Finally America has a president who has some interesting ethnic roots. The ethnicity of the previous 43 presidents was either boringly similar or very well hidden. I was pleased and surprised to see that America could accept such non-conformity with tradition. For all the innovation and entreprenuership that thrives there, many of its traditions are as sacred as cows.
Notice the white shirts that CEOs, presidents and bankers wear. Notice the slavish devotion to quotodian fashion. Notice the big jewellery and firm lipstick of all Oprah wannabees. The rules that say that shorts are worn on beaches, female voices should be high-pitched for presentations and visiting cards validate the person.
Every nation has its own, no shame in it at all. They often define the stereotype, which, by definition does not mean everybody is like that. These are the characteristics that outsiders observe the most, either because these traits are so common within a group, or because they are so different from other groups.
What I find interesting here is the possibility that these patterns are so ingrained in us that in our unpretentious moments or in times of crisis,when we react by reflex, then these will determine our responses. An urban myth that I heard from an army officer – under torture, a person always calls out in their mother tongue. Another saying – you will turn into your mother (if you are a girl) and your father (if you are a boy). The behaviour patterns that you observed were absorbed by you and are a natural response to familiar stimulus, whatever role you are performing at that time. Here is another one – you always marry a person who is like your parent, or somebody who will turn into them. (I did! or at least, I thought I did not, but he did turn into my dad!) There is no significant data to support hypotheses like these above, though many of us continue to believe them.
Our roots often define who we are, both due to nature and nurture. Our genetics, our received behaviour patterns, our values and beliefs determine most of our behaviour in life. Our decisions are often based on misty memories of what happened before – often regardless of whether it worked well or not, often regardless of changing circumstances. It seems natural to do things in a particular way, call it a habit or call it a tradition. Conversely, it seems wrong to do things differently, it just feels unnatural.
Some of these patterns may be useful for us. For example, some traditions such as festivals bind a family and community together, especially if done in exactly the same way each time. They create patterns that resonate with emotions from yesteryear and acquire deeper meaning and comfort. Other patterns that helped us successfully manage stress before a big exam or match are very useful. Other patterns are not very helpful – say, a smoking habit is definitely damaging. A pattern that causes us to react with anger each time something we expect and want is not achieved is not very useful. A pattern that leads us to lower our self esteem each time we face failure is quite dangerous, especially if we tend to repeat it.
Are we condemned to repeat the patterns that we inherit? Must we continue to do things the same way? Easy to say no to traditions – and outward signs of patterns. Even Obama managed to underplay his middle name during the election. Of course we can have blue lights instead of yellow this festival season. Of course, you can stop covering your head and walk with your head held high – though this one must necessarily be tougher than the lights. Why? Because the lights merely affect memory and surface emotions. The covering of the head went deeper than that and was linked to values and beliefs.
The ones that are slightly tougher to change are the beliefs that we build for ourselves that often damage us in the long run. Beliefs like: ‘when I have too much work to do, I get stressed and smoke.’ Or a belief like,’I am no good at sports’, or ‘I’m not lucky at all’. These beliefs are debilitating. They create barriers and hurdles to success. They must be kicked out. But can they?
It always boils down to choice. You have to recognise that every action of yours represents a concious choice that you make. When you cross the road to go towards your office, you are making a choice. A good choice – to be a productive member of your community. When you let your boss get you down, you are making another choice – a bad one this time – of ceding emotional control to another person. Awareness of this freedom of choice in behaviour patterns is your first step to change.
The steps after this one follow in quick progression. What is good for me? Does it help me achieve my goals? Does it make me happy? Does it validate or conflict with my chosen values and beliefs? Will I look back on this with pride? Soon these questions become part of your daily habit, and soon each decision each behaviour will lead you on to freedom and success.