There are times in life when you find inspiration from unlikely sources. I am a movie buff and in anticipation for the new Kingsman movie, my boyfriend and I re-watched the first iteration. At one point during the movie, Colin Firth’s character, attempting to inspire his young ward, quotes Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.” This quote really got me thinking about how we grow and keep growing intellectually and emotionally in life. It also made me think about how we are raised, our brain’s plasticity, and how that affects how our society is currently functioning.
First, let’s delve into “our raisin’,” as we say in West Virginia. West Virginia, like many states, has its own unique culture, but at times I think we confuse culture with how we are raised. “How we are raised” is the modeling that we witnessed either overtly or inadvertently by our parents, grandparents or guardians. And this, for better or worse, has dramatically affected how we act as adults.
Looking back at my childhood, I can say that for the most part I was very lucky in this regard, but no one truly comes out of childhood unscathed. As adults, many of my friends struggle with how to shed their upbringing without disrespecting the bond between parent and child, no matter how destructive it might have been. This is a huge hurdle for many. How do we change from what we know may be a wrong-headed school of thought to cope with the fact that our parents were untrained, unavailable, or downright unhinged?
The good news is that we do have the ability to change the views and opinions that we were raised with. We can learn to see beyond our four walls and the backroads we encompass. This is called “brain plasticity” or “neuroplasticity.” According to Britannica.com, “Neuroplasticity [is the] capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.”
Brain plasticity, specifically how our brain reacts and adapts, means essentially that we do not have to stick to our old ways of thinking. We can gather information from our environment, evaluate that new information, and change how we think or react on a given subject. In fact, this type of adaptation is necessary to our survival.
This subject is very important to society in 2017. It seems like that our society is changing faster than we can keep up. Whether it is the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use or the changing definition of marriage, we are on a cultural “rocketship” of sorts, one that does not seem to be slowing down.
Why is brain plasticity relevant to our changing culture? I read online and hear in my place of work statements like, “Just because the law changes, doesn’t mean I have to,” or the aforementioned, “That’s just not how I was raised.” These comments always stoke the fires of the culture wars.
Some of us adapt graciously to new situations, some even crave the change; others, though, feel that cultural changes are put upon them and they feel themselves being dragged, kicking and screaming, into new ways of thinking and living.
But if we are going to live harmoniously together as a functioning society, we have got to be able to adapt our ways of thinking, we have got to sometimes disregard the ways we were raised and let go of old ways of thinking. Holding onto some values does not make us wholesome and homespun, it makes us virtual Neanderthals, and we know what happened to them. Their inability to adapt led to their demise.
For every hunter in the U.S. there is a person that identifies as part of the LGBTQ community. For every coal miner who has lost a job, there is a worker somewhere that has lost employment due to a factory closing. And for every person insulted by a kneeling football player, there is a person who has been mistreated, marginalized, or ignored because of their race.
We need to stop rejecting change but embrace it, get over our differences, and find common ground. We are in this together, and we need each other now more than ever. In our journey, we will do well to remember those wise words: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.” In ten years, what will our society look like, and will your former self be recognizable to you?