My Culture Of Origin: What I Learned From My People And Those Around Me

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1. Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding Death

My first recollection of anyone dying is from when I was 8 years old. My maternal grandmother died of a heart attack. She was in the hospital, and I was with my mother in Virginia in my grandmother’s (MiMi’s) house with my grandfather (Pop). I recall that I was kept from going to the funeral and instead was left in the hands of a relative. I did not understand why at that time I was left behind, and I remember thinking that a funeral must be something bad, and thus something not for children. Upon the death of my college friend, my parents, especially my father, advised me not to view the body during the wake, commenting that doing so would merely serve to cause me pain, and would be an image of my friend that I would never be able to forget. Regrettably, I did not view my friend’s body. Death is a topic that we never openly discussed in my immediate family. I have subsequently come to my own terms with death. Death is not something that is bad. Death is something that is good. Death is something without which life, a human life, would be meaningless. Consequently, I have chosen, upon completion of my counseling training, to work with sick people, old people, and dying people.

2. Communication Styles

From early childhood I have been exposed to a variety of dysfunctional and ineffective styles of communication. Within my immediate family, direct communication was not at all common. My parents communicated with me through each other, my grandmother communicated with me through my father. In a word, my childhood was rife with triangular communication dynamics. Feelings were never expressed in words, but instead were expressed in heavy sighs, hand gestures, and so forth. I, as a child, was absolutely prohibited from expressing my feelings verbally, especially that of anger. For, to be angry, to act and speak angrily, and to express that anger in words was, in my family, at least, to be disrespectful of adults (grown-ups) and to act badly, and thus shamefully. In a word, especially regarding my father, anger from his son (me) was not tolerated, not even acknowledged as legitimate. To be sure, my parents were themselves owners of the privilege of being angry and expressing anger. However, were I myself to manifest anger of any sort, I and my anger would come under scrutiny, not that regarding which I was angry in the first place. Consequently, I learned to be quick and acute in my ability to perceive nonverbal cues and communications, and became a virtuoso at reading body language, facial expressions, hand gestures, and the non literal elements of speech. Consequently, also, I learned to use what I had learned to communicate with others in an intentional manner, becoming an actor of sorts; and I learned to do this well.

3. Education and Learning

Growing up in an affluent, white community, college and graduate education was both expected and encouraged. All my friends had parents with college educations, and at least one parent with a graduate education. Thus, the parents of my peers were architects, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and so on. I was informed at an early age that I would go to college and subsequently pursue graduate studies of some sort. Moreover, it was made clear to me as a child that those with educations are not only better than those without, but that education is a privilege I might enjoy (rather than a right), a privilege for which my father worked and labored longs hours, that I might easier have opportunities that he won with great difficulty and personal effort.

However, it was not education per se, in the sense of a liberal or liberating education that was valued by my father, parents, and general social group. The education that was spoken of as valuable, and that was expected of us all, was an education that might better be described as pre-professional vocational training. That is, education and learning was not promoted for its own sake as being intrinsically valuable given the kinds of things that we are, i.e., human (knowing) being. Rather, education was promoted as valuable because of what the results of an education would allow one to do, i.e., to get a good paying job. Education, as defined by my culture of origin, was an investment in the future, a financial investment.

4. Perceived Social Status in the Majority Culture

I grew up the son of a white doctor. We always had the best of everything (materially). It was made clear to me as a child that we (the white, the wealthy, the educated) were far better than ought else around us. There was never any explicit assertion that we, the wealthy educated white people, were God’s special chosen ones. However, be sure that given the day to day conversations of my people it was clear to me, as a child, at least, that I, Billy, was indeed very very lucky to be white, wealthy, educated, and American; and that all others not falling into this category of person were simply unlucky, unfortunate, and, honestly, doomed.

5. Relationships with Authority

I was instructed from the beginning to respect authority, i.e., grown-ups. My parents, especially my father, expected absolute respectful obedience to his authority, and the authority of those to whom I was entrusted, i.e., my teachers and the parents of my friends. Defying authority was for me (at least in the beginning) something that was almost impossible. To be sure, I did not always like or agree with the authority figure present, but I would never even consider outright disobeying or speaking out against said authority figure. In a word, those in authority were good, and to have been disrespectful of such authority would have been to be bad. Consequently, authority figures were, for me, objects to be feared. Eventually, authority figures, i.e., those wielding power with neither intelligence nor moral sensibility, came to be objects of my hatred. Exposition of the above statement is far beyond the limit of this assignment.

