“This is a bunch of pie-in-the-sky hogwash, get real young lady!”
“Live in the real world.”
What do we mean when we say, ‘get real’? Are we talking about being more alive, as in Pinocchio becoming a ‘real’ boy? About actually being what we otherwise only symbolically represent? Not really, eh? When we, as English speakers in the U.S. say, ‘get real’, we mean, ‘get with the program’, ‘stop trying to buck the system’, ‘accept what this culture teaches and those with power and authority want you to believe’. A culture is a set of beliefs and practices that shape how we live our lives. It shapes what we believe to be true, how we believe the world works, who we think we are, and how we interact with each other. Each human alive enacts their culture with their every thought, every day.
I use the term Dominant Culture to not only mean ‘the culture that is dominant among the diverse cultures in the U.S.’, but also to mean ‘the culture that is becoming dominant among the diverse cultures around the globe.’ One of the central features of this culture is the imperative to dominate—to prove who is stronger and thus more ‘fit’ to rule; who is economically (and militarily and morally) superior; to take before it is taken from us. So this is a dominating culture that is making a fair bid to dominate the globe.
In his book, Ishmael, Daniel Quinn shares many insights about the ways this Dominant Culture unconsciously controls how we see the world and act according to unconsciously programmed scripts. He elucidates many of these programmed beliefs and behaviors (although he misses a glaring one), summarized in these quotes: “The world was made for man to conquer and rule, and under human rule it was meant to become a paradise.” But, “tragically he was born flawed. And so his paradise has always been spoiled by stupidity, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness.”
I see these unconscious processes in operation, not only in what the evening news emphasizes and dwells on, but in the environmental movement’s emphasis on what we’re doing wrong—how humans are screwing up—and how difficult it is for us to talk about or even imagine how things could go right. We don’t like pain, but we’re taught to find pleasure suspect. Even the phrase, ‘the pursuit of pleasure’, conjures visions of brothels and drug overdoses. Part of that, I believe, is because whether we were raised to be religious or not, Dominant Cultures religious foundations affect how we were raised (because, whether our parents were raised religiously or not, their parents or their parents parents were—it was once compulsory, with those refusing to conform to the dominant religion persecuted as heretics or ex-communicated). The way our schools are run and every children’s book or TV program conveys unconscious cultural messages. We are not taught to pursue pleasure because that’s part of our tragic flaw: we are inherently corrupt, ‘of the devil’, and in need of ‘saving’ by rational, moral, cultured teachers and parental figures. We believe that children must be dominated or they would ‘run wild’ and be ‘spoiled’ by their brutish, selfish, base instincts, and we have many examples of insufficiently dominated (ie. ‘disciplined’) children to confirm our belief.
There are many cultures on this planet, with an amazing variety of ways to understand the Universe and our place in it. One aspect of these diverse human cultures is central to the discussion here. Many human cultures are egalitarian and based on the essential equality and dignity of each member from the smallest to the eldest. Others, like ours, incorporate the fundamental concept of hierarchy in almost every aspect of their social relations, with everyone believing it is natural and ‘right’ for adults to dominate and control the young; bosses to dominate and control workers; governments to dominate and control the public; etc. We believe that there would be chaos without domination and control. Perhaps there would be—the evening news certainly confirms that idea—but we will never know, since our earliest experiences are of being told, “don’t!”, if only to protect us from harm.
There are many ways to differentiate the egalitarian societies from the hierarchical. Some would use the concept of a ‘democratic’ society to encompass egalitarian cultures—but this would not be accurate. True egalitarianism might be an ideal of democratic societies, but one that most contemporary democracies fall far short of. To be truly egalitarian, there would be no social or economic differences, no ‘rich’ or ‘poor’; and no differences in what people are paid for the same effort (let alone the same exact job!). Hard to imagine how such a society could work, right? That’s because the concept of hierarchy is embedded deeply in our psyches.
The culture we live in—the one that taught us to understand the world at least since birth—is one based on hierarchy. Among the unconscious beliefs that we were taught is that almost everything comes as conflicting opposites that can be ranked as: better or worse, good or bad, light or dark, superior or inferior, etc. So it’s better to be rich/worse to be poor. It’s good to be happy/bad to be sad. Being strong makes you superior/being weak makes you inferior. Many have pointed out that in almost all cultures based on hierarchy males dominate females. These cultures can be described as “male-dominated”. This can raise some confusion in us, though, because almost all of us were dominated by a mother, who is female, when we were children, and our first and often most potent resentment is for this dominating female, so calling the culture male-dominated, or ‘patriarchal’, seems a cruel irony to that small, wounded child within us.
