How Culture Makes Us Crazy, and Vice Versa

Here at Be Less Crazy, where we’re all trying to master our minds for sparklier lives and a more reasonable world -- that’s what we’re doing, right? -- we’ve talked a lot about how culture makes us crazy, and how we make it crazy right back. But we haven’t gone into a lot of detail about how this happens. What is the mechanism by which society trickles down into our brains, and how do our brains trickle back up to the world at large?

I drew this little diagram to show how I think it works.


Ideas flow in and out of us, and they are metabolized by humans at all levels of society, from individual to family to community to nation to world. This diagram shows the process, and it’s circular, like digestion or respiration. Which makes sense to me, because just as our bodies are built out of the physical stuff we take in, our minds are built of ideas.

So let’s jump into this at the place where the vast majority of our ideas come from -- Culture, otherwise known as the sum total of what our environment offers us. Writ large, culture is the first picture of the Earth from space, or the tale of Cinderella, or the notion of motherhood. Writ medium-size, it’s seeing everyone around you growing up to go to college, or to sell drugs, or whatever is the norm for your community. Writ small, it’s the way your mom and dad talked to each other ... the games you played with your friends ... your grandma’s chocolate cream pie.

Simply existing in the world exposes us to a constant and endless stream of culture. Some bits we reject, some we accept, and some are just burnt into us through rote repetition. Over time, like a bird building a nest using twigs and trash and whatever else is lying around, we each create ourselves out of culture’s raw materials. We make different choices along the way and we come out with different end products, but the process seems pretty universal.

Once a bit is in us, it becomes a Belief, one of the prime directives by which we live. All the things we believe -- from “Living indoors is better than living outdoors” to “Box wine rocks” to “Gay people should be able to get married if they want to” are simply cultural bits that we have validated with our personal stamp of approval. All are bits that our culture has convinced us are True.

But not all beliefs are created equal. Some are well-known to us, and well-loved. They swim in the sunny parts of our minds, right where we can see them. Others lurk deep within, down where it’s dark and mysterious and almost opaque to our vision. And these lurker beliefs can be troublesome, because they end up dictating a lot of what we do -- even overriding higher-level beliefs -- simply because we can’t see them. Tricksy.

Anyhow, if beliefs are the broad-stroke ideas we believe to be true, then Decisions are where we apply our beliefs to one particular moment. Just like beliefs, decisions can be transparent or opaque. We can be aware of why we’re making some choices and running completely on unexamined habit with others.

Either way, our decisions fuel our Actions. The actions we take are nothing less than outward manifestations of what our minds decide is true about a given situation. We act, and something changes. We make a dent in the world around us.

Another way of saying this is we contribute to Culture, little or big, bringing us back to the beginning of the circle. Our beliefs percolate back up into the culture through our actions, and they all contribute, whether it’s riding a bike to work or yelling at your partner or volunteering for a good political candidate or writing a helpful blog post or parroting terrible things you’ve read or smiling at an old person shuffling down the street. All of us are contributing to culture all the time. Everything adds up.

It’s important that we understand this, because I think lots of us tend to see ourselves as “in here” and the rest of the world as “out there.” Like we are our own little separate entities, making unfettered individualistic decisions all day every day, acting out of our own righteous self-interest, not really impacting or being impacted by the world very much.

But the reality is a little bit more subtle. The truth is, we are all breathing culture fumes in and out all day every day, and this process can’t help but re-arrange the furniture inside our heads. Sometimes in ways that are not helpful or to our liking. Some examples of this:

Body image. Culture tells us that there is a long list of ways in which we are imperfect, and that the harder we try to attain perfection, the more loved and valuable we will be. Of course, this sets us up for lots of crazy behaviors around food and how we talk to ourselves and even what kind of activities we allow ourselves to take part in. Ever skip swimming because you didn’t want to be seen in a bathing suit?

Our culture sets us up to devalue ourselves, which sets us up to do self-destructive things. Thereby putting another example of self-hating-lady-shit into the culture for some other poor young thing to experience. Aaah, the circle of life.

Romantic Love. Our culture teaches every young girl that love is by far the most important thing. We learn that a happy ending actually can’t even happen without it. We drink this up our whole lives, too, making us believe on a very deep level that a life without a special person is not worth living.

These beliefs then cause us to take actions in which we over-prioritize love more than anything else. Liiiike ... feeling truly broken when no one wants us, or letting lazy broke-ass people move in with us because “we love them”, or sticking around someone terrible because we can't bear the thought of being alone. And of course, all of these actions put more weak love-obsessed crap out into the culture for others to witness and be influenced by.

Money. Our culture teaches us that money = worth. That spending lots of money = being lots of happy. That one more pair of shoes is going to finally scratch that lingering shoe itch. All of which is, again, shit ... but some part of us believes it, so we end up living it out.

We buy so much stuff we don’t even have room for it all. We go into debt, declare bankruptcy, fight about money ... and basically become all the statistics you read about how terrible people are with money. All of this, of course, adds to the power of the money craziness snowball flying through our culture and sucking people up into it.

All of this leads me to only one conclusion: we can’t just go with the cultural defaults that have been installed in us, because THEY ARE CRAZY. They will lead us nowhere good ... only to further frontiers of self-hatred, shitty relationships, and brokeness.

Put another way, our culture has its head up its ass, and the only way to change that is to take our own heads out of our own asses.

To achieve this, I think it makes a lot of sense to do a couple of things.

First, we need to shine a bright light on those murky lurker beliefs so we can understand what they are up to.

And second, we need to focus on the Decision step. Because even when our actions seem inevitable based on what has happened to us and what we believe, they are not. We always have decisions to make, and there is always power in them.

Decision is the step that takes place entirely inside our own minds. It’s the step where we can slow down and rationally consider our options and act only on the best one. Not the one that feels most familiar, not the one that’s an unwitting replay of a shitty old script, but the one that will actually improve things for us and for all the little levels of culture in which we’re embedded.

Clearly seeing how culture sets up our beliefs set up our decisions set up our actions contribute to our culture ... well it just makes us better citizens, don’t you think? More powerful ones, too, because it means that we are capable of creating happier lives for ourselves and also changing culture itself in ever-widening circles of rationality and freedom. Once we take on our own individual craziness, we can’t help but infuse everything and everyone around is with blessed sanity.

Do you see this pattern operating in your experience? What different levels of culture are you embedded in? How are they impacting you? And how are you impacting them?