On an internet forum I participate in someone started a thread called “personal zeitgeist.” She asked,
What do you think contributed to your own current set of intuitions, worldview, etc.? For example:
- Noteworthy historical events that really made an impression during a formative period in your thinking
- Pop culture of the time
- Personal experiences
- Geographic region you were born in/local culture/travel, etc.
- Personal values, as in it was part of your nature to value critical thinking, emotions, religious beliefs, etc.
I found it quite an amazing process to write a list in response. In We Are all Innocent by Reason of Insanity I talk about what I call My Story, and how we all write narratives that define our lives. The beliefs and assumptions that we form in our early development become filters of our perceptions; these filters construct our mind-generated reality (and it’s the confusion of our mind-generated reality with actual reality that makes us insane). This mind-generated reality is our narrative, our Story.
In the book I talked about the influence of my family and some of my personality quirks, but her question helped me frame My Story in a broader sense, based on the cultural influences of my time. Here’s what I posted:
- Childhood in the 60’s. I thought revolution was normal and liberation (of all kinds—race, gender, sexual) should be easy.
- Travel to the Soviet Union in 1979. I realized my government had been lying to me my entire life (trust me, it was obvious to a 21-year-old that the USSR at that point was not the threat it was made out to be).
- My parents’ divorce when I was 14. Agony at the time but started me questioning everything. My family had seemed like “Leave it to Beaver” and then it all crumbled overnight, out of the blue. Nothing seemed dependable anymore, but I also became less interested in living like everyone else.
- Learning, when I was about 12, that Jesus was a special case, the only son of God, and the rest of us are cursed with original sin. This really pissed me off; I couldn’t see any point in Christianity after that.
After I wrote the line, “revolution was normal and liberation (of all kinds—race, gender, sexual) should be easy,” I realized what a defining influence that perspective has had on my life. It has certainly skewed my perception of politics; I’ve been angry and bitter about what I saw as lack of progress because I couldn’t understand why things didn’t change faster/more easily.
What also comes clear to me from this list is a problem with trust—numbers 2, 3, and 4 are all about feeling betrayed, lied to, made a fool of. And the truth is a good portion of my adult life was spent trying not to be a fool—I was a cynical skeptic distrustful of any organization, be it environmental, political, or spiritual. I never wanted to be a member. I didn’t want to get trapped in the conventional world because it was, I believed, built on a pack of lies, so I have lived an alternative lifestyle on the fringes of society. Those perceptions made before I was 21 have had an enduring effect on my life. Now I can see why I’ve never been a “joiner,” the pejorative term I used when someone asked why I wasn’t part of a local environmental group.
What I learned from this little exercise is that understanding your personal zeitgeist is a good idea—it can help you become more aware of the assumptions and beliefs skewing your perception.