GENES, GENDER, GENERATION, AND GEOGRAPHY…
A coincidentalist’s perspective on Earthlinging.
By Sigmund Shonholtz
Every now and again, I have a conversation with someone that catches my attention and gets me wondering. As I see it, if a conversation is worth starting, it is worth investing in, because I never know where it will take me. About ten years ago, a conversation sparked an ember and set me off on an inquiry. I was visiting an old friend of mine, the renowned jazz musician Artie Shaw. While he was famous for his clarinet and his big band his real interest was the big bang. He was the most brilliant man I ever knew and ninety-three years old….he died shortly after. We were discussing an observation Sigmund Freud had made. Freud said, “Anatomy is destiny.” I am not an expert on Freud, so I will not go into what he “meant,” but I did think it was an interesting thought.
Certainly, the anatomy of a fish means that it lives in water, and the makeup of a bird means it might fly. But more obviously, when taken at face value, this means our gender defines us and determines what options we might have as adults. Considering Freud wrote this nearly one hundred years ago, it probably had some merit for the time. But while gender today certainly has an impact, it is not as relevant as it was when he suggested it. Still, I wondered, even for the time, was it that simple? Surely, there was more to establishing our own destiny then just our sex.
The Four Gs
I began to casually wonder what other factors were involved. It occurred to me over time that, if gender is what we are, then our genes must be who we are, our generation is when we are, and our geography is where we are. Four Gs. What a coincidence, I thought—genes, gender, generation, and geography. And they work perfectly with the Ws. “Who, what, when, and where” is a universal thought when asking the question, “Why?” which result in the why of us—why each is the way he or she is as an individual and in our respective societies or collectives. The coincidence was delicious and rather compelling.
When I chanced upon the four words that start with the letter G, I was immediately enamored by the coincidence. I had to smile about it, and the opportunity for a creative writing exercise. Coincidence has figured so prominently in my life that I keep track of them; yes, I write them down. I confess; I am a “coincidentalist”, earthlinging day to day, however I take no position on the meaning behind a coincidence. I just pay attention to them and smile about it.
The Big Ws
It is just a coincidence that all four words start with G. It happens to work in English as well as Italian, German, and Spanish. In French, gender is “sexe,” but that does not mean the concept does not work in another language. It is not however a coincidence that the Four G thoughts match with the Four W’s. They are two sides of a coin, the ideas belong together. The Four G words linked with the BIG Ws actually define how each of us interprets the world around us. The world exists simply as it is; however, it exists to us individually as we view it through this lens.
I began to wonder, further, how one could alter his or her individual interpretations of the world. Transformation, it seems, requires that we become aware, and this thought offered some opportunity. Can we ever take control over these themes and manipulate them? I thought that if I could somehow leave behind these four ideas, it might be liberating or at the least entertaining. What would happen if I no longer saw myself as a Jewish man from Los Angeles growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s? I came from parents who imposed their morals on me and gave me attributes as well as gifts that I inherited. Well, of course in a real sense, we cannot pretend we are not a part of this “inheritance.” However, we can consider our insights based on them and ask ourselves if what we think is the only way to interpret something. Would we still feel the same about something if we were, for example, from another time or place? Or is what we think always going to be tied to who, what, when, and where, imposing why on us? I ask myself sometimes what I would think about a particular situation if I were, for instance, an interstellar space traveler. Or, if I had been raised in a small village in the Andes, what would my impression be? It is just an inquiry of course, but it does open up some neural pathways.
Of the Four G’s three of them are immutable. Our genes, our gender and our generation cannot (generally speaking) be altered. Only our geography is mutable; by an adoption, our parents moving us or our own individual decision to move. We only have power over the G of geography; which is the W of where.
Since we are all snowflakes, each of us is forced to create our own individual template to help us interpret the physical world around us, as well as to help us interact with other human beings. These templates are inevitably built around the Four G words. They are what many of us commonly call our intuition. They tell us what “the truth is”, at least from our perspective. Since we are constantly receiving information and impressions, we use these templates all the time for nearly everything. We presume things about people and make comparisons with ourselves as soon as we meet them. It is all based on our “template”. This even includes our definition of beauty. I have a friend with a powerful Roman nose (I wish I had it) which his daughter inherited. She was striking with it. She never quite appreciated it and wanted to “fix it”. I practically begged her not to touch it, as did her parents. Finally she “fixed” it according to her template of beauty. She never looked the same and did not realize that we only define ourselves, to ourselves. Our group or groups defines us. We must consider that, for every impression we have, there is an equal and opposite counter-impression and a myriad of possibilities in between. Maybe we are right about how we “see” things, but maybe we are wrong. Realizing that it is imperative that we look outside to look inside will help us get along in this world and will help others get along with us (if that even matters to us).
