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The Influences We Aren't Aware Of
If asked, would you know what controls you? You, primarily. Dig a little deeper and you will come up with more: Your responsibilities. Your job or your school. The government. Your parents, if you are underage. But what controls you that you don’t ordinarily think about? What do you not know is controlling you? Frederick Buechner, a famed writer and theologian, said, “The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.” We’ll never know how far our actions go, even the smallest ones: nor will we ever know who is controlling us and our actions. Of course, as we are human, we have free choice and can do whatever we please. However, we will never really know exactly what is influencing our actions, beliefs, choices, or decisions. But we can gain some insight, and books such as To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, movies like The Truman Show, and numerous others, can help us on that journey.
Think about the ways you live your life, the ways you do things. What influences them? You learn from not only your mistakes, but from other people’s. Eleanor Roosevelt said to “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Even as young kids, we are always watching, analyzing, learning. Our childhoods, specifically the actions of those who raised us and our environments, play a large part in who we are as people. Although parents tend to have a certain amount of infallibility in their young children’s eyes, their experiences stick with them- through their pre-teen and teenage years, where the opposite is often true, then finally formulating in their young- to mid- adult lives, where they tend to balance out for their own parenting techniques (assuming they, too, have children). To a certain extent, even if grandparents are dead, live far away, or have an uncomfortable relationship with the parents, they have an effect on the children.
When looked into, there are sometimes ‘flip-flopping’ chains through the generations: parents’ over- and under- compensating for things their parents did. For example, let’s take a family- for these purposes; let’s make it a supposed American ‘nuclear’ family-although that definition is often disputed. Choose any issue- let’s say personal appearance: clothing, hair, etc. Maybe the mother wants all her kids to match, never lets them get dirty, and never lets them choose for themselves. The daughter grows up stifled, rebels as she gets older, and when she has her own kids, decides to let them wear whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want. Her kids, after they’ve grown up, look at pictures of themselves when they were younger and decide they looked awful, resolving to never let their own children choose what they want.
Thankfully, this is an extreme- parenting is a moment-to-moment experience and can never be completely planned for. Also, intentions and strong feelings tend to dilute over the years, and because many people are raised with two parents, at least in their early years, (although the percentage is declining), those kids’ feelings are combined with another whole persons’. Depending on the level of importance, it may not even be an issue by the next generation. But you knew that. We aren’t all walking around with all that emotional baggage, and those who are- well, good luck to their children! Another factor is the fact that as humans, we want to make the world a better place… right? Many parents try to give their children the things they didn’t have; trying to stay rational and smart, instead of acting off of the psychological baggage that they do have. However, there are so many cases where this isn’t true, it brings up a deeper question than I’m going to go into now. Are we, as humans, inherently good or bad? Are our true intentions to make others have better lives, or worse? How does each of us change the world, and how much are we not aware of?
Another topic, probably the most prominent of all controls we don’t know about that stem from our childhoods is our prejudices. Although in the past decade America has gone seemingly diversity-crazy, there are, of course, still prejudices. Harvard University came out with a study a few years ago, the appropriately titled Project Implicit®. The study, and it’s correlating test (the IAT, or Implicit Association Test) claims to find hidden prejudices of race, age, gender, self-esteem, and mathematics vs. art. It has you sort positive words- like happy, joy, or glorious, and negative words- like awful, disaster, or disappointment. One kind of word goes on one side, the other on the opposite. Then, it integrates those words with pictures- just say of women and men. It tells you to put one group with the other- men with negative words and women with positive, as fast as you can, then switches it. The (hotly disputed in the psychology community) theory is that if you harbor any kind of a prejudice against one group or the other, it will take you a few extra seconds for your brain to process putting pictures of them with the opposite ‘kind’ of words. (i.e., if you had a slight prejudice against men, it would take you that much longer to put the male pictures with the positive words like ‘happiness’, ‘harmony’, and ‘freedom’.) They say this test comes extremely close to revealing true feelings. However, do our instinctual feelings really matter? In a country so focused on equality, does it matter if your gut tells you Hispanics are ‘bad’-because you grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community where they were looked down on- if your mind knows they’re equal, and just as American and human as you are? If you can control yourself enough to ignore your hidden feelings and act appropriately, because you know they have no real merit; eventually your initial reactions will come around. And if you can’t control yourself…well, you’re probably not taking this test.