Some contemporary thinkers, however, see some of the origins of the cultural imperative to separate the world into hierarchies and distinguish between opposites to, in our culture, arise from a unique aspect of our psychological development. In egalitarian cultures, men teach boys to honor mothers—and children—as the central good of the culture. Boys are taught to find meaning and value in their lives through generosity and heroism centered around mothers and mothering. In this culture, however, boys who overvalue a connection with their mothers are called ‘momma’s boys’ and treated with derision and shame.
In her book, Body Metaphors: Releasing God-Feminine in Us All, Genia Pauli Haddon shares insights about the experiences of boys, “As his earliest step in answering the question ‘Who am I?’ was an awareness that he was different from his mother, so again and again he defines who he is by contrasting himself with a woman. She is experienced as fascinating and desirable insofar as he yearns for those unavailable qualities; or as dangerous, reprehensible, disgusting, or demeaned insofar as he devalues and rejects them. In either case, he is disowning a part of himself by experiencing it only as lived by women around him.”
“Patriarchal patterns reflect at the social and cultural level the experience of the individual male, for whom the question ‘Who am I?’ is first answered with the awareness ‘I am different than the mother who gave me birth.’ To assert that difference entails a struggle to overcome the original state of oneness with the maternal source. For the female, this crisis of differentiation is less relevant, for her identity is rooted in awareness of likeness to her source.
“The patriarchal story is that humankind develops contrary to nature. Whereas nature delivers each new generation from maternal wombs, in patriarchy this natural identity is superseded by paternal lineage, legally defined and recorded. This development entails the separating of mankind from nature, of the son form the mother, of ego from unconscious, of the sacred from the profane. In this view, human maturity is earned by slaying the dragon and winning one’s independence. Both socially and intrapsychically, differentiation is the theme. To differentiate is to distinguish one from another. The subject-object split is the most fundamental differentiation, wherein the ‘I’ knows itself to be radically distinct from all other objects.’
“Patriarchally toned consciousness is founded on the differentiation of pairs of opposites, such as masculine and feminine, life and death, mind and body, heights and depths, good and bad, heaven and earth, light and dark, God and Satan. Both internally and at large, the opposites typically are experience as in conflict, requiring either-or choices. Competition, with the eventual assertion of dominance of one over the other, is the pattern. Thus God triumphs over Satan, light overcomes darkness, heaven is superior to earth, mind over matter, and so forth. Accordingly, it is through competitive endeavor that both persons and states develop their sense of individual identity. Superior worth and power are the basis of asserting one’s identity in contradiction to an ‘other,’ whose primary value then lies in being that ‘other’ against whom the victor contrasts, measures, and thus knows himself.
“Within patriarchy, it is inevitable and correct that masculine triumphs over feminine. (In fact, humankind is identified as mankind.) Lordship and dominion of mankind is the order of the day. Power means power over. Thus, mankind ‘masters’ the forces of nature; the individual man gains mastery over his own instinctual life or his own fate. Both society and the natural order are envisioned hierarchically. Humans are deemed superior to other life forms. One sex is subordinated to the other. One race or nation is superior or subordinate to another. Subordinate groups and individuals are essential to this way of life, literally just as important as their superiors, for they hold down one end of that necessary polarity. Territoriality and ownership of objects, animals, or other humans naturally follows.”
When viewed in this light, it becomes obvious why genuine equality and egalitarianism has eluded contemporary democracies and democratic societies: with no ‘other’ to vanquish, males in Dominant Culture have no way to prove who they are—without a shadow to differentiate themselves from, they cannot see themselves. Not all cultures teach their boys and men to focus on their separateness, their distinctness. Kay Cordell Whitaker describes the teachings of one such culture in her book, Sacred Link. Whitaker describes teachings given her by an elderly couple from South American. They describe the ways in which men teach boys to honor mothers and mothering, and to devote their lives to proving their worthiness of the goodness life gives us all.
In her book, The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff depicts a similar culture that does not have the unconscious belief that children need to be coerced into being human or humane. In that culture with truly egalitarian cultural beliefs, children are never disciplined—or even opposed. Children are trusted—and expected—to be social and to be ‘good’. Children in that society, from the youngest age through adolescence, are considerate, polite and eager to help. They don’t need to be made these things or forced to learn them, they just are them, as if by nature. Jean Liedloff believes that it is by nature—that the culture she observed simply gets out of the way and works more harmoniously with our true nature as humans. This chapter will elaborate on that idea.
