SUMMARY: A look at maximizing our freedom by freeing us from our cultural assumptions so that we might pick and choose which aspects of our culture are of value to us and which aspects are not. Life experiences (including travel), education, love, and mystical experiences are all considered as means of freeing us.
(About a 6 minute read)
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ―
My first wife, Jana, was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia under the Soviet occupation. At age 9, she escaped with her family to West Germany. Two years later, they immigrated to the US.
Her mother and father, both being doctors, were able to send her back to Europe to attend a private Swiss boarding school for her high school education. After high school, she lived in England for awhile, before returning to the US to attend university, where I met her.
By the time I met her, she was a confirmed traveler. But travel was much more to her than an exciting adventure. It was a way of learning new things, new ways of doing and thinking. Or, as Proust might have it, travel was Jana’s way of gaining “new eyes”.
But what exactly does that mean, “new eyes”? And why aren’t “old eyes” just as valuable to us?
I think most of us are barely aware — if we are aware at all — of how culture-bound our thinking is. We typically suppose ourselves free to think anyway about anything. Yet, culture is a curious thing in that it quite often comes across to us as natural, rather than man made. That is, thinking beyond our own culture often enough strikes us as crazy.
For instance, a few years ago, a first-of-its-kind boarding school opened up in Austria for high school students. To attend the school, students must be the age of consent in Austria, which is 16. The reason for that is the school’s curriculum includes hands-on education, not merely in sex, but in the actual practice of sex.
That is, students are expected to find a partner from among their fellow students in order to do homework assignments that include such things as having intercourse.
Very few Americans, I’ll wager, would suspend judgement of such a school until they actually knew a great deal about it. The meager description I’ve given of it here is most likely sufficient for any good American to not only know that many things are wrong with the very concept of such a school, but also to know precisely what those things are.
But where would they get their notions of what is wrong with the Austrian school, if not from American culture? The point here is not that the school is a good idea, nor a bad idea, but that culture makes some things seem sane to us and other things seem crazy.
Maybe they are indeed sane or crazy. That does nothing to change the point that we “know”, even before we actually know anything, that something is true or false, good or bad, natural or unnatural, workable or unworkable, based on what our culture tells us it is. We so seldom stop to think, “What do I really know about this?”
For so many of us humans, our culture is our destiny. We will live out our entire lives mostly thinking and doing what it tells us to think and do. We might deny the fact of that, but isn’t the denial itself a reflex of our culture’s assumptions about our freedom to choose our own course in life? Some cultures do not make such assumptions.
One way to obtain some measure of actual freedom from one’s culture is to travel. That is, to experience other cultures. In so far as those cultures are different from one’s own, they are informative of what it is possible for a human to think or do beyond what one has been taught is possible.
But life experience itself can sometimes help a person see beyond their culture. While culture may be destiny for most of us, it is also true that most of us will challenge some of it — at least around the edges — on the basis that our own experience has led us to believe there’s a better way of thinking about things, or of doing things, than we were taught.
Countless women, I’ve noticed, come to the realization there is no prince charming largely through their own life experiences and/or the experiences of their friends. Some might come to the realization by reading books or articles, but so many more seem to find it out first hand.
Education — as distinguished from indoctrination in a particular culture — is an obvious way in which many people free themselves at least somewhat from their culture. Of course, that makes education suspicious to many people. People who, in recent years, have learned to view education — especially higher education — through a lens that damns all but the very most practical education as politically, religiously, and socially incorrect.
Nevertheless, it seems still generally true that higher education emphasizes thinking for yourself — which often amounts to thinking beyond your culture’s assumptions of what is true or false, etc. The sciences, arts, and humanities are especially useful in freeing us from our culture.
Beyond life experiences such as travel, and education, there are a couple psychological experiences that tend to at least sometimes free a person from his or her culture. The first of these is love. How much love has to do with it can depend on any number of factors, but in some cases it can be quite liberating.
For instance, a person with a culturally ingrained prejudice against blacks might fall in love with a black man or woman and thus free themselves in whole or part from those prejudices. Love runs deeper than that though. Much deeper.
When we love someone, we tend overtime to come to see the world through their eyes in addition to our own way of seeing it. We can even reassess who we ourselves are by looking at ourselves through their eyes. This can be done with friends, too, but love provides us with a much greater motivation and openness to do it.
Last, a mystical experience can free us from our culture. Such experiences need last only a few moments in order to have a profound and enduring impact on how we view the world. An experience of ten or twenty seconds can require ten or twenty years to digest. But mystical experiences not only tend to free us from our culture, but also tend to reshape in some fashion our normal, everyday consciousness of the world.
I suspect Proust — and so many others — valued “new eyes” largely because they allow us to pick and choose which aspects of our culture are of most value to us, and which aspects are not. In doing so, they increase our freedom.