There is a quote in the Oscar-winning 2008 movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that gives new meaning to not knowing what’s controlling us. (For those of you who haven’t seen it, Daisy is Benjamin’s girlfriend)
…A woman in Paris was on her way to go shopping, but she had forgotten her coat - went back to get it. When she had gotten her coat, the phone had rung, so she'd stopped to answer it; talked for a couple of minutes. While the woman was on the phone, Daisy was rehearsing for a performance at the Paris Opera House. And while she was rehearsing, the woman, off the phone…had gone outside to get a taxi. Now a taxi driver had dropped off a fare earlier and had stopped to get a cup of coffee. And all the while, Daisy was rehearsing. And this cab driver, who dropped off the earlier fare; who'd stopped to get the cup of coffee, had picked up the lady who was going to shopping…The taxi [stopped] for a man crossing the street, who had left for work five minutes later [because] he forgot to set off his alarm. While that man, late for work, was crossing the street, Daisy was done rehearsing and in the shower…the taxi was waiting outside a boutique for the woman to pick up a package, which hadn't been wrapped yet, because the girl who was supposed to wrap it had broken up with her boyfriend the night before, and forgot. When the package was wrapped, the woman…back in the cab, was blocked by a delivery truck… while Daisy was getting dressed. The delivery truck pulled away and the taxi was able to move, while Daisy…waited for one of her friends, who had broken a shoelace. While the taxi was stopped…Daisy and her friend came out the back of the theater. And if only one thing had happened differently: if that shoelace hadn't broken; or that delivery truck had moved moments earlier; or that package had been wrapped…because the girl hadn't broken up with her boyfriend; or that man had set his alarm and got up five minutes earlier; or that taxi driver hadn't stopped for a cup of coffee; or that woman had…got into an earlier cab, Daisy and her friend would've crossed the street, and the taxi would've driven by. But life being what it is - a series of intersecting lives and incidents, out of anyone's control - that taxi did not go by, and that driver was momentarily distracted, and that taxi hit Daisy, and her leg was crushed.
Now, who was to blame there? Daisy? The taxi driver? What about that woman, or her friend who had called? The barista at the coffee shop, the man whose alarm clock didn’t go off, the girl’s boyfriend, the makers of Daisy’s friends’ shoelace, the delivery truck driver? What this quote proves is that our lives are so interconnected they can never fully be separated from anyone else’s, much less the entire worlds’! Even the things that do separate us- death, specifically- doesn’t ever really remove us. In many African countries, there is a belief that death is separated into two parts, Sasha and Zamani. Zamani is the truly dead, while Sasha is the “living-dead”. You may only pass to Zamani when there is no one alive on earth that remembers you. You can’t pass to the next one until there is no longer anyone on earth who remembers you. This theory is repeated and put into detail in Kevin Brockmeier’s novel The Brief History of the Dead. So, as anyone who has ever had someone close to them pass on knows, even the dead are almost never truly gone.
This theory of hidden controls repeats itself in almost every industry. You know that all the commercials and ads you see are put there for you to see, right? True, not for you personally, but perhaps the ‘type’ of person you are perceived to be. Ever wonder why all the “manly” tools or machine ads are on during football games, but not during reruns of The Notebook? Or why ‘girly’ makeup and clothing ads are on during Say Yes to the Dress instead of 300? Almost every business, especially ones whose work is directly in the public sector, has an entire department for advertising. They choose what magazines, television channels, websites, and billboards to put their products on to get the most money from the most people, and to spread awareness of the brand. Of course, there are thousands of people who don’t follow their stereotypes, yet still manage to be participants in the economy! However, most do, and it’s extremely beneficial to the companies to advertise where their most common buyers will see them. A speaker once told me and 15-20 other teens that we should watch television just for the commercials. He said that that was, really, ‘all’ the show was for, anyway- to sell products. However skewed his logic was, he did have a point. But there are exceptions- ever hear of the Snuggie, or the Shamwow? Many “As Seen On TV” products that ‘should’ appeal to the masses are seen everywhere, and as a result are purchased in record numbers.