We have all heard the phrase (and maybe even used it), “I don’t get where they’re coming from.” Simply stated, it means, “I do not understand what motivates that person.” Between our genes, our gender, our geography, and our generation, it is my impression that most of the understanding that takes place between human beings is misunderstanding. (Throw in “The Seven Deadly Sins” pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. As well as a pinch of jealousy and some fear as well and you may really misunderstand what is happening.)
It is possible to quantify the value of each G. Let us say that each “G” represents 25% of a pie, and the more G ideas we share with someone, the more likely or easily we can grasp what that other person “means”. So, for example, a man speaking to a man will more easily understand him because they share 25% of the “model,” the same gender. If they are from the same generation and grew up in the same area, they might easily grasp 75% of what seems reasonable between them. Of course, that does not mean they will actually “understand.” It also does not mean that a man cannot understand a woman from another culture and another place who is older or younger. These are just potential barriers, meaning it may take more effort to truly understand “where a person is coming from.” While each G is important, the one we can never truly “share” is the genes “G,” which is who we are. It makes up 25% of the pie. Even if a person is our brother or sister and we are the same sex, we still may not “get them.” The only exception is if that person is your identical twin and you grow up in the same home. Identical twins separated when very young with different geography will likely have different templates.
Ironically, what we most want from people is to be understood, not misunderstood. We want to be “gotten,” and conversely, it is also what other people want from us—to be understood. It is a natural human need and part of what it means to “belong” and feel connected. When we truly understand and are understood by others, there is no need for judgment, and forgiveness is just a concept.
Understanding vs. Forgiveness
This brings up another thought: the theme of forgiveness. Our sense of right and wrong and our ability to forgive is directly linked to our template. I began to wonder if I could use the idea to alter my impression of forgiveness. I asked myself, do I really need to forgive? The current narrative tells us we do not forgive for others’ sake but rather for ourselves. What is it, then, that we mean when we say, “I forgive you?” Well, in many cases, what we are forgiving is not necessary for us to forgive. For example, imagine you are the driver in a car and acting responsibly, but something happens that is out of your control. Your passenger is severely injured. Do you need to be forgiven by the passenger? It is certainly appropriate to feel sorry about it and sad, but you do not need to be forgiven, as you did nothing wrong. In fact your actions might have saved that person from certain death; you just do not know it. What if a friend makes you late for something and there are consequences for you? You know the friend is sincere but inept. Do you need to forgive this person? No. In fact, all you need to do is understand that the person is inept. They did their best; it just was not good enough. What about heinous crimes? Let’s be serious. Are you really going to forgive someone who is sinister and rapes or murders someone close to you? Perhaps if the person was insane before caused by a tumor, and somehow was “cured,” you might genuinely “forgive” them. But it takes a long time to do that, and usually, it may just be white paint on a contaminated wall. We do not need to forgive people that are spiteful? Family members that are jealous and envious do not have to be forgiven either. We can simply tolerate them, which might seem like forgiveness. Is no longer caring forgiveness? Of course not, it is simply moving on. How about pity, or is that ambivalence disguised as forgiveness? If we “forgive” someone and we harbor some resentment then we have really not forgiven them. In that case we should re-examine the situation.
What about someone that asks us for forgiveness? Perhaps it is more appropriate to consider what happened and decide what kind of act it was. In that way you can keep your dignity and simply acquiesce.
What about partners who cheat? It is easier to understand what happened or went wrong then forgive. The “forgiveness” will happen as a result of understanding. It will not happen because we simply choose to forgive them. In this case, it is better to understand then forgive and conversely, it is better to be understood than forgiven.
The Romans said, “Nothing human is alien.” So, in actuality, there is nothing to forgive; there is only understanding. Since nothing human could ever be alien, we should all be able to look at the others around us and find a way to understand them, even if it seems they are from “another world.” Just walk 360 degrees around them and find the right portal. It is much easier and takes a lot less time than forgiving them.
