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Learning to be human - Part One

As someone born into the prime of the self-help movement, I am guilty of attending countless workshops and seminars intended to teach me about how to live. I have stockpiles of self-help tomes on sagging and buckling bookshelves, featuring authors such as Thich Nhat Han, Dalai Lama, Elizabeth Gilbert, Gabor Mate, just to name a very small few.


All of this troubles me. During many of those workshops, I have quasi out-of-body experiences where I am floating above my own body, and looking down upon myself immersed in an earnest process of learning how to live. I like to think I’ve chosen these workshops wisely, that I’m learning from someone who has meaningful and life-changing suggestions to share. Yet I’m more often baffled by my own behaviour. Why did I come here? Why did the other people come here? What’s everyone else doing today? Why aren’t they here? Are they sitting in other workshops learning how to live? I feel so perplexed that I am left with no choice but to just yield to the process. I dive back into my body and reassure myself that I will absolutely live with all of the workshop’s life-changing suggestions in mind.


But it is weird. This sitting in circles caper. This wish to be taught things like: how to be a parent; how to communicate with your children; how to weave a basket; how to write about myself; how to cook a healthy meal; how to die; how to live with menstruation and menopause. Sure, some of these workshops are about skills. It is useful to know how to weave a basket. But what of the workshops that teach you about human behaviour? Shouldn’t we just know the basics given we are the humans enacting the behaviour? Whatever happened to human nature? Are humans, in fact, unnatural? Or, if we are natural, did we all incur amnesia-inducing head injuries during birth? Do we have collective amnesia?


Someone like Canadian writer and activist Stephen Jenkinson seems to think so. He says, “What we suffer most from is culture failure. Amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or the world around us or with our dead or with our history.”


No instruction. It feels like Jenkinson is holding back here. Yes, there’s the well-worn cliché-joke that babies aren’t born with an instruction manual. But why isn’t there a handy manual instilled within the core of our beings? Something akin to instinct? Kangaroos mothers don’t get their joeys with instruction manuals (unless they sequester them into their pouches, which is cute but shifty), but they know how to proceed with their lives. Bill Plotkin writes:


The young of all species … already know at birth how to be members of their species. This innate knowledge includes basic-yet-vital items such as how to move around, what to eat and not eat, how to avoid predators, and how and when to mate and with whom (The Realm of Purpose Least Realized [essay], p. 7).  


We are immersed in information, facts, and the aforementioned tomes, yet we are also submersed in long-term, perennial forgetting. We look for wisdom in a culture that does not protect it. Hollis writes “that perhaps life is meaningless, but we are meaning-seeking creatures who are driven to understand it. Failing that, we attempt to form some meaningful relationship to life” (The Archetypal Imagination, p. 9).


A lot of thinkers, philosophers, anthropologists, scientists and other clever people have considered these questions. One common conclusion is that humans aren’t as natural as all other earthly creatures. At least, humans aren’t natural in the same ways that other earthly creatures are. Instead, humans have a relentless tendency to construct and reconstruct culture, and to then teach each other about how the current culture works. That resulting culture can change at any time. In fact, it is the nature of culture to be changeable and dynamic, subject to shifts in knowledge, consciousness, trends and, in recent decades, market forces. To survive, we have to spend time learning from others. Juval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens:


The immense diversity of imagined realities that sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’… Ever since the cognitive revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from a bewildering palette of possibilities (p. 52).


Somewhere along the way, dominant cultures shifted into a consistently broken mode. Some researchers believe it began with the dawn of civilisation where humans decided to settle in small areas rather than continue nomadic living. Others attribute the change to the growth of industrial society. Charles Eisenstein writes extensively about this in The Ascent of Humanity (2007). Chellis Glendinning writes about the original trauma of being removed from nature (in My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilisation, 1994). This original trauma has gone a long way towards the ‘psyche ache’ many of us feel today. It is not the central or only cause, but its deleterious effects have resonated across generations.  


As one consequence, many of us spend thousands of dollars on psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, or life coaches. We seek outlets to assuage our ‘psyche ache’, outlets that promise to relieve us of ourselves and our internal and external follies, if only momentarily. The broader culture insists that the majority of our personal problems originate from within us, an unfortunate consequence of an enduring, intractable series of faults for which we are inevitably responsible. In advertising, in pop psychology, the messaging is clear: each person is a vessel for screaming and woeful inadequacies, each person has failed in so many multifaceted ways that ongoing counselling is warranted: as if this exploration will be enough to resolve the ailments that are, frankly, mostly caused by the failings of our fractured culture.


Yet we are consistently reassured that it cannot be the culture. Our culture is progressing nicely, and this is evidenced in human-made triumphs such as healthy economies, great swathes of shopping malls and elaborate transportation systems. Once done with a ‘psyche-ache’ session:


You are released back into the sorrows and consternations and, yes, madnesses of a culture that went a long way towards giving you your personal limp and ache in the first place, a culture as utterly unchanged by your personal improvement as it was inured to your personal misfortunes (Stephen Jenkinson, Making Wisdom via Orphan Wisdom website).


The self-help/self-development/growth + happiness mentality besieges and distracts us from the greater and more desperate problems of our times. Is part of this terminal navel-gazing because most of us are children of those who have endured multiple generations of intergenerational trauma? Is it because most of us are broken by the intergenerational lineage of slaughters to culture and therefore psyches, most of us are just screaming “help” inside, which the self-help trade exploits ad infinitum. Most of us are disorientated, bewildered and exhausted, more so since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are very few outlets for these pressures to be released. Many (and not most) are working to claw our way back into life as it’s meant to be, maybe distracted by the allure of self-help, which can be all-consuming work. In the meantime, yes, humanity might hit rock bottom. But has this been caused by intergenerational brokenness? But we haven’t been ‘allowed’ to heal as a generation? Jenkinson writes that each generation is on the receiving end of the vagaries of its time.


One central cause for our current troubles is our failure to pass down the wisdom of previous generations. How would we do this, anyway? So many cultures are fractured, globalised, disconnected, disrespected. Adult children and their children choose to move far from their parents and grandparents in fear of being wedded to arcane cultural values, in fear of having their freedoms denied, in fear of being infected or influenced by the traumas they have witnessed or felt exists deep within their parents and grandparents. These generations of people who have not lived in nurturance, but in severance. Our reaching towards self-help guides, therapists, and how to live workshops is intricately connected to our yearning to know something deeper than most cultures allow. Our reaching is part of our sincere yearning to learn … not just how to live, but how to grow. This is our search for meaning and wisdom. We know we are geared towards becoming wise, as Jenkinson describes it. How to we become wise in cultures that promote disconnection or, worse, pathological adolescence?


I realise now that part of this sitting in circles caper is not just about learning how to live. There are other people in those circles, who are similarly perplexed and searching for some answers. We have all come to this circle, an unofficial congregation, to learn and to listen to each other’s stories of woe and confusion. Oh wow, we say to ourselves, they feel lonely, too. They don’t know the difference between warp and weft, too. We’re not only weaving baskets. We’re also placing ourselves into a kind of clubhouse of belonging.


The Hearthlands is one place where we can work together to recover meaning, and to recover a sense of belonging.


Please stand by for Part Two of this short essay.

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