6. Cultural Rituals

The people of my culture did indeed engage in cultural rituals. That is, we celebrated birthdays, celebrated Christmas, dressed up for Halloween, and did the Easter Sunday thing. However, there was never any acknowledgement of any sort of any higher principle or reason behind these strange activities of ours. Christmas was always and only about getting presents. Birthdays were always and only about getting presents. Easter was always and only about getting stuff from the Easter Bunny. That is, in my family and community at-large, these cultural rituals were but outward behaviors that were neither motivated by nor organized according to some or another principle or rationally grounded reason. Consequently, to this day, I care nothing for Christmas, Easter, or birthdays. To be sure, at this moment there is a decorated tree in my house, and I received some presents for my October 41st birthday. However, regarding these various cultural rituals to which I was introduced as a child, I feel no inner impulse to continue to what now seems to be but bizarre behaviors. I to this day hate trying to answer the question: What do you want for Christmas? Nothing.

7. Perceptions of Physical Beauty

Beauty, according to my culture of origin, was defined quite simply: Fat people are ugly, and perhaps even bad. Beautiful was the female who was tall, slender, with flowing hair, and who smelled nice. I was not trained to see males as beautiful, although now, if I were made to choose what I think is a nice looking man, I would have to put Brad Pitt’s name on the table. That I was instructed that fat people are ugly (physically) is something that I cannot to this day overcome, more or less. I do not think fat people are ugly as in repulsive. It is just that I still find attractive the tall, slender, long-haired female. The fact that at 41 I am still oriented in such a manner regarding my estimation of physical beauty is (a) testament to the power of cultural influences upon young children. I currently know that fat people are not bad, nor less valuable or worthy. I also know that some men prefer a fat girl to a skinny girl, and other cultures regard as desirable a female form we call “fat.” However, because of what I was taught by my culture of origin, i.e., my family and my peers, and perhaps television (to which those men attracted to large women were also subjected), I still see physical beauty as I always have, and probably always will.

8. Assumptions About the Majority Culture

My cultural assumptions about the majority culture is that the majority of folks are just plain lazy and stupid. That is, again, I felt myself privileged to be born to my parents in this country. For, otherwise, I would have probably been in the situation shared by most of the American culture, unfortunate. The majority culture was poor, uneducated, dishonest, and shared values that were far inferior to those of my parents and our community. Be sure to know, however, that this is where I came from, and what I was given as a child.

9. Punishment and Sanctions Against Deviant Behavior

I learned early that those who are punished are so punished not because of their action or actions, but because they are “bad.” Moreover, once someone has been determined to be “bad,” chances are more than not that their “badness” will persist, despite punishment. Thus, from where I come, punishment is what is done to one who is “bad,” and punishment was demonstrated to me in the form of inflicting pain and discomfort upon the one who needs punishing. To be sure, as I later read Plato’s Republic, I came to understand that punishment should be directed at making an individual better, even if the punishment be painful or uncomfortable. For, just as a horse trainer would not fulfill the his role of horse-caring if he made the horse be worse, in the same way, a child trainer would be at fault if he were to make the child (or bad person) worse in virtue of some prescribed punishment. But according to my upbringing and cultural training, punishment for deviant behavior was strictly and nothing more than an infliction of pain by an authority consequent to some or another deviant behavior.

10. Attitudes Toward Persons with Mental Illness

Mental illness was something that the people of my culture did not admit to having. That is, as a child, to even speak of mental illness as having entered into our community was strictly taboo. Moreover, those with mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia were either simply faking it and being lazy, needed to pray more, or else were probably whacked out on drugs and thus deserved their consequent state of disability. I was never introduced to the possibility that those with mental illness were not somehow intrinsically defective human beings, but were human beings in distress and who needed help. Even when my father himself began to need, and take, antidepressants, we (me, my brother) were instructed not to mention such to his mother, for fear of what she herself might think about the matter.

