I live in the Capital of the Confederacy in an area thatś divided into groups. There are gated habitations for the rich, middle-class and poor. There are also “faith-based groups” for Baptist, Mormon, Jehovah Witness and so forth. Most of these groups are segregated into Black, White or hybrid-color. Each group is sealed from the other; there’s no interflow of communication.  To survive in this Twilight Zone, you have to belong to a Group. And you can only belong if you conform.

That’s been the curse of my life.

I grew up in the 1970s to Hassidic Jews who fled the Holocaust to England and who determined that the whole world sought to kill them. In turn, they formed their own schools, adopted the garb of Ukranian peasants, spoke Yiddish and huddled in ghettos with their own stores and services. By age 16, I had not gone on a bus alone. I was disallowed libraries, secular music, movies, radio, theatres, newspapers, magazines and the like. My purpose, I was taught, was to endlessly procreate to make up for Hitler’s misadventures. My brain, one principal told me, was the devilś temptation. I prayed to be ̈normäl”.

My life in the Attic

When I was 17, I was sequestered in my grandmother’s attic for nine months on one of the occasions I fled my home. It was there, I’d climb on the La-Z-Boy  and leaning out the window, watching the passersby small as ants below.

There were girls with blond hair and blazers, navy-blue skirts, tennis rackets over shoulders. They came from the building on Main Road with the cross over its portal. There were others wearing flimsy head-shawls, skirts over pants, they were brown-skinned. And then there was “our” group – stocky women pushing strollers with five or more children, wearing shawls or wigs and black-hatted, black-coated men always hurrying, looking straight ahead.

I thought:

Those with the crosses and those with the shawls, they’re programmed their whole lives to believe in something. They’re like eggs crammed in their own sealed egg boxes. And inside each egg box, each of these eggs become the same. They marry the same people, bring up their kids the same way, have the same jobs, eat the same food, dress the same.

How can they know their groups teaching them the truth? How can I know my group’s teaching me the truth?

In the egg box

Over the years, I found means to teach myself and later acquired degrees in subjects like general semantics, sociology, anthropology, psycho-anthropology, comparative religions, modern mathematics. Squirming through back doors, I got degrees in the liberal arts,  philosophy, advanced logic and behavioral neuroscience/ scientific research. In time, I revised my original question. It was no longer how could I know what I was taught was true. Rather, how could I know what I was taught was good for me.

I called that idea “social pollution”.

You see, each of us is Nature, like the pine trees in the Tuckahoe woods in front of me. According to the Laws of Nature, we can become healthy, shoot to the skies and bloom the soil with our pollen. Or we can shrivel and die.

Plants need wholesome nutrients to flourish. Humans in their egg boxes absorb the fertilizers of their environments too. With time, maybe we can choose our groups, but we can’t choose the culture, lifestyle and environment we ́re born in, nor the messages our parents, teachers, heads of those egg cartons fertilize our eggs within those formative years.

On top of that, those fertilizers literally shape our brains hard-wiring our minds to books, music, food etc. we’re used to and   religious, political or cultural/ lifestyle symbols alien to us. So we are as we think; and we think as we’re conditioned. Can we break free to the mental state of the second before we were born to clear-sightedly construct our own destinies. And if so how?

That enigma’s riddled my life.

 

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This man says an alien hacked your brain

Not too long ago, technology entrepreneur  Elon Musk insisted colonies of aliens hacked our minds so distorted our realities. Say that were true – how could I break free from that imposed simulation?

Well:

  1. If an alien hacked my brain, it’s hacked. Nothing I could do could fix that.
  2. All I have left is the way I see the world.
  3. I’m in my own bubble that’s streaming content into me all the time.
  4. All I can do is see whether those streamed bytes help me stretch my potential.

Put another way and connecting it to Group socialization, I’m like PacMan programmed by deep machine reinforcements to “think” therefore behave in a certain way. I can’t see out of my simulated grid nor can I choose not to be programmed.

So the best I can do?

Hmph… I can… look at those different positive and negative reinforcements.. and see whether they make me grow.

Groups messages

You’ll uncover those messages when looking at its memes or norms, like the current slang of that culture, and its “celebrities ̈, “popular” films, TV shows, sports, advertisements, ways it spends its money etc. All of this is called its “lifestyle”. You’ll also find it in a group’s “trending” fashions, “recommended” education, current self-help books, popular psychology, “successful” careers and so forth. These are the prescriptions that are “in” – for the moment. They’re what makes you “normal”, “cool”, or an “insider” as well as “one of them”.  (Anything else is “weird”, “abnormal”, “freaky” and the like.)

Examples:

Consider the terms “attractive” and “cool” . They come with their own nuances, don’t they? Now why’s Kim Kardashian a “celebrity” not Neil deGrasse Tyson? Never heard of him? He’s one of  America’s smartest astrophysicists. (Doesn’t that tell us the kind of people America “celebrates”?)  And why are Business Studies one of America’s most popular majors while Philosophy is least? (Philosophy used to be highest in an earlier century and is far more popular in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; Business degrees became hot in America only in the late 1970s).

So, in short, looking head-on at these different messages that imply what our Group/ Alien wants us to “Like” or “Dislike”  is the first step.

The next step is asking whether that fertilizing prescription is good for us.

For example:

Does watching that movie enhance my potential? Does adopting that celebrity as a model make me a better person? Does choosing that “successful” job – successful as considered by my group –  make me better the world?

Is this easy to do?

No way. It’s like trying to  be self-aware of what you’re doing while you’re running around, catching that bus, making that deadline, living your life. You’re PacMan on the move who needs to belong to a group to be happy. So those two things at least – the need to conform and your treadmill life – make it difficult  to see those Group bytes (of how to live or not live your life) objectively.

How can I deprogram myself?

Some of my tried-and-true deprogramming hacks are the following:

  1. Watching an objective movie of your group so you see it as an anthropologist or outsider does.
  2. Reading a book or objective articles that describe your group and its practices from an outsider perspective
  3. Reading about/ watching/ seeing photographs of other cultures and their practices. The contrast brings out the norms and values of your own.
  4. Reading a history of your group. It’s changed through time. There’s the contrast that brings out your group’s current internalizations, as well as its reasons for those. (A documentary history is best).
  5. If you’re a religious group, studying your core text (e.g., the Bible) literally and looking for the contrast between your group practices and its core text.

Group-Group or Self-Group

We can either become Group-Group or Self-Group. In Group-Group, we’re merged into a group, indoctrinated with its values from earliest on. Some of those values, or messages, nourish us; others harm us. In fact, we can live our life according to messages that make us think we’ve been successful or holy; had we been objective we’d have seen they’ve wasted our one and only life.

By contrast, in Self-Group, we live in our groups while forming our own destinies, objectively sifting group messages and choosing those that help us grow.

Our tool is to become cognizant of the lifestyle and value system of our group that regularly streams past and through us without our noticing. We do this by becoming more aware of the group’s external symbols of its choices, interests and behavior. When relevant, we check these symbols to see whether each helps us reach our potential.

After all, what’s the alternative?

We can either vanish into group and possibly harming ourselves. Or we can select the nutrients to grow into an evergreen oak that, nourishing the soil, still rises to the sky after hundreds of years.

It’s your choice.