That is ultimately very difficult to display in a way that preserves a sense of safety though, so like it does in the infinite narrative of billions of people everyday, emotional strain often looks a lot like hatred and anger for me. I'm trying to curb that.

There is only one way to combat hurt, and that's through forgiveness. My friend Michael Josefowicz says that "forgive is the most important and hardest thing to do." I completely agree.

The last deus ex machina I'll talk about is objectification, and it goes hand in hand with forgiveness, Objectification of phenomena, metaphorically putting things in boxes and moving on is critically empowering. The best way I can describe objectification as a valuable and effective dues ex machina is borrowed from Steven Van Bockern as posted here,
The cultural perspective we all hold is shaped by our experiences as influenced by our birthplace, our family, our spirituality and the zeitgeist within which we were born; it’s the cultural reality lens we look through. Our cultural identity starts to form beginning the moment we’re conceived. Obvious physical characteristics and genetic traits define our culture in part from that second. After we’re born, the evolving cultural identity we form is largely influenced by our relationships and surroundings. Steve Van Bockern, coauthor of “Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future” refers to the influences of different cultural aspects as our cultural tail. I had the pleasure of attending a retreat with Steve on the Morley Indian Reservation west of Calgary in 2002. He explained that we can’t cut off our cultural tail; it’s always there, behind us affecting our perspective, but also that great things are possible in everyone’s future despite this tail that follows us.

Whether good, bad or indifferent, our cultural tail tells the story of where we’ve come from; who we are in terms of how our environments affect us, but it doesn’t have to predict where we’re headed. From a cultural perspective, in many ways we begin our lives rather innocently. Like clay to the sculptor, we start as unformed material yearning to be molded and shaped into a more tangible form; our growing cultural identity. Just as soon as we see the light of the world we begin forming perceptions and feelings about our culture and how we are different from, or similar to others. We are the sum total of what we think we are. 
Steven went on to say in response to a question about what to do if your cultural tail is really, really bad. My colleague David Nicholson asked him, "do you just metaphorically cut it off?" Steven said on no, you can't do that. And this is where I will explain the most important part of understanding my cultural tail. 

 Steven elaborated that our cultural tails are metaphors. They are tails that follow us everywhere we go; they're always behind us waving back and forth, but also that this reality doesn't dictate the direction in which we're heading, that's up to us. I would elaborate further in saying that our cultural tails can also be described as cultural tales; the phenomenological realities of our past, the stories that have already been written. These are the things that have shaped and formed us through experience. They are the building blocks that helped us form our purpose in life, the degree to which we became resilient, or not, how we objectify things, and how much antifragility we were able to manifest as a result of the strains caused by them.

The last thing is forgiveness. 

In my life, as ridiculously hard as it has been, and continues to be, I have tried to forgive. I remember the exact day many years ago. I was 26 years old, and my dad had done something that to me was very hurtful, but as usual, this state of mind and emotion was emerging from the depths of my being as intense anger toward him. I was blowing up to my mom trying to reconcile what had happened when she said something that changed the trajectory of my life. She asked me when I was going to let go of all the anger I was carrying around directed at my father. She implied that if she could do that after everything that happened, why couldn't I, and she told me that the anger I was feeling, (aka hurt,) wasn't serving any purpose as it applied to my father, but it was destroying me. 

She was right.

I told her after a lot of thinking that I should call him and apologize, and honestly, I don't even know what I apologized for, it just seemed like the right thing to do, and as I think about it now I was most likely simply trying to apologize for my hatred for my own sake because here's the thing about cultural tails...

Everyone has one.

I have used the words story behind the story most often to describe this, but the reality is my parents were people before I was born and they both had their own cultural tails to reconcile, and they may or may not have been able to do that to the degree I would have hoped in order for them to entirely give me what I needed from them growing up. Realizing this was the most empowering realization I've ever had. 

In order to forgive my parents for what were some very challenging phenomenological circumstances growing up, I had to objectify things; realize that they too lived their own phenomenological realities growing up that didn't entirely prepare them for being my parents. In order to forgive them for that which was beyond their control, I had to find purpose in why I lived through my childhood, divine what it was supposed to teach me,  realize how it made me resilient and less permeable to stress, even though some would argue with me about my degree of antifragility, (said with tongue firmly planted in cheek.) I still process all of this continuously, it's a recurring awareness that infiltrates my dreams at night and my thoughts during the day, but I'm happy about that because figuring it out is part of my purpose, and it's what has allowed me the opportunity to listen to and help others going through a similar process. I've been able to help many, many people see things through a different lens simply by sharing my perspective toward all of this with them.

This is my story, the one that I'm continuing to write, and the one I'm using to help others write theirs.

We still have our issues, but I'm happy to say I have a relationship with both my mom and dad. I have learned to accept them as they are, and I love them. I don't hold their phenomenological experiences against them, and I will support them any time they call needing anything from me. I still hate so many things that happened, and I can't make them disappear, but they are now the tail that follows me without determining where I should be going.

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