11. Work Ethic

I was taught from an early age, both explicitly, and by observing those around me, that working hard is good. That is, one ought to develop and practice a strong work ethic, i.e., be willing to work every day, long hours, and even weekends. Adhering to this so-called work ethic was promoted as being of more importance than being present in the home, at soccer games, and so on. In short, working hard was equated with being good. To be sure, working hard was done so in the name of providing for one’s family, both now and in the future. And, not to work hard was the hallmark of laziness, and thus evidence of a personal defect and a shameful character. Regardless of why those around me worked, I myself absorbed this willingness to work and the habit of working hard. However, it was when I directed my work and labors toward ends that were not categorized as “desirable” or “productive” that I myself found resistance. For example, if I were to work hard at learning to play the guitar, and made a “B” on a test, then my own personal work ethic would be called into question (because I failed to live up to my potential of making an “A”), and eventually all sorts of other irrelevant topics would be allowed into the discussion.

12. Spiritual / Religious Beliefs & Practices

I was reared in a Methodist church in Columbus, Georgia. As a child I identified myself as a “Christian,” although I clearly had no idea what that actually meant. That is, I had not yet read St. John of the Cross. Nonetheless, I weekly went to Sunday school and Church with other Christians. That is, “we” were Christians. “They” were Jewish, or whatever other unfortunate religion they happened to be. As a child in a Methodist church, I was taught that only Christians go to heaven, and then only via Jesus Christ, who allegedly died for my sins. Be sure, the Sunday school teacher was not pleased when I pointed out that Jesus did not die for my sins, because I had not yet been born, and thus could not have yet committed any sins. Whatever the case may be, in my family, there was no religion or spirituality, even though we, on Sundays, for a few hours, visited a church. However, upon learning that the Jews were wrong because they did not believe Jesus to be the Son of God, I challenged (provoked) a 4th grade Jewish school-mate of mine with that fact, just to see what would happen. For, I really did not care. He and I wound up beating the stew out of each other that afternoon after school, and his mother called my mother to inform her of what I had said and done. Indeed, my Jewish colleague’s reaction to my rather whimsical statement about Jesus did have an impact upon me. For, I was beguiled that anyone would care enough about Jesus and who was or was not His father to get into a fight over the matter. I entered the fight as a matter of personal honor, whereas my colleague fought over his religious principle and belief.

13. Food

In my culture of origin, food served only one purpose: It nourished the body. There were no family recipes handed down from generation to generation. Meals were not times of joyful gathering for the sake of sharing stories of the day. There were no favorite foods, nor any particular foods with special meanings or for special occasions. Nor were any foods in particular prohibited (as in Judaism). To this day, I will eat anything, and I have no special attachment to any foods in particular.

14. Feelings About Time and Schedules

According to my mother, if you are late, then you obviously think that your time is more important than hers. My life as a child was run according to strict schedules, i.e., bedtime, and being on time (and on time is late, while early is on time) was one of the most valued things a person could do for the sake of demonstrating his character and his care and concern for whatever it was that was scheduled. Consequent to this way of life, there was no, or very little, room for spontaneity and improvisation in my family. Vacations had a determined beginning and end time. When soccer practice was over, it was over, and thus it was time to go home, right then.

15. Literature

The only literature I came into contact with in my cultural community was in high school. And since I already hated all my teachers, none of that literature made it into my head, heart, or soul. At home, the only “literature” to be found was the unopened Bible, and hardcover novels by the likes of Tom Clancy or some other contemporary unimportant novelist. Literature, as a creative and artistic and beautiful work of creation was not something which occupied any sort of place whatsoever in my culture of origin. It was not until I was well on my own, in graduate school and beyond, that I discovered literature for myself, and fell in love with Shelley’s Frankenstein and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel¸for examples.

16. Family Practice: Family Roles, Children, the Elderly, Childrearing

The elements of my family, and those of my peers, were strikingly similar. Dad made the money, and other than that did what he felt like doing. Mom made dinner, and did everything else around the house. The Old Ones, i.e., my grandparents, were seen as grouchy, in mental decline, and were to be avoided at all costs. That is, the elders in my family system were not seen as valuable or of any intrinsic worth. Rather, the elders were (if I am to be honest) tolerated as we waited for them to die. Childrearing (in my family at least) was not so much about nurture as it was about child-husbandry, as in animal husbandry. The goals of childrearing were to keep the child alive, out of jail, get the child educated, financially independent, and out of the house. Most of the so-called childrearing done by my father was in the form of punishment, punishment for the sake of corrective measures for his son who apparently deviated from some ill-defined ever-changing system of developmental rules.

