Most of us don’t think about our circumstances. We are like fish swimming in a body of water that is getting ever more poisonous. We don’t see how sick we are becoming simply due to the toxicity of the water. Wea adapt to living with environmental hazards and minimize toxicity. After all, other fish swim in the same waters we swim in. When we eventually do get sick we blame or pathologize ourselves and don’t see the option of jumping to another pond. Few of us take seriously the harmful aspects of our culture and how we are poisoned by our culture. Few of us see the option of being involved in a healthier culture and living a more satisfying life. As the quote above points out, we are our circumstances.
Make no mistake, there are many harmful aspects of our culture and its toxins seem to be getting worse. Most of us are aware of this reality at some level by tuning in the evening news but we choose to tune it out. We mistakenly believe that we are not harmed by what doesn’t directly affect us. We believe that somehow living in the greatest nation on earth means we are above harm. Just the opposite is true. Our nation ranks near the bottom of all international family health standards and we pay considerably more for health care than most developed countries do. We are even getting less healthy. Suicide rates for teens have more than quadrupled over the last thirty years, rates of narcissism and social phobia among our electronically adept college kids are considerably increased since the electronica age began and social distrust indexes in the age of mass shootings has vastly skyrocketed. It’s not that there are more bad people in our country; it’s just that many of us are blind to how culture affects us and we don’t think to embrace healthier ways of relating to one another.
We don’t have to be blind. It’s very possible to become cultural savvy and involved in a healthier culture. Studies show that being in a culture with higher social involvement brings higher degrees of happiness and well-being. For example, being active in a well-functioning 12-Step group can literally save our life. Working for a company that is family- friendly and has good employee benefits can vastly affect our life satisfaction and well-being. Getting socially involved in our communities and neighborhoods can significantly improve our health and relationships. Even having a group of close personal friends can cushion us from the hard knocks of life and promote longevity. Meeting with friends once every three weeks has the same health benefits as quitting smoking; we are social creatures and our context very much determines our health and happiness. In fact, having a positive context can allow us to thrive and overcome the most adverse aspects of our culture. Let’s consider being cultural savvy and choosing a healthier context to live in.
What does it mean to be “culturally savvy?”
Culture is an assumed pattern of ways people in a group ought to relate to each other. We all live in many different cultural groups at the same time. People in one group may have quite entirely different rules than people in another group. Our work environments vary from person to person just as our family systems do. What works in one context does not necessarily work in another context. Being culturally savvy means knowing what the rules are for our cohort group, knowing how these rules personally affect us and knowing what our options are if we choose to not follow the rules. Such awareness doesn’t come from the outside; it comes from within by knowing and reflecting on our hearts and the hearts of our loved ones. It is not driven by social media or peer pressure; it is driven by an inner sense of who we are and what we want out of life.
Often such savvy may prompts us to live outside the norms of customary culture, sometimes referred to as living in a counter culture. Choosing to live differently needs to be a continuing process of reexamination and correction as fluidity and honest self-examination are the hallmarks of cultural savvy. When we are culturally savvy our relationships are way more important than our external success. And yet, it’s important to note that being culturally savvy doesn’t mean that we are always right.
What are examples of culturally savvy in action? Some of us parents may decide that our children playing sports in traveling athletic teams is too much pressure on our kids and too much of a loss of quiet family time together. Instead we might decide to informally play more sports at a community center and have more family dinners together. Some college students may choose to go to less expensive schools and select careers in fields that provide jobs with more personal meaning and perhaps less financial reward. Such kids may choose to work in public service jobs of their own creation than work endless hours away from their families chasing the “good life.” Some families may choose to spend less time on electronic media and balance that time with more real-life, face-to-face interactions with friends and community. Some parents may choose to watch less televised sports on TV and instead play more sports on their own, take more nature walks, involve family in church volunteer projects or creative actives like music lessons, art projects and baking cookies for the neighborhood elderly. Such community involvement may allow for occasional splurges like a family Super Bowl party, where old friends reunite. Being countercultural makes us more aware overall and teaches us to be balanced and less addictive with our life choices. In fact, when we use cultural savvy to live a counter cultural life our overall life satisfaction vastly increases. Typically, kids will prefer to do some fun real-world activity with parents and peers than stare at a computer screen or TV monitor.
Why are some of us blind when it comes to culture?
Most of us don’t want to see what we unconsciously don’t want to see. Conforming to culture feels comfortable because it gives us an artificial way to fit in, even when the fitting in means we are doing something mindless and unhealthy. We get nervous when it comes to bucking the crowd, particularly when our kids demand that we do what everybody else is doing. Understandably so, kids don’t like to be the odd person out when it comes to their peers. But parents often allow their kids to control their own parenting choices. It can take a lot of courage for parents to stand up for what they believe in when it comes to guiding their children and teaching them to occasionally buck the crowd if it’s done for good reason. In fact it can take real backbone for parents to withstand the wrath of their kids after they announce that no cell phones will be allowed at the dinner table. Sometimes parents themselves are reluctant to give up the gadgets. This dilemma is especially true for parents who get sucked up into raising the kids as part of a popularity contest. Some of us choose the familiarity of known misery to the unfamiliarity of making healthy choices and we remain blind to culture. Unfortunately our blindness does not protect us – or our children – and in the long-run does nothing for our popularity.
It’s wisest if parents stop looking for approval from their children. There is a way to allow for input from their kids, and to do what they think is right for their children no matter what their neighbors are doing. Our children often love us the most when we are telling them what they don’t want to hear.
Guidelines for making smart choices about culture
It’s best to make decisions about culture after a long discussion as a parenting team. Obviously, everyone ought to have input on family decisions about culture and compromises need to be made. Ultimately parents have the responsibility to make the final decision regarding how the family interacts with culture. Generally, such decisions are more easily made when children are young, but they can always be made later in the family history.
It’s best if the family as a whole can have a long discussion about such choices and why such parenting choices are being made. Typically the best parenting decisions are made when not everyone is happy about them and children are allowed to express their reactions.
It’s often very helpful if alternative family practices are enjoyed in community with other families that are also savvy about culture. In the long run good intentions and tough choices by parents often result in abundant and deeper family love. Loving, courageous and sometimes old-fashioned parents always do a far better job raising kids than all of the technology and intellectual sophistication of culture. The real culture kids need are warm, savvy parents.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651- 699-4573.