My wife is now studying medicine. She recently needed to cover some developmental psychology, which looks at how we all live and move through stages in our lives. There’s plenty of theories that support and conflict each other but most agree that people either master and move through stages (biological or social) or get stuck on certain stages and this causes its own set of problems. It’s a very tidy way to understand how we mature as human beings but I’ve always had the impression there’s probably too much variety to package things so neatly.
The social stages guide us through what is and what isn’t acceptable for different cultures / age groups etc. People around us naturally prod or hit our breaks to keep us well contained within appropriate stages. This makes me recall my first few years of my marriage. I was 23 and my wife was 18 years old. So, being this age and married sujected us to our fair share of subtle and some not so subtle social prods. Maja once had to listen to a feisty monologue that started with the words “my god girl! What have you done to yourself…” After 9 years and at our present ages – it looks like it’s OK to be married (we just don’t get so many passionate responses anymore).
So, there’s a lot of weight behind how we all condition each other to fit into what’s acceptable or not. There’s a French philosopher, Michel Foucault who takes this a step further. He linked how we maintain social norms to how we keep structures of power in place. Not only do things like what we learn at school or what’s portrayed in the media build our views and values but our individual behaviors and interactions contribute just as much. They sort of feed off each other and keep everything and everyone in their ‘proper’ place.
So if our values, thoughts and identity are all built up so heavily by social conditioning what room does it leave for myself? In other words the question might be: who am I if most of what I am is a product of social and biological conditioning?
Peter, another WordPress blogger brought an answer to my attention based around an interesting aspect of Zen practice. Zen attempts to break down the limited concepts of our identity (In a similar way to what Foucault just did, inadvertently) to arrive at an authentic experience. I guess those quirky Zen masters saw that holding on to our identity (hey, don’t take away my individuality man!) just gets in the way of really experiencing things as they are (right at this moment).