By some accounts, I have spent an excessive amount of time trying to understand why some people love and some people hate. Some people are liberal, and others conservative. Some people are borderline lunatic religious, and some are atheists. The issues dividing us into tribes are many and personal, social, and moral. Those are broad categories that can be broken down into a litany of problems but suffice it to say, these may be the top-level groupings of who we are. Most of us belong to a tribe of some sort.
I will talk about these differences in a notional way, a theory if you will because I'm not a psychologist or social engineering guru by training or experience. I'm just an old Irishman who thinks about this stuff a lot as I sip my Jameson or Herradura and try to untangle the many perspectives we humans hold. A notional theory means a theory or conclusion about or expressing a notion or general concept formed by abstraction and generalization. A notional idea typically precedes some actual gathering and analysis of data tested six ways to Sunday. If only in my mind, that data becomes fact to prove or disprove what had previously been a theory or concept.
That we can have almost as many differing views on a topic as there are people seems obvious. Those multiple perspectives can collect under one assumption or category and then be shredded into many sub-views that contradict each other, a unique talent that makes us humans so damn difficult to understand. We struggle to understand ourselves, let alone each other. The human mind seems to have an inexhaustible capacity for complexity and confusion.
Having prepared the stage for my following discussion, I hope to offer a pathway for any of us embroiled in a debate about issues that will let us better understand our debate opponents' views and they of us. Complete understanding may never be possible, but what might be possible is calling for a truce on some topics and agree that our anger and fighting with each other may be worse than our concerns over the original issue that divides us.
OUR CORE BEING: by that term, I'm suggesting we have a kind of inner core, each one of us, that guides our thinking, behavior, and actions. It is not a physical object in our bodies, or is it? In my mind, I tend to think, most of the definable "us" resides in the brain. We sometimes talk about 'matters of the heart,' having or not having a heart, or having a hard or warm heart. Might the heart play a role in who we are and how we think? I can't rule it out, but I don't think it plays a big part in logic and determination.
We all start with more or less the same brain at birth. There may be slight differences based on genetics, but for the most part, we are born with a blank computer that has a few elemental fears built-in that is a holdover from our reptilian days. As an infant, the simple act of finding where our nose is, what our nose is, and what it feels like has to be learned by doing.
After we are born, and to some extent it appears while still in the womb, we start taking in information; we begin to learn.
At first, we are only learning sounds and experiencing smells, taste, and touch, and only those in little bits and pieces as we encounter the world around us. Our brains are a rapidly filling database of unconnected bits of data, a color, a sound, a spoken word that has no meaning yet. Things like the taste of ice cream are pleasurable, although we still do not connect that taste to the word if we've heard it. So much to learn in a relatively short time.
But the brain is more than a repository for a Britannica's worth of information. It is also a computer that uses logic and, rather than artificial intelligence, natural intelligence to sort through a few billion ideas and bits of information to formulate how we think and act as a person. This is the first stage of locating to what tribe we might belong.
Typically, for the first five years of our lives, the logical paths that will form in our brains are brought to us in two ways. We inherit something from our parents and ancestors; it's passed on to us in our DNA, and our surrounding family teaches us. With both parents working outside the home in our modern world, this changes as we warehouse children in daycare. Now, they are getting input from the parents in smaller doses, the people running the daycare, and other children at daycare.
Let me back up a step and explain my point. There are plenty of studies (and plenty of bullshit by people with something to sell) related to developing a child's brain from birth to around age eight. Here's the CDC's take on the topic. I'm neither qualified to discuss this in-depth or on a technical level. What I can offer is my belief in what I hope is everyday language.
The simple explanation is that anything that stimulates a baby's brain is likely to affect its development: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and of course, touch. If you had a baby's brain on an fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging device, you would be able to see areas of the brain light up under various stimuli. If you repeatedly play a certain kind of music, the paths in the brain will change. This is no different than any other muscle in the body. If you do frequent curls with weights, you will change the size and shape of your biceps and even the sensory paths that are part of consciously deciding to train with weights. You are training your brain to think and manage information. I hope that makes some sense.
Now, back to your tribe. As a captive in your home for the first five years, the music you hear, the food you eat, the colors you see on the walls and clothes of your family, the laughter, the anger, all of that is pouring into and shaping your brain and how you think and respond to the world around you.
When you leave home to go to school, you have this learning base to build on; it's your foundation. You will take in new ideas and information from your teachers, your textbooks, and your peers, all of whom have come from a different tribe. All of this will be layered on top of what you developed in the first five years. Your brain will now let this new information sift down. It will go through the filters that are in place from your essential learning stage. You might retain the new data or reject it. You might revise it through your filters, so it conforms to your tribe. You are modifying what you learned in the first five years.
Now, here's what I call the wild card. You have the DNA of your parents and their parents, and their parents. If your tribe is inherently curious, you may be fascinated by new information and will evaluate all this new information. If you're a fundamentalist tribe (not necessarily religious, but perhaps), you might be distrustful or resistant to new information. Whether you are curious or fundamental, there are varying degrees of that way of thinking ranging from one end of the spectrum to another; no two of us think exactly alike, even within tribes. But, and we have all experienced this, it is thrilling to meet someone new, and through discussions, you find you are very compatible in your thinking. That is often the basis of a new friendship.