The Lava Lamp
Just for the fun of it, I wondered what all of us trying to get along might actually “look like” When I visualize what “getting along” looks like, I imagine a lava lamp. As an example, imagine we are living inside of a lava lamp, and the container is our physical world. Everything we do and think is interpreted inside the lamp, and it ebbs and tides based on our thoughts and actions with others. If we push or pull in one direction or another, everything in the lamp is altered. Now, if we imagine that this container is actually our planet, everything becomes interdependent on everyone else’s actions and reactions. The lava lamp is a miniature world.
Because each of us has our own template it can be difficult for us to truly get along. Ironically, we appear to have evolved a long way over the last several thousand years. It seems miraculous—or an extraordinary coincidence. We are always in some kind of dynamic with other people, and this dynamic is seldom static.
Language Is My Lord
Our ability to understand the opposite sex is dependent on our template. Many years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a girlfriend. She accused me of “sugarcoating issues” with the clever use of language. I answered her by saying, “Language is my lord, what other way should I communicate with you?” That was the wrong thing to say, apparently, and soon we were in the middle of an “escalating dynamic.” I told her, “I can work with your feelings, but I cannot work with your emotions.” In a blast of rage, she said, “They are the same!” Soon after, she came at me with a knife.
In that instant, I had an epiphany and spoke rather quickly, as it was a big knife. “They are not the same,” I blurted out. “Our feelings are expressed in words, written and spoken, but your emotions are the physical manifestations of what you are feeling.” I could not actually believe I said it because it came to me almost like an electric shock. Fortunately, she was lucid enough to hear me and said, “Oh, let me think about that.” What a relief that was!
After this event, I realized that feelings are to cause what emotions are to effect. Yet all based on our template. Feelings and emotions are interconnected yet they are opposites when applied. You cannot have an emotion without first having a feeling. Feelings are meant to alert us, but they are not meant to control us, nor tell us what the “truth” is. Allowing our feelings to overpower us at a critical time, igniting an emotional response, is like stepping on the gas pedal and taking our hands off the steering wheel. In addition, having our “feelings hurt” is actually a decision we choose to make. What if we misunderstood someone and he or she really said something nice to us? Some people are clumsy with communication (many, in fact) and cannot say what is on their mind clearly. Some people are nasty and angry inside and intentionally hurtful. Giving them power over us makes us weak and reactive. Most of the time people do not intend to be unkind or hurtful; they are just in a different “perspective” in speaking to us than we are as listeners (and vice versa). Or they may be acting or reacting to something that did or did not just happen between us. They may have misunderstood what happened. It is essential that we truly understand what we have heard or what happened. In addition others must understand clearly what we said and what we meant. Otherwise, we will find ourselves trapped in a maze we can never escape from when interacting with other human beings. To do this we must sometimes ask for clarification even if it seems awkward. In my case with the knife experience, I realize now that we did not have any G’s in common. She was neither from my generation nor my geography. We did not share any G’s which resulted in more misunderstanding than anything else.
If we were to have any of the four Gs altered, giving us a different template either from birth or a move, all of our interpretations of what happens to us and around us might also be altered.
What if we no longer “took things personally”, based on our new template? Having our feelings hurt as individuals is not that important in the “big picture.” However, if we expand that picture we realize that what happens to individuals also happens to groups, collectives, and populations. They can have their feelings hurt as well, but on a much larger scale. When that happens, wars can result, and populations can be marginalized. This is because they are different or not understood.
A few years ago, I watched an interview of Shimon Peres, the elder statesman of Israel. He said something I found to be very profound: “People prefer to remember instead of think.” I tried to create an image of what that looked like to see if I could manipulate the results. This is how it looks: Imagine one hundred dominos lined up in a row. The dominos represent time as well as events. The first domino gets knocked over for some reason. It might be an accident, but unfortunately, it does not matter. What matters is how it is interpreted. It is “caused” to fall over, and then the next domino is affected. At the moment a domino is affected, it becomes the cause of the next domino’s falling. Each domino represents some action and a reaction. This goes “back and forth” (domino’s fall in one direction, I know) and on and on, with each group claiming something was done to them, thus giving them the “right” to react. But what happens if we remove a few dominos, enough so that the dominos stop falling over? Will that stop the cycle? How much time must go by or how many events must occur before the cycle stops? What if we remove the first domino and something happens to the second domino, which, in theory, reverses the order? What if we remove the last domino? This can go on forever without someone or groups deciding that it no longer matters what happened fifty or one hundred or 1,000 years ago. Although, as Billy Crystal said once, “There is no statute of limitations on an apology.”
