Politica: Conforming to cultural narratives? Healing ourselves.

"Fake it until you make it!" I don't hear this common burst of advice much anymore, though I guess it was meant to encourage those who were feeling insecure when taking a new job or role in life. At best, it suggested that one should act the part until one becomes the role one is playing on a particular stage in life. Practice will make it naturally one's own, as one accumulates the competence needed to become credible by performance and not just claim.

Though the "fake it" phrase may be less common today than it once was, it offers an interesting insight to how we shape our individual identity in the light of the cultural narratives that surround us and make claims upon us. Sometimes these are enforced by outside agents such as parents, teachers, institutions which demand compliance willy-nilly. More often, a lot of our roles are shaped by the metanarratives and cultural identity stories we are thrashing around in. Swimming against these current takes a lot of energy and courage as well as an alternative vision of the shore one wishes to arrive at. Someone has suggested that the old adage, "Practice makes perfect", should be replaced by "Practice makes permanent", at least when it comes to how our neurons manage our identity stories. Older stories continue to lurk in the background.

There are also things that we see we are, feel that we are, that we don't want to be or don't like to be seen as. So, we aspire to pass for something that we are not by hiding, even from ourselves, something that we fear is unacceptable. "Passing" is a term originally used to describe black people who can pass for white and choose to do so. Sometimes it involved straightening one's hair, or bleaching one's skin. But the need to pass goes far beyond minimizing racial characteristics in an unfriendly environment. For example, waves of immigrants have changed their names or otherwise attempted to obliterate signs their original identity as much as possible to fit in their new environment. If your name is Mohammad, your job prospects may be limited in many places today, despite its being the most popular male given name in the world! For all of us, the forces of the larger cultural narratives we are floating in are constantly telling us what's "hot", "cool", "normal". Beyond marketing cosmetics, pills and fashionable togs, there is an abundance of advice-giving and selling for how to succeed— it's big business.

My objective here is not to promote rebellion against all norms and standards, nor advocate exhaustive "true confessions". Certainly, there are things I have done that I am not proud of or might cause harm or discomfort either to myself or others if I were to reveal them. I simply want to encourage courage and suggest a few strokes that one can learn to reach the desired island of greater comfort with one's identity. First, I need to reduce stress by recognizing and coming to grips with whatever I are hiding from myself and from others. I need reduce the amount of energy that pretense requires, admitting its presence and not condemning myself for its connection to me. It doesn't mean I have to broadcast a naked self, or expose myself to be victimized by current biases, It does mean acquiring a good and positive sense of who I am, despite the fashion or the clothes I may choose to wear. Put bluntly, the question is, "Am I lying to myself and to my world about parts of me, bits of my cultural story that I am uncomfortable with, which I cannot change because they are a permanent part of my basic story or past history."

For years I hid the Polish half of my ancestry to avoid being stained by the prevailing bias toward immigrants – it was the season for ethnic jokes. Before political correctness came centerstage, a colleague of mine, Larry Wilde, wrote The Polish/Italian Joke Book, a collection of ethnic humor in which essentially the same stories were told about each group – you could read the Polish jokes and, when you got to the end, turn over the book and read in the other direction, essentially the same stories told about the Italians on the flip side of each page. Laughing at oneself and admitting what we have in common with others is a way to help us connect with ourselves and with them. It can reduce the festering of wounds inflicted upon us long ago. While it might work to share ethnic identity humor in our ethnic in-group, caution is required elsewhere. In any case, it may be better to laugh at ourselves than torture ourselves with self-depreciation.

This post is an invitation to take a look at the parts of you your personal and cultural narrative that you may have been taught, tempted, or chosen to hide, even to lie about. To value them for being a part of you often shared with those close to you. Acceptance is ultimately easier than defense and prevarication. Above all, I suggest looking at ethnicity, family, status, and education, as these are common places where our reality may be harder for us, as well as for others, to accept and honor. You may have important issues in other domains that you want to explore, but these are common cultural starting points. The tools for this work may be your personal journal, or discussion with your family and closest friends or trusted counselor. That's up to you and your sense of personal safety. Note what occurs to you, what stories are eating up your energy to sustain, calories that could be better applied elsewhere. Reflect on the reasons you give to yourself for what you keep under wraps. Then explore how these stories you tell yourself could become reframed, more comfortable, even supportive. When you feel ready, possibly share with those you trust whose stories are perhaps the same or similar situations to your own.

While flipping through books on a bookseller's table a few years ago, I ran into the autobiography of a rather famous writer. He introduced his account, saying that he was now ready to write an autobiography, not just at his publisher's behest, but because he had come to accept his life as it was, he was ready to face himself without judgement in the lines he penned. "Making one's soul" does not have to be reserved for old age, a retirement task, it is useful to start at any age.


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