I mention it here to simply point out that the cultural beliefs pointed out by Quinn are only one among many possible ways to view humans and the world we find ourselves in. Dominant Culture is only one kind of human culture and there are many others. Each belief that Dominant Culture teaches us to unconsciously believe was once chosen—consciously or unconsciously—and passed down through the generations because someone thought that would be a good idea, if only because they thought it reflected what was ‘really’ true.
We use the phrase ‘get real’ to mean ‘don’t question Dominant Culture beliefs’ because those beliefs are thought to reflect the ‘real’ world. But, as we have seen, not all cultures share those beliefs or believe them to be an accurate reflection of ‘reality’.
One of the benefits I’ve found in studying other languages—even other European languages—is that each language describes reality in a slightly different way. Beyond,’100 words for snow’ or even, ‘28 different kinds of love’, each language has a slightly different way of explaining and experiencing the world. For example, no two languages use prepositions in exactly the same way. Where we might say “on” another language might say “in” or “above”. Such differences might seem trivial, and if one is learning a language by translating everything in to their original language and simply memorizing much of this subtlety might be missed, but these differences in how the world is described reflect different perspectives about what is “real” and what the nature of reality itself is. Irish Gaelic has two different verbs where English would use the single “to be” (is, are, was, were, etc.). Learning to speak the Irish language creates new relationships in one’s head about existence itself—about how and what it is to ‘be’. Other languages have no real words that refer just to objects themselves—only action-object combinations, such that to speak them, is to relate to the world as ‘objects in motion’, never still. Other languages embed information about how the speaker knows what they are sharing within the sentence or words themselves. There are myriad other ways to describe and construct what we experience as ‘reality’ differently—a slightly different way for each different language.
When viewing an object, we understand it better by looking at it from all sides or perspectives. Different languages—and cultures—allow us to look at the Universe or reality itself from different vantages, highlighting the limitations of our original culture or view.
Once we’ve had the experience of seeing some aspect of what we unconsciously believed was ‘just the way the world worked’ or ‘reality’ from a different cultural perspective, we begin to realize the ways in which our unconscious assumptions are just one way to understand the world. How ‘get real’ reflects only one of many possible ways to understand ‘reality’.
And what does ‘get real’ mean? Accept the way things work, get a job, pay your bills, and stop trying to live in a dream world. We used to believe the world was flat, now we know that it is a globe. Humans have circumnavigated that globe and now trade flows freely in all directions around that sphere, whirling through the heavens. We have reached the Ends of the Earth and, far from falling off, have met ourselves coming round the other way. In many ways, however, we still unconsciously believe that the world is an infinite plain and that human exploration of it will go on forever. What does it mean, for example, to speak of ‘throwing out’ the trash? Where is the ‘out’ we throw it to? It is as if we imagine we can throw it off the edge of the earth, never to be seen again. But in reality (real reality) we live in a closed sphere: there is no ‘out’ to thrown anything in! When we ‘throw out’ our trash, we’re really throwing it into someone (or something) else’s backyard. We used to throw our trash into the literal backyards of the communities of humans with less social power—those of the poor, of those racially segregated, or disenfranchised. It used to be routine to locate dumps on lands reserved for Native American peoples (ie. Reservations). We may no longer consider it fair to dump our trash in other human communities but what of the plant and animals who used to live where we now make landfills? There is no place in this earthly sphere that isn’t home to someone or some community of plants and animals—if only microscopic ones. There is no ‘out’ to throw anything—only somewhere else that life uses to add to the vibrancy and abundance of the process of life itself. The very concept of throwing out the trash is like Flat-Earth Thinking, a hold over from when we thought there was limitless space and endless possibilities.
A similar example, is our unconscious expectation that because we are now bathed in abundant oil, we will always be so fortunate. But the oil we use is mined from deposits of masses of plants that became buried deep within the earth millinnea ago. When those deposits run out, the oil will be gone. The buried oil is like a giant storehouse of captured sunlight—like a savings account or battery. Many experts believe that we have already past peak production of oil and that oil production can only fall from here—while our rate of consumption is still accelerating. Just like when we eat the seed corn, when we mine that oil, we make a withdrawal from that savings bank and, with no way to make a deposit, we’re consuming our savings at an alarming rate.
