Are Culture’s Claws in Your Story?

Michel Foucault was a French intellectual who examined “systems of thought” that drive a culture. He believed our personal beliefs are directly linked to the larger cultural story. They are constructed, at least in part, by those in power to keep that story intact, note Michael White and David Epston, citing Foucault, in Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.

 What happens over time, per Foucault, is that we take these constructed “truths” as our own personal beliefs when, in fact, they are not ours at all. We also deify them, that is, make them god-like.

This is the meta-game, played out on multiple levels and in multiple ways, in a society, more often than not to keep a society’s people in check.

The task, then, is to deconstruct our stories and our personal belief systems to see what is ours and what is the culture’s, and then reconstruct a belief system, and a life, that is authentic.

This is not easy work. But it is critical work if the larger cultural story is to change.


What Myth Sits in Your Body?


In American Music, author Jane Mendelsohn tells the story of a massage therapist who works with a PTSD patient. As he does, the former soldier’s stories are released. The premise of the book is that “…the past sits in our own bodies, buried beneath our muscles and bones,” notes Jennifer Gilmore in a New York Times book review. Over time, the past “…turns mythical.”

This is no surprise.

The body is a myth-making machine, and offers up, time and again, in our aches and ills, a deeper story, a more meaningful narrative begging to be rewritten.

I know this first-hand.

I surfaced my body’s story many years ago to understand a health issue. When I did, the symbol “red” was everywhere. It was rooted in the first chakra when I couldn’t digest baby formula at six weeks old. It appeared in my father’s legacy of Scarlet Fever passed on to me. It was even in my school uniform and in the red play clothes I insisted on wearing.

“Red” is the color of the first chakra and represents the right to have what you need to survive. (Coincidentally, my health issue at the time was located in the first chakra.) By surfacing that deeper story, I knew where my work lay.

That experience taught me that despite how I angst about physical challenges, each one is a gift in code, a mythic clue hinting at a story in need of transformation.

Photo Credit: Image by The Lost Gallery is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Are You Compassion Fatigued?

“Compassion fatigue” is a state of exhaustion and dysfunction—biological, psychological and social—from prolonged exposure to the suffering of others, notes the American Counseling Association, quoting Charles R. Figley, PhD, a leader in the field. First identified in the 1950s in nurses, and later in emergency care first responders in general, it is the shadow side of compassion, and it is permeating the culture at large.

In this digital era of 24/7 news feeds and instant replays that occur online, in line, and in your living room, we are a nation and a world that is compassion fatigued.

So now what? How do you manage it? There are several options.

You can build a life that keeps you distant, physically and emotionally, from the suffering of others. But the result is a world without compassion and who wants to live in that?

You can allow the suffering of others to break you down emotionally. But this is personally debilitating and does little to enable the compassion that makes life rich and life-giving.

You can manage and balance the darkness by processing the emotions that surface and implementing daily acts of self-care. In so doing, you care both for yourself and others.

The last choice is the only choice, really, if you want to encourage actions and ways of being that celebrate a more humane world story.

Are You Heroic?

Video gaming is one of the fastest growing entertainment industries in the United States. It has risen from 58 percent in 2013 to 66 percent in 2018, according to Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer research data.

Why the intrigue with games?

Because games make us happy, says Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. We get to play at the edge of our skills, collaborate and compete, go on epic missions, fight the bad guys, and, in the best of games, be part of something greater.

In fact, we get to be heroes. When, in real life, do you get to do that?

Perhaps more often than you realize.

Joseph Campbell noted that our lives are the stuff of heroic legends. We face and overcome insurmountable physical odds, battle personal dragons bent on killing us emotionally, and tell our tales around a mythic campfire in our books and conversations and teachings.

This is the stuff of heroic legends, the human story in multiple versions and formats. This is the ancient, cellular memory that video games trigger. Our task is to bring that ancient memory forward and see our own stories as mythic and our lives as heroic.

The Disability Con

A few years ago, I sprained my ankle. Later, I had to walk slowly, take the elevator instead of the stairs, and assess whether I could attend an event based on my ability to navigate it physically. I found myself wanting to tell people my disability was only temporary; that I would be “back to normal” soon.

I got a taste, however small, of what it is like to live in a world where my disability wasn’t always accommodated, and where my needs, and by extension me, were considered aberrant.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a professor of English at Emory University, writes about this particular game in a New York Times article, “Becoming Disabled.”

Garland-Thomas, who was born with one arm shorter than the other and six fingers total, notes that when she stopped apologizing for her disability and instead stated what she needed to accommodate it, she felt included in a way she hadn’t before.

Indeed, after a lecture she gave, a graduate student with a disability summed it up succinctly for Garland-Thomas, she writes. That graduate student now understood that she had a right to be in the world.

In the United States, 57 million people, or one in five, has a disability of some kind, according to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report. This is the truer story.

Is a Broken System Breaking You?

order and disorder

“One of the most painful parts about functioning in a broken system is the persuasive illusion that it is you who is broken,” wrote Melissa Febos in a Poets & Writers magazine essay.

Febos, a former addict and sex worker and author of the memoir Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life, became a commercial success and visiting academic after the publication of her book. But “…I wasn’t writing and was still broke,” she wrote.

Only later did Febos realize she was experiencing a privileged version of her sex-worker days, where, “If you aren’t winning, you must not be working hard enough.”

That is the power of a sophisticated social system: it transfers the blame psychologically from the system to the individual. Shame, guilt and fear become its tools, enabling an internal oppression that is complete and self-perpetuating.

The challenge then is to refuse to own the story the system is telling and instead name it, change it, leave it, or create a new one.

Photo Credit: “Order and Disorder” by Petras Gagilas is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Models of Power

A few years ago, I went to see Thom Hartmann, author of, most recently, The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America—and What We Can Do About It. Hartmann is a brilliant analyst and I wanted to know more about the global economic model the wealthy are perpetrating on the world.

But I didn’t.

The event was controlled and manipulated. For over half the program, speakers other than Hartmann commandeered the crowd. (“Stand up. Sit down. Let me hear a ‘Yes!’”) The interview style limited Hartmann’s responses, couched them in his sponsor’s lexicon, and held audience questions in check.

As I watched, I witnessed Hartmann’s manipulative model of power re-enacted in miniature. Some in the audience were aware of the manipulation and attempted to break it, but they were reprimanded. I was sorely disappointed for I respect the sponsor’s mission and had expected more.

Juxtapose that model with one shared by Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited. Speakers included notables such as Michael Dell, founder and chair of Dell Computers.

But unlike Hartmann’s program, “If you wanted to interrupt [Dell] with a question or comment mid-speech, you went right ahead,” Florida wrote. “All the trappings of status and privilege had been left at home,” including attire (everyone was dressed the same).

To level the playing field, the audience was also given plastic Wiffle© balls and encouraged to pelt the speaker if they didn’t like what he was saying.

These two events offer different models of power. They also caution me to stay vigilant. Otherwise, unaware, I may support the very narrative I am attempting to re-story.

Photo Credit: “Power” by Bronson Abbott is licensed under CC BY 2.0.