Friday, September 6, 2013

Personal Culture

Culture is more than beliefs, practices, and values. Culture has commonly been defined as the worldview, lifestyle, learned, and shared beliefs and values, knowledge, symbols, and rules that guide behaviour and create shared meanings within a group of people.

— F.E. Racher & R.C. Annis, Respecting culture and honoring diversity in community practice. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice 21

This past year, I've been thinking a lot about how I define myself: what's important to me? What values do I hold dear? What traditions make me cringe? And how do I feel about myself when I choose to diverge from the choices around me?

It's complicated stuff, yo! And just to make things more bananas, there are personal cultures, family cultures, religious cultures, and professional cultures, each with its own set of values, symbols and worldviews. For example, when I was growing up, my family culture was semi-nomadic: we moved from city to city every few years. As a result, I looked with suspicion on people who had spent their whole lives in one town — in one house, even! — because it was just not how things were done in my house. Even smaller family practices have influenced me: sitting down to dinner together is important, as is mixing a can of tuna into a box of Kraft Dinner. But to other people, that's crazytalk.

It's important to identify the things that are important about your own personal culture, I think. For example, my boyfriend loves all things horror-related. Horror movies, bands who use Dias de los Muertos imagery, action figures wielding knives, and jump-scare video games. And when I ask him why, he tells me that fear is cathartic and he likes being scared. Now, to me, fear is something to be avoided, and cathartic feelings spring from heartfelt emails to long-lost friends. Different personal cultures makes for different responses to common emotions. There's no real right answer; I leave him alone when he's watching C.H.U.D-centric movies, and he listens to my nervous self-talks before I hit the reply button.

When I moved into a housing co-op, I felt like I had found a culture that really spoke to me. Here was a housing situation that let me have a say — I sat on the board of directors for four years, which set  the co-op's direction on issues like rent, community spirit, and food — but it also exposed me to a huge range of people I otherwise would never have met. There was a DIY spirit to the place (the stove is filthy? Clean it! And then go talk to the bum who dirtied it in the first place!) that fed me. I'm not saying it's all sunshine and roses. For instance, most people get to choose their roommates, which wasn't my experience, and interpersonal conflict ran rampant. But there was a ramshackle loveliness that colours my memories of the place and my time there.

When I left the co-op, I moved in with my boyfriend. I encountered a bit of culture shock. He's lovely, and his friends are lovely, but they're kind of different from my hippie love tribe. Hell, even my own friends are changing, even if they're originally from the hippie love tribe. Many of them are married, for instance. Some of them own their own homes. Families are getting started. And without the comforting struts of my co-op lifestyle, I was left wondering, is that what I should be doing too?

I don't have an answer. I want to get married someday. I want to have kids. But today? Not today. As the culture around me changes, I have to wonder if I'm capable of figuring out who I am, and where I fit. The values and lifestyles of my friends are shifting — I'm making new friends, and my old friends are making Big Life Changes — and I've never done the work of sitting down to figure out which parts of their culture appeals to me, and what I want to hang onto from my younger, wilder, less traditional days.

It's funny to think of a bunch of strangers together in a house as having any particular form of "culture," but that's what we made for ourselves to bind us together. There were family breakfasts on Sunday mornings, communal meals for sixty people, shared laundry, and drunken spin-the-bottle. These are things I missed when I moved away. Furthermore, they're things I'd love to give back to my friends and family someday (especially those makeout sessions....wink!)

I was kind of hoping that this thought process would happen on a subliminal level, but I don't think things really work like that. Cultures are not preserved by ignoring them. I think people need to choose to hang onto the useful parts of their pasts, and be selective about what parts of the evolving personal cultures around them we choose to adopt. I'd love to live in a co-housing development, for example, even if some of my friend would die before sharing an oven with anyone else. Some of my friends will choose to remain childless, while I definitely want to have a family. And there are personal choices — raising a paleo kid? renting v. owning? long hair v. "mom hair"? therapy v. drinking my emotions? — that we'll encounter only in the future. It's all a part of it.

Over the next while, I'd like to set down a vision of my life: things from my past I want to preserve, and new ideas I want to explore. Nothing too intense: it'll be less of a five-year plan, more of a dream board. The best thing about this process will be that it's happening at all. Paying attention to how I live is part of my personal culture is something that I definitely plan on hanging onto.

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