17. Outside Influences

Outside influences in my cultural system were regarded as nothing short of evil and as possible purveyors of catastrophe and disaster. For example, as an adolescent I discovered Heavy Metal music, and began to bring into the house all sorts of music and images and ideas that were entirely foreign to my father’s well-balanced equilibrium. I hailed as heroic these long-haired electric guitar slingers and makers of music my father regarded as “noise.” Of interest here is that my father did not like any kind of music whatsoever in the first place. He never listened to music, ever. Thus, it was not as if he disputed my taste in music because it rocked his Beethovenesque sensibilities. I actually remember my father expressing to me his concern that I might choose to deviate from the well-defined path of education and professional occupation, conceding instead to following in the footsteps of various long-haired rock guitar players whose posters now occupied my bedroom walls.

18. Relationship with Nature

Unlike many of my peers, my family and I had no relationship with nature. Nature consisted of our yard, and the yard was important only inasmuch as the grass needed to be green, and mowed once a week. My friends’ fathers’ were hunters and fishermen. And regarding these activities my father merely yawned and stated his disapproval. He disapproved not because hunters killed harmless and helpless animals, or because guns were dangerous (which is why they worked well at killing bunnies), but because hunting served no real purpose and did not achieve anything. That is, for my father (my original cultural influence), time spent hunting was time that could have been spent doing something else for the sake of achieving something or producing something. To have had a “relationship” with nature would have meant that my father had an ache or impulse to be in contact with something greater than himself, to be humbled before something grand and beautiful, and to experience, in a way, a complete sense of being helpless and powerless, being but one tiny thing among some grand and awesome system. Consequently, my relationship with nature consisted of mowing the grass, raking leaves, and closing the back door to keep the air conditioning in.

19. Cultural Role Models

Role models in my culture of origin consisted solely of those individuals who were powerful and financially successful. More distressing to me, personally, was that it was the financially successful individuals who started with absolutely nothing (like my father) who were championed as heroes. This was distressing to me because I clearly was not starting from nothing, and thus I was expected to achieve a similar state of financial success with greater ease. Ironically, my father, at one time, hailed Bill Gates as someone to be respected. I say “ironically” because I believe that Bill Gates actually dropped out of college. Whatever the case may be regarding Bill Gates, those individuals that received verbal praise during my childhood were those who were financially successful. To be sure, Mozart or DaVinci might be acknowledged as mighty contributors to the human race. However, they (I was told) were special geniuses of an unusual sort, and I that I, Billy, even were I to share in their genius, would ultimately and likely fail to such greatness, because into today’s world it is all about being in the right place at the right time, i.e., one also has to be lucky. But, financial success is not about luck. Financial success is only about hard work and dedication.

20. Clothing

I am white. We looked like white people. We wore conservative clothing that in no way was rooted or contaminated by any sort of affiliation with any cultural group whatsoever. We wore jeans, tennis shoes, button-up shirts, shorts, and baseball caps. We bought all our clothes brand-new at the store. Moreover, the way we (I) wore our clothes was a reflection of who we were on the inside, and was a reflection of how we regarded others. Thus, to wear cut-off jeans and sandals to my grandmother’s house would demonstrate that I do not respect my grandmother, and that I neither care about her or myself, or my father and mother for that matter. To wear anything but the nicest suit of clothes to Sunday church would demonstrate that God was not important, and would serve to embarrass the entire family. So, in my culture, clothes were nothing, and clothes were everything.

21. Addendum

I am aware that in this course, in my presentation and writings, I have perhaps portrayed my family in a rather unflattering light. However, I do love my parents, my brother, my ex-wife, and I do have many fond and happy memories of my childhood and later years. However, what I have produced for this course is merely a product of where I am right now in my personal development. And where is that? Right now I am in the middle of cleaning house, distinguishing what is mine from what is not mine, and determining what needs to go, and what can stay. I will admit that this activity, this labor, of mine is neither fun nor enjoyable. However, it is nevertheless something that I need to do for myself. Moreover, it is not the kind of thing I can simply put on hold or set aside for the sake of providing a more palatable presentation and writings for these course assignments. Given the nature of this counseling program in which I am enrolled, and given the nature of this very course, I judged it safe to simply be honest and write from where I happen to be at this point in my life. Thank you.

QED

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