Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thinking and Personal Power

Over the past three evenings, I have watched the PBS series “This Emotional Life” at the video portal. It was an interesting mix of ideas. Some of it, I found problematic, particularly in the first episode. At one point, the host, who is a social psychologist at Harvard, made some offhand remark about romantic love being evolutionarily desirable. This is silly and one small conversation with his colleagues in anthropology would have disabused him of that notion. Romantic love is, of course, a cultural construct and people have been reproducing quite well without it for a very long time. We may find it desirable, and for many of us it is a good thing, but there is not necessarily any reason why we need it in order to pass on our genes. The other thing I took issue with was not really the fault of the host. He had gone to a lab to watch some experiments in which mothers looked at facial expressions of their babies and then they did brain scans to look at how the brain responded to this. I felt that this simply reinforced the idea that women are the natural nurturers. Where were the fathers in this experiment? At a book discussion last month, someone made the comment that they think women are simply more caring and nurturing than men and asked me, as an anthropologist, whether I thought that was right in terms of it being universally true. I told him I didn't think so. One has to take into account the role of culture in these kinds of things. Women are taught to be nurturing. It's a basic part of the enculturation process. That doesn't mean it's automatic or biological in any gender specific way. And this experiment that was reported on in the show reinforced a gender stereotype in my opinion.
Last night as I watched the last part, I did get concerned when he started out at a self-help conference in which the many people in attendance were told that if they have cancer, AIDS, depression, or other diseases, it is because they are thinking bad thoughts. But the host challenged the speaker who said this and proceeded to engage in a fuller and less off the wall discussion of these issues. I find this whole idea that we can bring on illness by thinking the wrong things to be highly problematic. First of all, it blames the victim and lets society off the hook. Cancer can come from lots of different things, some of which include environmental pollution and other factors. If we are going to assert that people can avoid cancer by thinking happy thoughts, then why should society care whether the earth is polluted or not? This is a great way to dump responsibility where it does not belong. To be sure, there are health issues that can be almost eliminated by individuals making good choices. Information, responsibility, and critical thinking should be encouraged. But to then decide that if some things are a result “improper” thinking then everything else is too is pretty poor logic. It made me think of a friend I had when I lived in Alaska. She was a very committed evangelical Christian person who had been severely depressed to the point of hospitalization. I never knew all the details, because I didn't know her then, but what I did witness was her distress because she was still being blamed for this! It was her fault, according to her fellow Christians, because she didn't pray hard enough and allowed herself to be possessed by demons! I was horrified! And the pain she felt years later was still evident.
I think we all become afraid of the many terrible things that can happen to us. It may be comforting to think that is something awful happens to someone it is because they brought it on themselves. Because, after all, if I just avoid doing that, then this terrible thing won't happen to me. Problem is, this is nonsense. Bad things happen. That is life. Better, I think, to acknowledge that there are going to be times in our lives that are really crummy and worse. In part two of the show, I heard the stories of people suffering from PTSD. They struggled for years and even decades. But they survived. With help and care, they were able to go on. One of the psychologists who does research in this area commented that her work has amazed her because she has seen how much people can go through and still be OK in the end. And that, I think, is far more empowering than deciding that you will avoid pain in the first place. In my own life, I have had some really bad times, though nothing like some of the horrific experiences related by people in the program. During my worst times, I wanted someone to help make it all better. When that proved impossible, I slowly realized that the person I was waiting for was me. I was the only one that could make it better. Here was where I had the power and control—not to change the circumstances, but to deal with them and keep going anyway. Stuff happens. Really, really bad stuff happens. When it happens to other people, we can help them in various ways, but often we can't change the circumstances. If a friend suffers the loss of a loved one, for instance, we can comfort them, bring them food, let them know they are not alone, and many other things. But we can't change the circumstances. All we can do is provide some strength for them to draw on so they can deal with what has happened to them. And the same holds true for each one of us. We can't think away bad things. But we can learn how to go on in spite of them. That is personal power.

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