Monday, August 6, 2012

American Myths are Killing Us: How the Way We Live is Self-defeating and What We Can Do About It

If we supported people from the beginning of life, then we would not have the social problems we have now.

Let me explain what I mean... Let's start by describing what life is like now and why.

Most of us survive mostly off our own immediate family. If one is born into a low socio-economic status family, a family in poverty, all indicators show they do not have high quality existence. They struggle with health, emotional and social well being, may experience abuse and neglect, etc. Being in poverty is very stressful for all family members and it has a huge impact on people. Not just in the immediate, but generally for the rest of a person's life. This could mean developing mental illness, substance abuse issues and other addictions, and other negative effects from trauma. In addition, the likelihood one ever gets out of poverty, if they started in poverty, is very low.

According to one cultural belief in America, if a person just works hard enough they can pull themselves out of poverty-- "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." However, this is a myth. If a person doesn't have boots how can they pull them up? The fact is most people born into poverty will never leave it, and this is not because they do not work hard. In fact, most poor folks work harder than most wealthy people, working several grueling manual labor jobs. But the jobs they can get are super low wage jobs and they cannot afford to hire nanny's to take care of their children or maids to clean their house.

Women in poverty, in particular, work several jobs, take care of their children, cook, clean, and run errands, not to mention are expected to take care of their partners. That is part of why poor people are so stressed out-- they have very little time to relax, decompress, and participate in self-care. Not to mention when a parent is away from their child so much of the time, this causes stress on the child.

Children need close bonds with their parents so they can attune to them, develop healthy attachments, and mirror the parent's modeling. The rise in childhood mental illness has been positively correlated to poverty, stress, and lack of parent contact. In addition, families under stress and suffering from inequality and being at the bottom of the hierarchy, strive for power and control. One of the negative consequences of this is violence and abuse. 

Furthermore, substance abuse and other addictions often come into the picture as people try to find a way to cope with the psycho-social stressors in their lives. Addictions often lead to children being neglected and unsupervised, where their chances of abuse increase. People vastly underestimate the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing child. For instance, did you know that a young child who simply witnesses their parents in a domestic violence situation, can get brain damage? A child doesn't even have to be touched for trauma to effect them. Imagine what happens to children who do face actual violence themselves, or who are emotionally abused, neglected, or sexually abused? We know that abuse is wide-spread, and that one in three girls and one in six boys has been sexually abused. That is astronomical and means abuse is wide spread and commonplace. The consequences of wide-spread abuse is life-long. Often this leads to a generational cycle of abuse continuing on in a never-ending repeating loop, which makes us stuck in a destructive pattern that keeps hurting people and society.

Another cultural belief in America is that if a person struggles to, "make it all on their own," that they somehow deserve more. This again, is a myth. The idea of an individual who works hard being deserving of more is wrong. Everyone deserves a good life regardless of hard work. Besides this, most people are brainwashed into believing that rich people are wealthy due to their own hard work. It's actually the opposite.

Wealthy folks are born into wealth most of the time. And when someone starts out with a lot of money they are able to use it to buy their way to the top. This works by living in relative ease, comfort, and luxury, going to the best schools, having connections and networks to get the best jobs, being able to purchase whatever they want or need with existing money their parents or family members give them, having money to invest so that they make money with money, and having lots of tax shelters, loopholes, and subsides etc. which increases their wealth even more. The rich live a truly privileged and charmed life, as capitalist society is set up to benefit them over all others. Furthermore, the way in which the wealthy accumulated their wealth is all rooted in a system of economic inequality and exploitation of others.

In fact, most people became rich because they and/or their ancestors exploited others, either through slavery, indentured servitude, through wage slavery, etc. On top of that all that, the tax cuts they receive, their ability to invest, have jobs that take advantage of others, and special treatment and favors they receive, has actually made it so there is a redistribution of the rest of our combined wealth upwards. The top 1% own 40% of the wealth in the entire country. And the top 1% own almost 40 times as much as the bottom 50%. They didn't earn it, they stole it. And this is immoral, unethical, inhumane, and wrong. No one needs or deserves that much money and the way they got it isn't right and was not earned fair and square.

In addition, most people lack a basic understanding of exactly how much we rely on each other. NO ONE is making it on their own. Unless one lives on a desert island by themselves, the average person relies on possibility thousands of people for their everyday existence. Think about it... who made your food, clothes, or house? Who makes and delivers good and services? Who provides you education and healthcare? Who took care of you as child and who takes care of you as an adult? Don't fool yourself by saying you take care of yourself. We all rely on others to make life work for us and to survive.

Could you imagine if you had to do everything to survive yourself? Could you imagine what life would be like if you were all alone? Frankly, it would suck. It would be incredibly difficult and on top of it, incredibly isolating, lonely, and alienating.