These social controls aren’t limited to advertising, either. Just look at the fashion industry. In 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, a supposed parody (satire?) of Vogue magazine and it’s “harsh” editor, Anna Wintour, who is oft considered an expert on all things fashion, there is a scene where the newbie assistant (a novice to the fashion world) disparages the belt choice that the editor and her team are presiding over, accidently referring to the fashion industry as ‘stuff’. Or…that’s how the editor sees it.
“This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”
Imagine all of that in a superior British accent and you’ve got yourself a full-blown meltdown. However, it shows us just how much, even when we are choosing our own clothes, food, books, music, whatever, we are unable to escape the clutches of the various industries controlling us. So when can we escape, if we never know who or what is effecting us at any given moment? When we read articles or studies, watch television or movies- how can we make educated decisions and choices if we never truly know if we’re looking at propaganda, an under-the-table scheme, or the legitimate information? When worst comes to worst, who can we trust? Sounds like all we can do is build up strong, trustworthy relationships, take everything with a dash of salt, and use our brains, hearts, and most importantly our gut feelings when making decisions. After that, we’ve done all we can do- except hope for the best. Not to be pessimistic, of course. Actually, I think there still is hope, because we still can and do make our own decisions.
We can break free from all these invisible strings pulling on us in every direction: cut the proverbial ties. As exemplified in The Truman Show, To Kill A Mockingbird, and numerous other coming-of-age novels and movies, we can make our own decisions, even when society seems to look down on it. In The Truman Show, Truman decides to go to Fiji- or at least try- despite all the things telling him not to: his fear of water, his friends and family, the airplane crash posters in his travel agents’ office. In To Kill A Mockingbird, although Scout isn’t at the typical rebellious age, the book is often tagged with being a coming of age and loss of innocence novel. Scout and Jem, albeit with parental support, follow their father’s path and values and support him in turn with his case. More specifically, Scout learns to compromise her comfort in pants, overalls, and ‘dirt’ with her family and society’s expectations of her to ‘be a lady’. Of course, this is a part of growing up; she isn’t as opposed to the idea by the end of the book, so that it deviates from the typical compromise pattern a bit because of her age and the issue at hand. But its fundamentals are consistent with the archetypical underdog trying to break free from society’s constraints and be his- or her- self. While this makes for good books and movies, it is much harder to do in real life, with all the control you are under.
In the long run, although it might be helpful, does it matter why we are who we are or why we do the things that we do? “I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.” Stephen Chbosky wrote in his The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What matters in the long run is that we stick to ourselves- who we are, how we’ve been raised, and our views on the world. That is what will prevent us from becoming a psychologically regulated society, akin to the popular dystopian novels 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Our society is comprised of just that- different people, from different backgrounds, who’ve had vastly different experiences, all coming together for the greater good. More specifically, one could say that our country’s two main pillars are freedom, or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and trying to form a more perfect union. So far, it’s worked out pretty well. You don’t fix what’s not broken, so we may as well apply this concept to our daily lives as well.
We don’t question our lives or circumstances: even if we do, there’s nothing that can be done. Perhaps that one choice, that one decision, would have changed our lives forever. But life is unpredictable- each of our lives is affected immeasurably by each others'. Anything we do, any interaction we have, is all so unpredictable that there’s no way we could make a change…that is, without the possibility that we would effect so many other things, possibly changing history. As the science-fiction industry has proven over the years, time travel is hard. In a way, it’s the greatest experiment ever conducted: let over 6 billion test subjects loose in a 40,041.47 km sphere for over half a billion years, constantly switching out lives. What will happen if you choose an independent variable? If you take ‘x’ out of the equation or change its relationship in the equation, what becomes of ‘y’? ‘z’? What about the rest of the variables: every person, plant, animal, and object on the planet! Frigyes Karinthy first said we were all connected by six or less people. Every single person in the world - connected to every single other person. So what will happen? How will we evolve? For one thing, this is an experiment that can not be repeated for conclusive results. All we have to work with is what we’ve done as a society- all of our accomplishments, along with our failures. The one thing that this great scientist forgot is well said in a quote from The Truman Show: “You don’t have a camera in my brain.” We can never truly begin to understand the position another person is in, what’s controlling them: the things they are- and aren’t- aware of.
Citations: used quotes from
-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie
-The Truman Show movie
-The Devil Wears Prada movie
-The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky