Clash of cultures

What motivates us to work? We know from an early age that we have to work as adults, and we find our way into jobs one way or another, some through years of education and some not.  How much time do we really spend thinking about it?

Many of us don’t get to know ourselves, or have the opportunity to try out numerous jobs, before we really need to “make a living.”  We choose a job, or a field, and we enter an enculturation process either in school or in the workplace.  The culture we absorb becomes a motivation itself:  We learn a vocabulary, way of thinking, norms, even habits of thinking, often without realizing it or taking time to reflect.  Some may relish the process and enjoy having a niche, others may experience a bit of unease, a sense of something missing depending on the fit with the culture.

Some professions, such as medicine or social services, possess a strong culture, one the employee has to embrace to some extent to excel in the field.  My father said medical school was like boot camp, a challenging experience in which his own ego and perspective were subordinated to the process of becoming a doctor.  He worked so hard for so long, was sometimes belittled, and he became one with his role, demonstrating decisiveness and as much clarity as possible to treat illness and perform surgery in a capable way.

Many of us are unknowingly brainwashed by a worldview, unaware of the underpinnings and influences forming that perspective, not possessing the tools with which to question or examine.  For some darn reason, not completely known to me, I have stood on the outside and asked questions.  While I had an interest in psychology in college, studying it raised more questions than it answered, so I asked my favorite professor to recommend books on the history of the field, because studying it made me uncomfortable, and I wondered why.

I think we need to stay alert, to ask questions as we learn a field and after we are in it.  To develop our own perceptions and to participate in ongoing inquiry with peers and supervisors.  But generally we are not encouraged to follow our hunches, to turn inside, to question, or even to dialogue with others in our fields.  We instead become absorbed into the work, the money, starting a family, building security for that family and ourselves.  But I believe there is a place for curiosity.

I have long conversations with a friend who teaches a contemplative education course at a university and is a sometime psychotherapist herself.  She teaches in a scholars’ program populated by pre-med students, future scientists and engineers, future writers.  She encourages the students to examine their assumptions, to consider their personal relationship to the subjects they study, to explore the underpinnings and influences on the professions they are considering entering.  Some of the students are resistant to her proddings in this class, at least at first.  The pre-med student is a bright, busy, focused fellow, or gal, who usually embraces a belief in the medical model, says my friend.  She does not ask them to let go of that belief, only to be circumspect, and many find themselves immensely grateful for the process of internal and philosophical inquiry she guides them through.  While some see no use for the process, others tell my friend they will go to med school as more sensitive, well-rounded humans.

My friend herself is examining the mental health field, from psychoanalysis to psychopharmacology, as a consumer, professional, and researcher.  She has experienced ill effects from medications and explored alternatives from re-attachment to ayurvedic herbs and diets to yoga and dance.  You could say she is a renegade academic and psychotherapist.

A person awake to her own emotions, adventurous in her intellectual pursuits, and brave enough to ask questions, is a different kind of professional.  Rather than immersing herself in a culture and system of thought, she remains a sensitive individual with an ability to respond to situations from within her self.

The book, The Spirit Catches you and You Fall Down, is about the clash of the Hmong people’s needs and beliefs with that of the Western medical system.  It is about the damage that can occur when two strong belief systems meet.  I was struck by a story in the book about a young Western enthnographer and fan of improvisational theater who is able to appreciate and understand the Hmong peoples’ perspective on illness and their resistance to the imposition of Western ways upon them.  He learns about them and their beliefs and is able to encourage them to get immunizations for their pets through staging a theatrical parade.

What made him sensitive to these people, capable of understanding their perspective?  Was he less enamored of the Western view he was born into?  Was he secure enough in himself to open his mind?

I have been immersed in this very process throughout my life:  I studied psychology but wanted to know where it came from, I was interested in medicine but had the mind and heart of an anthropologist.  I’m not sure why I am like this.  I think it may be feeling close to nature most of my life, through listening to old-time music as a young child and driving through inner-city DC with my dad on his way to work, through reading black authors from off my parents’ bookshelves.  I knew there were other ways of thinking about things than mine, other cultures and races, varied spiritual paths.

My role is that of an amateur ethnographer, a student of work cultures.  I make my living as a yoga teacher and writer, and I work various part-time jobs along the way.  It is a grand adventure, and I am grateful to share it with friends like my university teacher buddy.   This is my enduring question:  Can we not work from our authentic selves in ways that make sense to us and are healing to the world?  We must let the world change us, but sometimes we need to change it.

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1 Comment

  1. Insightful…. leads to more curiosity. Loved this!

    Reply

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