It is not very well-known outside of anthropology just how much culture (and our enculturation from the day we are born) shapes the way we think and how we see the world. Our consciousness takes shape within a social container. A larger piece than you might think of your own personal identity and personality has come about as a response to your social environment, whether embracing or rejecting aspects of the society into which you were born and/or exist within now. Culture is a powerful force that shapes societies and, yes, individuals.
In a hyper-individualistic culture, like that in the U.S., hearing that culture shapes our personalities and identities might chafe. We’re all self-made men and women, right? Nobody/nothing makes us think things or be any way other than what we choose – we’re independent thinkers and islands of selfhood!
Except that we aren’t, not totally. Humans don’t actually work like that. Humans are social creatures, and culture permeates our minds. But our culture has decided that every man and woman is an island (which might come together in a nuclear family archipelago, at least), and to shape our society as if that were true… which causes problems. It detaches us from our community, and erases the community’s role in personal development, in collective responsibilities, and all manner of things. The culture re-styled us as islands, but we’re not, and delusions like that wreak some havoc with the functioning of systems like societies, and even personalities, making them maladjusted and unsustainable. They often carry that corruption forward and affect other people, society, and even other societies detrimentally.
In a question of nature vs. nurture, people in this culture don’t usually realize that culture is both. It can nurture, but it is also nature – the environment we develop within, as well as a natural phenomenon that evolved with/in us – inextricable. Humans aren’t humans without culture. We aren’t even capable of language unless other humans teach it to us at the critical early stages of psychological development. If we miss that enculturation due to isolation, at that point in our childhood, we’re not going to learn language at all. There will only be rudimentary communication for the rest of our life, like the other primates — even if we’re later surrounded by language and being actively taught — if we miss that window of opportunity, we will not have human language (grammar, recursion, storytelling, etc.) We need to develop within culture to be human, and it’s best if our culture is a healthy one. Unhealthy cultures/societies tend to produce unhealthy individuals.
Shaping reality is wielding magic, and that’s why I find culture (and religion) so fascinating. I’ve always found magic fascinating. Magic is in the subtle programming underlying what we see in front of us. Bardic arts involve being able to see and illuminate for others the influence of fine distinctions, in words and meaning and emotion. Wisdom flourishes in being fluent in this subtle language, able to understand it, speak it, and direct it.
You can trace so many of our problems back to culture and mistaken conceptions / bad memes that became installed in culture and that have cast a spell of illusion on our society, making us stumble along blindly and knock over things that we need… like belonging, equality, and other aspects of healthy relationships with each other and with nature; the intrinsic value as well as the instrumental value of each person/being so that we won’t treat each other as mere means but always also as ends; contemplative time to develop our minds and sense of subtlety/spirit; and so on. The lack of these in our present culture can be laid at the feet of capitalism, the Protestant work ethic, Abrahamic religion’s concept of human dominion over the earth, and such memes that have developed into chaos over time, barely contained by increasingly complex technology or systems of law, as they grew to their logical ends within the arc of history. Nature is proving them out as unwieldy mistakes, but they are still dearly held beliefs, because it’s somewhat rare for memes and their effects to be visible to people.
Since culture teaches us individuals how to see the world, a blind culture makes for blind people, unless another culture, sub-culture, or some circumstance teaches one of us to see differently than our culture sees. Most people reading this have probably had a taste of such circumstance and the experience of seeing differently than their culture taught them to see; if not from being in a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture (especially one with roots in the healthier cultures that came before much of what ails this one) with a whole other cosmology, then perhaps from some other route to caring more about nature and community than is normal for this society, and thank gods/spirit for that, I say! You have been called, initiated, and given a responsibility. The world needs you. You can bless it.
I believe that this is like a second sight, and that learning to see behind the cultural curtains can ignite a desire to heal the flaws in the system because you can see right where they reside, how it came to be that way, how it can be undone or done better, and understand that it is within your power because we make culture, as much as it makes us. We wear it, but we weave it. We can bring our culture back into alignment with nature’s truth, and off the distorted track caused by beliefs that disconnected us from it.
Culture, religion, politics, ethics, art, personality, spirit… it’s all interconnected and mutually-influencing. As much as we sometimes like to examine them separately, they do not exist separately. We can use this holistic vision to wield a healing magic and to become culture-weavers who influence society to bring balance where it is needed. I know that’s why I’m here at Gods & Radicals, offering our community and the world my art and the insights I’ve gleaned from my experiences, education, and the meta-view afforded by walking between the worlds. I’m singing guiding songs to awaken and help my people see magic, know health, and weave in wisdom. You, my kin, should weave with me, and spread healing out into the world, setting things a-right for healthy community. Learn all you can about this world and it will come naturally, as all the pieces come together in a clearer view of the whole, and you’ll develop a trust in nature to tend toward health, wholeness, and the sustainability and stability of goodness. We just need to help smooth out the knots where ignorance and imbalance make ideas tangle and distort the whole cloth of this beautiful world. There will always be knots, but we have some really gnarly knots to work out right now, after centuries of some truly bad ideas that dominated and have been tearing the fabric, outright. The medicine of our hands, minds, and spirits are needed. Come, learn to see the patterns, so we can re-weave with stronger threads.
A student of anthropology and philosophy, lover of learning and homeschooling mother, Lia Hunter grew up in a conservative Christian cult and had to learn critical thinking the hard way, now values it highly, and looks behind all the cultural curtains. She came home to Paganism in 2000 and blogs at SageWoman blogs (The Tangled Hedge) and her personal spirituality blog (Awenydd of the Mountains).