Have you ever wondered why monks choose solitude? Have you ever wondered why people go on retreat? Have you ever wondered why all the modern metrics related to diabetes, obesity and depression (among other ailments) are all trending upwards?
We’re told that you and only you hold the key to your health and wellbeing. If you learn to let go, you meditate, you exercise, eat well and think positive, all the problems will just go away. That it’s all just internal, in your mind, about your perspective. The environment and culture in which you reside is almost a secondary factor; a distant second at that, not worthy of serious consideration, if even mentioned at all.
So assuming culture refers to the ideas, customs and social behaviors of a particular people or society, are we supposed to believe that this has an insignificant influence on how we live our lives; including on our health and wellbeing?
Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ (2008) recalls an example of people from the Roseto Valfortore region of Italy migrating to the USA in 1882. They went about establishing an enclave for themselves in Pennsylvania and the health factors within the community were clear anomalies when comparable to any other segments within USA society. They hardly ever needed to see a doctor, no heart disease and the main cause of death was old age. This was not gene related, nor was it diet or exercise related; it was simple societal structures, reflecting the old 'paesani culture' of southern Italy.
Gladwell (2008) recounts:
“the secret of Roseto wasn't diet or exercise or genes or the region where Roseto was situated. It had to be the Roseto itself. As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they began to realise why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures…”
“In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills…”
So how is this relevant today and what does it mean for you? I would begin by asking if you have ever taken the time to consider the culture that you’re currently living in? What are the ideas, customs and social behaviours that are most valued and how do they actually impact you ... ?
It’s a difficult question, because we aren’t invoking the true self here, we are invoking the ‘ego’ self which is in-turn may be a product of the culture you live in in the first place. The ‘self’ of the narrative that is continuously perpetuated, which in a sense, then becomes the only truth we know. That is, we may not even know our ‘self’ beyond what we are made to believe about our ‘self’!?
But if we do take a closer look we can see that today we learn to mistake instant gratification and moments of pleasure with happiness, that is, the more pleasure we experience, the happier we are (e.g. do more things that make us happy). We believe that if we dream hard and long enough all our dreams will come true, we learn about the notion of ‘I’ , almost completely independently of the notion of ‘We’ , or ‘Us’ - as if that's even possible!?
When we look at the trends relating to health, poverty, depression – we need to also consider these as symptoms of our society and/or the culture (or non-culture) that our society perpetuates. Needless to say, we do have personal responsibility, but to think of this personal responsibility in isolation, as if living in a vacuum, is one sure way to ensure the status quo.