Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Valuing your own culture as well as others

Idealizing other cultures and berating your own is no path to wisdom.

My ancestors are from the violent, improverished part of Sicily. This gave me a dash of realism when teachers taught me to celebrate other cultures and sneer at everything American. I embraced this "multicultural view" for a long time, and even taught it to innocent youth. But I could not continue the dishonesty of excusing huge flaws in other cultures, while erasing all the good in American culture.

For exampel, a recent PT post Lets Eat, Drink and Grow Old Together, described the health benefits of the Sicilian diet and social system. This is true if you overlook the centuries of starvation and in-group murder produced by the Sicilian culture. I speak frankly because this my heritage. I would have lived with constant hunger and violence if my grandparents hadn't moved to the US. That prospect feels real to me, so I give myself permission to appreciate the good in American life instead of just looking for things to condemn.

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Everyone who could leave Sicily left, for generations. Those who remained lived in a social environment of constant fear. They may have good cheese, and they may have company on park benches in ancient piazzas, but they would have lived with terrible privations and constrains while watched most of their friends and relatives leave. They may have good eating habits, and most of them are probably kind most of the time. But the rush to idealize other cultures often leads Americans to a self-hate that is bad for our health. We're encouraged to see only the good in other cultures, and only the bad in our own. I'm not saying you are better off sitting on the couch eating junk food. (If you do, it's not America's fault.) I'm saying the habit of seeing only the good in other cutlures and only the bad in your own does not serve you.

The culture of violence in Sicily is not visible to people who are just passing through. And it was never mentioned when I was growing up. I learned about it from books. I was shocked to learn the Mafia is not an invention of Hollywood, nor an aberration caused by Prohibition. I was shocked to hear the ways people from that culture rationalize and normalize child abuse, spousal abuse, and violent strategies for making your way in the world.

"Our society is like that too" you may rush to say. That's what was taught  in school, and I absorbed it because I wanted to be "educated." But I always knew that life was more complicated. I was beaten by my mother, and I could see that "our society" treated me better than I was treated at home. I knew that we do not live in the nightmarish police state suggested by my college professors, who may not have experienced any direct violence.

When I say my mother beat me, I do not mean that she applied excessive discipline with conscious intent. I mean she was in an out-of-control rage much of the time and no one acknowledged it as a problem. This still happens to some children today. I think it's wrong to cover it up by focusing on the panache of a culture, or to equate physical violence with academic concepts of violence. If you do that, you're condemning more children to grow up with the idea that violence should be swept under the rug and layered over with gallantry.

When you travel you see elderly people sitting on benches and it's easy to project onto them everything good you wish for your future and fear you will lack. It's easy to find sociologists who can statistically "prove" that their society is grand. All this fits with what you learn in school: that life was easy and people were good before big corporations. When I started reading for myself, I was horrified to find that life was harsh in the past. People did not spend their lives dancing and singing, but looking desperately for food and often fighting over it. Tension and conflict were always present in human societies, and ours has done rather well at restraining it.

When you live inside a culture of violence, resisting it can be as dangerous as participating. That's why people strive to leave. The toxicity is too much for one individual to conquer. This is tragic, and covering it up does not help.

I was eager to leave such a culture behind when I set off for college. But there I was constantly told that “our society is bad.” I have resisted this cultural negativity as hard as I resisted the negativity in my family of origin. Yes, it's good to have healthy food and a social network. But it's not good to filter the facts, seeing only the good in other cultures and only the bad in your own.

Lots more on this in my book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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