This is not always the case, though. In looking at our recent history, we can be proud of the many accomplishments nations have made. Many countries that battled for centuries now have good relationships, and some that were at war with each other a few dozen years ago now work together.
Peres is correct. Some groups of people do prefer to remember instead of think, but I am not sure it is a preference. I think it is a lack of perspective and the inability to consider an idea or a possibility. It takes a critical mass of people to force change and to be courageous enough to try to do so. Unfortunately, since we are all trapped by our templates, it is difficult to make such changes.
Most of What We Know We Know In Retrospect
What I mean by this is that how we look back on past events in our life—individually and collectively—is linked directly to how the world occurs to us in the present, which is through the four Gs. There is a common expression: “Hindsight is 20/20.” It is not 20/20, though, because the road untraveled has no ruts in it, and there is never an accident on it. We do not know what might happen if we decide to think instead of remember, because most of what we know, we know in retrospect. And so, people prefer to remember than think.
Irony Is Destiny
Now, let us get back to the original premise of this article, which is Freud’s point about gender being destiny. Since we are built on a random set of dynamics and only one of the G’s is alterable, I have concluded that for most of us irony is destiny.
Yet, we all have a true destiny, like true north (a “spot” at the top of the Earth), which exists at the precise intersection between our gifts and our joy or our strengths and our desires. Our other possible destiny is like the magnetic north, which is a much larger area south of true north and vaguer. In that destiny, we more or less gravitate to it almost by happenstance or serendipity as a current would move us. We end up somewhere doing something as a career. In many cases, it is with clear intent, but it might not be precisely “where we belong.” Some of us do, in fact, find our true north by good fortune or by asking the question, “What is my true gift?” from birth. Of course we all must get at least one “gift” when we are born. Nature would not place us here without some skill to help us survive, right? (My daughter is nine years old and says she wants to be an automotive engineer. She takes her math classes very seriously. This, though, does not mean it is her true destiny.) However, as we all know, many people have jobs or careers that are unrewarding to them because they missed opportunities or had responsibilities that prevented them from their “true destiny.”
To find our true destiny, we must ask ourselves where our joy is and what our gift(s) is (are). If we can answer those two questions and stay as close to the intersection between them as we can, we will certainly be fulfilled or at least content. The world would be a better place if everyone could find that place for themselves.
The Self-Entertaining Entity
Originally I wrote this as an essay and titled it, Genes……..Why We Cannot Get Along. We cannot get along I decided because we all have different templates or set of G’s. But why are we here if not for the purpose of getting along? As I worked through the concept I sensed I was missing something, another G word to maybe match up with the W of “why”. And why not try and give the model some hope I thought? Finally a friend gave me the obvious last G, it was grace or God if you prefer. Everything fell into place after that, getting along with the rest of the earthlings here is to live in grace. Grace is what we need to understand and appreciate those around us. So, what can we do with the four Gs model as a tool to retool how the world occurs to us? Most of us are ruled by our opinions, which are most likely based on the four G’s, and the other details. As an exercise in creativity, imagine you are an S.E.E., a Self-Entertaining Entity. You have abandoned all your opinions, which you think define you and you hold them dearly. Now, visualize all your opinions, and with a gigantic bicycle pump, fill up an enormous balloon with all of them. Next, let that balloon fly away, and with it, all of your opinions disappear. Now that you have no opinions, take that same pump, and fill another balloon up with perspectives, which are limitless.
Lastly, imagine you are no longer linked to what you were raised with and what you were taught. You have no gender. You are timeless, and you belong everywhere. You can now walk 360 degrees around everything that you think and believe and feel without judgment or opinions. Do not be afraid! Your heart will always tell you what is true and right. Remember, though, the longest road you will ever travel is the one between your heart and your head. What occurs to you will be your new perspective or perspectives. See if this opens up some possibilities for you. You may find yourself smiling about things you did not appreciate before. People you did not even like or understand may become more interesting, and people who did not appreciate you may find you more exciting as well.
What I am talking about here is the importance of having perspective. The word “perspective” may be the most important word in the English language—every language, in fact. We’ve all heard the expression “Thinking outside the box.” Imagine you have a box in front of you. The six sides (indulge me; the fifth and sixth sides are for grace and God) make up all the G, ideas. The box represents all your limits, now, throw the box away. You are now, outside the box. And since you have tossed the box away, you are now boxless. The ultimate freedom in thinking is boxlessness and this is the way to live in grace with God and everyone else