Studies by neuro-biologist Robert Sapolsky out of Stanford University, who studies stress, prove that human beings are social animals. We thrive on social interaction and connection. Also Salpolsky has proven that in a society with hierarchy and domination, stress greatly increases. Chemicals are released into the body when we are stressed, such as Cortisol, are bad for us if they stay in our bodies long-term. Chronic stress is directly linked to chronic diseases, mental illness, and early death. Chronic stress also does bad things to the nervous system. Stress kills neurons in the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which impacts memory. It also has depletes pathways of dopamine, which causes depression, among other mood changes. There are even more effects on our health and well being, and it spreads to those around us, and thus the impact stress are huge.

What Saolsky also concludes is if we lived in a non-hierarchical society, where there was peace among people who cooperated instead of competed, who supported each other instead of trying to dominate one another, and where everyone helped each other out to survive, we would all live longer happier lives. This is not up for debate, it's a fact.

In fact, Sapolsky saw this happen first hand when studying baboons in Africa. When a group of dominant baboon's died by eating contaminated food, the entire community became more tranquil and lived longer less stressful lives. For more about Robert Sapolsky's research and findings please read here:

So we know that psychological distress can not only cause us major illness, misery, and suffering, but kill us. According to this article that is a fact: The bottom of this above article suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could help reduce stress and it's negative impacts because it allows us to shift our internal interpretations of stressful events in our lives so they appear less upsetting. CBT is supposed to help us develop a more realistic view instead of allowing negative thoughts to distort our self concept and allow us more acceptance and control over our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Practicing mindfulness can also be very helpful to combating the effects of stress on the body and mind. I believe CBT and mindfulness practice are extremely helpful given the stressful environment we are living in now. However, it should not be a substitute for changing the way things are at a fundamental level.

We cannot just accept that life is stressful, so oh well, get over it. It doesn't work that way. There is no real way to "get over" stress. There is a way to reduce it and cope be resilient in the face of it by utilizing positive coping skills and stress management and reduction techniques. In addition, some can utilize, implement, and practice these therapeutic methods better than others-- depending on temperament, personality, ones circumstances, and the impact on trauma on each individual. But to teach every human being how to practice these techniques would take a lot of time, effort, and funding. Unfortunately, our society is not currently supporting that sort of effort enough. Free therapy, for instance, is hard to come by. Therapy is generally very expensive and thus inaccessible to the average person. Although, CBT and mindfulness based practice can be taught and disseminated without a therapist. We should invest in this.
However, we shouldn't settle for attempts to reduce stress and end out efforts there. Treating the symptoms of dysfunction, instead of going to the root cause, is no real solution. We should work to eliminate stress altogether. This is where the idea of prevention comes in. We need to start thinking about the kind of society that would completely prevent a person from experiencing so much stress. That is the system that would bring us the best lives possible.

The society we have now is NOT set up to function in a way that brings the most prosperity for all. Our quality of life is vastly diminished by the profit-based capitalist system that governs most all aspects of our lives. It sets up a hostile environment which stresses us all out, takes time away from ourselves, our families, and communities, exploits us economically by stealing the wages we earn, over-works us, does not give us a basic standard of living and social support, and offers us no other alternatives. The system is designed on purpose this way to lock us into a perpetual system of oppression so that the rich and powerful can reap the benefits.

But what if I told you the rich and powerful also lose out? The way the system works actually creates more problems for rich people than they even realize. In fact, this system is more expensive for all of society because it leads to more social problems, which are costly to manage, and bring direct consequences outside of monetary, such as an increase in violence-- even murders. But a lot of the time the rich care about money... So we should consider just the economic impact of poverty, inequality, and hierarchy on the economic benefit of the rich.

For instance, take the child welfare system. When a child lives in poverty their chances for abuse and neglect go up due to the stress of their parent and lack of support and resources. When the child is removed from their family they end up in the foster care system. This is extremely expensive. Not to mention all the counseling services etc. that child will need. Then when the child grows up their chances of being involved in crime, being in poverty themselves, never graduating high school, becoming homeless, joining a gang, becoming pregnant at a young age, and getting on public assistance, are huge. The chances they end up abusing substances, getting into abusive relationships, and abusing and neglecting their own children, is high. This has a huge impact on our entire society. And from a purely economic standpoint, it costs a crap ton of tax payer dollars. Although the rich escape a lot of taxes, they still pay more than anyone else.

One thing to keep in mind though is all those systems-- social services, prisons, hospitals etc. make a lot of money off of dysfunctional family systems. But I would argue that the negative outcomes outweigh any economic benefit, even if we only look at money, and not the moral, ethical, human rights, or quality of life issues. In other words, all people, including the rich and powerful, are in all actuality incentivized to prevent these things from happening to begin with solely based on a simple cost/benefit analysis.

Unfortunately, those with money and power are stuck in their regressive backwards way of thinking, which realizes Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the concept that those best fit socially, survive. And those best fit in a capitalist society, are those who have money and/or have the privilege to become upwardly mobile and gain access to resources. It's a perverse concept..because it's predicated on inequality and hierarchy. It is also centralized around the idea that some people deserve to be well off and some don't, based on how hard they worked as an individual to get where they are.