All those experiences and sensations that helped your brain develop in the first ten to fifteen years of life are what make up your core being as an adult, what you believe, how you feel about the world around you, whether you're happy or depressive. It's all very complicated, more complicated than I can describe here, but I find it fascinating to ponder and identify my tribe.
This is simply a discussion. I'm not trying to convert you to anything but simply discuss something I probably understood, but that took on more meaning to me as a result of this experience. A line in the TV series Madam Secretary hit me like a bolt of lightning.
Gale and I had been binge-watching Madam Secretary on Netflix for a couple of weeks. We were in season five; there are six seasons and each season seems to have about 23 episodes; that's a shitload of episodes, 138 by my count.
The good news is that it is one of the best series we've seen. Any TV series that isn't simply a bunch of idiots falling in a vat of chocolate or trying to eat bugs without puking presents a challenge to keep the stories varied and interesting. A few that we think have hit the mark are The Wire, Shameless, Homicide On The Streets, West Wing, and now, Madam Secretary. I'm sure there are others, but my goal here is not to review TV series.
In the episode we were watching, the brother of Elizabeth, the main character, is Will. Will is an adventurer, and a bit of a rounder. His marriage is on the rocks because he's always off doing some stupid damn thing and his wife, who professes to still love him, is fed up with raising their child alone.
Will is living with his sister, Elizabeth and her husband, Henry, between adventures while trying to sort out his life. Elizabeth and Will's parents were killed in a car accident when Will was 13 and Elizabeth was 15. As Will is explaining why he has had so much trouble managing and maintaining relationships, he said something like, "I thought a relationship was simply about going out to dinner, working and paying the bills, and producing children. Hey, what the hell, I lost my role models when I was 13."
That line stopped me in my tracks and my brain went into blender mode and started processing that in terms of my life, and my relationships over time and especially my now 46-year marriage, and it was like some sort of release, or explosion, or, hell, I don't know what it was. All I know is that I had no parental role models as a child and Gale had some pretty lousy role models with her cold and distant parents.
I've talked about growing up in the Boys Home in Omaha in any number of posts and pieces, and that it was an okay childhood given that it was a little like growing up in a boarding school or military school. I've talked from time to time about having all the proper education, training, and moral guidance a kid could want. And, I've said what was missing in my upbringing was love. There was no love; no hugging at the Home. True, the adults who took on the job of trying to herd upwards of eighty boys must have been doing it for a good reason, or reasons, and maybe love was one of them. But that was not demonstrated love or anything you could model later in life. It was just a lot of well meaning adults trying to take care of a bunch of boys who were basically homeless. But, that line in Madam Secretary added another dimension to what I have said or tried to say about my childhood.
At other times, I've made reference to how a baby duck that has lost his mother will glom onto a dog or cat, bond with it and follow it around and adopting the behavior of its adopted parent. You see this in nature all the time. We humans are no different; children need a role model, or maybe several. Even a child from a broken marriage can have one parent there as a role model. If that parent starts dating again, even if they don't remarry, the children watch the interaction between the parent and a partner, or several partners over the years. They watch and they learn how to either enter into and nurse a relationship, or how to turn it into a disaster, but one way or another they are learning the people skills that will someday hopefully let them fulfill their part in the social contract of marriage.
At the next break we took during the series, I said to Gale, something like, "I'm amazed that we have made our relationship work as well as it has given that neither of us had decent or even any role models to draw on, to use as examples in a relationship. In my case they didn't exist and in her case they behaved more like roommates than husband and wife.
I guess I've always known the importance of children having role models, but it never quite hit home with me how my young life was almost devoid of those influences the way that line in the series spoke to me. I guess the most important role models for kids would be parents if they are lucky enough to have at least one in their lives.
We are born with instincts. Babies who have never fallen, are fearful of falling; that's instinct. They jump at a sudden loud noise, and wrinkle their noses at strange smells. We're born with those instincts, but just about everything else in life is learned through teachers, mentors, and role models.
It can also be other family members, an Aunt or Uncle, siblings, teachers and coaches, there are any number of people, usually adults, who can play a role in a child's life and give the child the life lessons they will need in order to coexist with other humans. Children spend a great deal of time in that first ten or fifteen years watching and listening to the adults around them in order to gain the people skills that will shape them later in life. We don't always accept what the role models offer us, but at least we have a choice after witnessing behavior.
There is nothing Gale or I can do about our childhoods, and we have both grown and developed many of the social skills needed in a relationship as adults through reading, study, and communication with others. Sometimes it is a friend at a bar describing something in one of their relationships that give you information. It can be a movie, although you have to be a little careful about accepting everything as fact that pops up on a screen.
I truly believe that there are synopses in the brain that are formed and connected when you are a child that help you to develop as a loving, caring, and compassionate adult. It's no guarantee - for all I know, Ted Bundy came from a loving family - but in general, that is how the young in any species develops into an adult. They watch and listen and learn from their parents and other adults.
Discussing life, politics, and philosophy in the language of the bar.