I recently told a friend and client that we couldn’t afford to give up on people who’re different from us. Even if we don’t like each other, don’t understand each other, and our antipathy is entirely mutual, our destinies are tied and we can’t afford not to care.
We live on the same planet, there are no alternative planetary homes, and though we can vote each other off our social islands (and increasingly do), we can’t vote each other off our common rock except through the mechanisms of genocide.
I find that concept a lot easier to speak about and digest than the principle that we co-author one another’s identities.
This idea that I determine what I think of myself with others and not all by myself isn’t especially modern. But there’s some science in co-authorship. As Mario Martinez explains in his writings on biocognition, culture establishes meanings for common experiences and trains us in how to embody and live out those meanings.
For example, in this culture, many people pair phrases like “I’m getting old” with groans and complaints about creaky joints or reduced stamina. I’ve done it. The performance is based on an implicit belief that aging necessarily means losing physiological or psychological function and that pain is to be expected.
Such beliefs aren’t the whole story.
There is much scientific evidence showing that the perception of pain is strongly influenced by cultural contexts. For example, if you fracture your leg falling down a set of stairs that are badly maintained by your negligent landlord, you will feel significantly more pain than if you were to fracture it by diving off a cliff to save a drowning child.
Beliefs can wound, heal, and interpret pain based on cultural contexts.” —Mario Martinez
Our cultures teach us what to consider strange or painful. They teach us what to celebrate and when to mourn. As I shared in the last post, they also teach us how to interpret and value suffering—as discipline for a future blessing, perhaps.
Unlearning these lessons when they don’t support our health and well-being means that we have to contradict our co-authors: authority figures, relatives, religious instructors, and the cultures these and other figures represent.
Some people start contradicting co-authors as teenagers, but for others of us, unlearning and re-learning are processes that last much longer than our second decades. They can also provoke conflict, which makes sharing life on our social islands very challenging.
Martinez offers several questions to help his readers move through the processes of unlearning and re-learning unhelpful beliefs:
- Identify your tribal and religious authorities to find the model of suffering you were taught. For example, suffering to reach success, wealth, wisdom, or heaven.
- Observe what you feel in your mind-body when you discover how you were taught suffering. Was it a religious authority, a book, a teacher, a parent?
- Who continues to remind you that you should suffer?
- How do you punish yourself when you do something wrong?
- Where did you learn [that you have to pay for your sins]? Is it affecting your health, wealth, or love?
- Consider that rather than paying for your bad deeds or ‘sins’ with suffering, you can take corrective action.
- Commit to applying your new corrective action next time you determine you have to atone for a bad deed. What authority must you defy [if you do that]?” —Mario Martinez
I appreciated reading these questions, especially during the season of Passover.
Buried in the story of the Exodus is the idea that someone had to suffer for Pharaoh’s stubbornness—many people, in fact. While there are many ways to interpret the other elements of this powerful story, there’s a sense in which the Hebrews’ freedom gets tied to others’ suffering.
That story is among the first cultural tales that ever taught me that eventual reward requires someone to suffer first. But all the better if that someone isn’t me!
I’m beginning to believe that this is a cultural belief worth defying. I’m also beginning to hope that as activists dream up major transformations in our social cultures on issues from climate change to capital punishment, we can learn to dream up freedom that doesn’t depend on our or others’ pain.