If someone is poor, they are perceived to be lazy and therefore deserving of their lot in life. Many people don't feel compassion for the poor or homeless because they assume they could get it together if they were willing to work hard. But since they aren't willing, they are getting what they deserve. In addition, the people who think this way think that the poor need to learn the hard way, that if they want housing, food, etc. they better get a damn job and pay their own way. This is seen as the only right way to live. They believe the myth that people should be "self-sufficient" and "independent." Even when it is totally delusional to believe this.

If only we didn't need each other anymore what the rich believe could be true... Yet in a practical manner we still do need each other, and in a fundamental way us humans need each other to function socially-emotionally. The truth is not only do we need each other for our own well being and health, relying on each other is just more reasonable, sane, humanistic, and is in congruence with basic common sense and decency.

When we work together, we are all better off as a result. Our collective quality of life is vastly increased because we function collectively and are mutually dependent on each other. There would be less crime, less violence, less healthcare costs, less abuse, less substance use, less poverty, less infant morality, more educated more well off people, etc. if we had a system like this instead of the one we have.

It would help protect us all and save us money-- because when preventative measures aren't taken people in desperate situations take desperate measures to try and survive and the results and consequences are very expensive (such as prisons, healthcare costs, and taking care of children in poverty or the child welfare system). There are several developed countries who currently have a more human needs-based and preventive social safety net than the United States.

Countries such as Norway, the Netherlands, and even France or Germany have better ways of life. These include things such as universal healthcare, free childcare, paid vacations, good benefits, and tax payer funded college for anyone who wants to go, etc. This is the type of system we need and it would be good if we went even further-- and eliminated all profit-based mechanisms and reduced the amount of work one had to do. We could guarantee an income and basic needs to all and we could definitely afford it. Not only is the entire economic system made up, but if we simply re-prioritized our budget and how we collect taxes and how we spend the tax dollars, we'd have plenty of money to pay for the type of society we need.

Some first steps could include reducing the military budget, ending the drug war, ending all foreign wars, getting rid of all advantages for the wealthy, and increasingly the taxes on the rich by a lot. We need to eliminate economic, social, and political inequality. That is essential for a democracy to thrive. These are short term reforms that would totally shift the funding we have and be able to provide for our people a lot easier. Bigger changes could be done over time, such as making all work places co-operatives, vastly reducing working hours, allowing for a decentralized radical democracy for governance purposes, making all services publicly owned and operated, and giving the means of production to all people to workers own and operate collectively.

We need a system that benefits all people. Having such a system would create a much better society. We need to not only admit that we need each other, but that if we all worked together to fully commit to making life better for all, we would have that better world we all dream about. People assume it has to be the way it is now. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Most people assume this system is the best system in the world, and even if there was something wrong with it, there isn't anything they can do about it. But there is something fundamentally, structurally, and systematically wrong with the profit-based system. We need a human-needs based system where all get to share in the decision making, work together, and reap benefits more equally. We need that system because it works best for us and will give us what we need, want, and deserve as human beings. It would unleash and expand not only our potential and ability to self-actualize and self-activate, but our ultimate happiness as individuals and as a community. In addition, it would allow us to support our society and essentially, the entire world, to grow in every aspect of life, improving all of our lives exponentially. Furthermore, we do have the ability to make it happen.

So how do we do it? We can prevent most all maladies and social ills... by giving people what they need from the beginning and sustaining that support. If we set people up for success, they will be more prepared to become successful. If we gave, say, a young family monetary support, counseling, parenting classes, case management, free childcare and healthcare, etc. they would be much more likely to succeed. If we made sure that child's parents had a free, tax-paid college education, and a good paying job with benefits, low-cost housing, etc. then the chances that family succeeds would increase, big time. If we could do that, why would we choose not to?

And the best part is, we can! We can do this. We created everything that exists now and we can re-create what we need in the image that works best for us and humanity. We can replace this ineffective, disproportionate, and undemocratic system with one that works for us all. If we got together, we could make it happen. I believe it is already happening organically, yet slowly. I encourage everyone to start getting on board...because as a collective society we are crying out for something better... We know that we are headed for disaster on multiple fronts if we don't change our ways. We should take action before we are forced to make painful sacrifices to make the better world we need possible. Let's start now.

Life should not be such a struggle. We can make it easier and more meaningful at the same time. We can live a purposeful fantastical life filled with joy, health, well being, social connections, family, friends, creative  and collaborative work, and a fun beautiful existence where struggle is far and in between and everyone is guaranteed the basic needs of life. It can happen, we can make it happen, and we should make it happen, because it's the right thing to do, and wouldn't it be great?

Human beings are amazing, industrious, and imaginative creatures that are capable of anything. If we put all our efforts together for the good of humanity, instead of to make profit for the few, we could finally build the society and life we all deserve as human beings and get our needs met more efficiently and simply. If only we are willing to cast aside the disastrous and self-defeating myths that hold us back and come together to make it happen. Someday I know we will. I just hope for our sake, it's sooner rather than later. :)

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