Part of why this juggernaut seems unstoppable is because our economic system is based on the need for continual growth. Capitalism (and Communism, for that matter) depends on a continual expansion of markets in order to keep profits and a return on investment flowing to shareholders. The need for perpetual growth is built into the system. When a human fails to stop growing, we recognize them as having the condition called ‘human giantism’. This condition occurs when a tumor on the pituitary gland causes the overproduction of the hormones that tell our body to grow, and keeps the level of growth appropriate to childhood going past when it would normally slow and stop. Those with human giantism continue to grow taller and taller throughout their lives. This may sound fine, but growing beyond what our bodies are designed to be, is not only painful, but leads to an early death. Unless treated, those with human giantism don’t live past their early thirties. Living systems exist within a living environmental matrix and are designed to work within that frame. Basing an economic system on endless growth is, like human giantism, condemning it to an early death. It’s Flat-Earth Thinking, as if the world would continue to expand as our economic system requires it to.
We actually say, “money doesn’t grow on trees.” What’s a dollar bill made of? What’s it printed on? Where does paper come from? And, if you think about it, what does grow on trees? I’m thinking about peaches, and hazelnuts, and apples. If your child was hungry, which would you rather hand them, a dollar bill or a ripe, juicy peach? Which has real value?
In fact, every bit of energy in every bite we eat started out in a green leaf—green plants are the only things on Earth able to literally capture bits that radiate from the sun in every direction. That is where the true economy of this planet begins. Those bits of the sun—actual particles of light—that fall on a green leaf are turned into biochemicals that store energy, like little batteries. We call these little bio-batteries ‘sugar’. Every bit of sugar, starch, fat and protein in you body began at least part of its existence as a molecule of sugar made in the green part of a plant. Plants concentrate the bio-batteries they produce into starches and fats. The soil supporting a healthy plant community is teeming with living communities of microbes that break down rock into minerals that other living things can use. Plants use the energy in the bio-batteries they produce to take up these minerals and other substances to form the proteins that make all the structures living things are built of. Herbivores eat these living life-makers and use the bio-batteries and structures to make their own living bodies. Carnivores eat herbivores and so it goes. Every bit of substance you are made of came from minerals freed from rock by bacteria and taken up by the body of a plant. And every tiny “umph” of energy that powered all this came from a tiny piece of the sun that broke off, fell on a green leaf, and was transformed into sugar that became the sugar, starch, fat or protein that made up the food you eat. We are made of sunlight and rocks—processed by the living soil and the leaves of plants into the substance and energy that is the ground and energy of our being.
Without the vibrant, diverse living communities in which soil bacteria, plants and animals thrive, there will be no humans. For every breath you take, you have a plant to thank. Plants breathe out what animals need to breathe in—and vice versa. Each breath you breathe out, is part of what we give back to plants for our very lives. This is the actual reality of our being. We are embedded in a living matrix that enables and sustains our very being. We’ve reached the Ends of the Earth—there’s no more ‘out there’ to explore or conquer—only someone else’s backyard to invade. And we’re converting the stuff of life (what science calls ‘biomass’—the total weight of living things in an ecosystem) into humans at an alarming rate.
But as we shall see in Chapter Three, Dominant Culture is, in many ways, in denial about the limits of the living world that sustains us, and about its impact on those living systems, which are being destroyed at an accelerating rate. Seen that way, Dominant Culture is the most unsustainable fantasy imaginable: that we can continue unlimited industrial and economic growth forever in a finite sphere. We’ve reached the ends of the Earth—we’ve circumnavigated the globe—to think we can keep expanding and growing forever is one of the most ludicrous, fantastic ideas imaginable. Yet it’s a fundamental expectation of those who tell us to ‘get real’. I suggest that we might consider getting really real. That we consider the world we live in, that we depend for our very breath and life, when we think about ‘reality’. The reality is: humans are not separate from this world, let alone superior to it. That while our heads are important, so are our hearts, and lungs, and stomachs. Let’s begin to realize that what we’ve been taught and what we believe unconsciously about the nature of reality, and of our own human nature, is just one way of looking at things, and that Dominant Cultural beliefs contain many errors. As humans, we have a marvelous gift from Creator (or creation/nature) in that we have the ability to be conscious. We can bring our unconscious beliefs into the light of day and choose new, more accurate beliefs consciously. We can get over trying to ‘get real’ and learn to get really real: to take a more healthy place in the larger cosmos by learning to face the reality of who and what we are, and the true nature of the world we find ourselves in.