Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chalk Lines

My post “We are the authors of our own story” is the briefest of outlines of an idea that’s been playing on my mind for the past week or so and is primarily to do with how much freedom we have to create our own narrative, if we but realise it.

Of course there are physical laws that prevent us from walking through walls or leaping off tall buildings with any hope of survival, but I’m not challenging these. What I am challenging are the assumptions so many of us make about our lives – about the way we have to live and the kind of person we have to be.

From the youngest age we are presented with a model, a narrative, of who we are and what it is to be a human being. We are eager to learn how to make our way in the world and we look for the clues and cues everywhere. Some things we are taught overtly – rules and regulations, lectures from parents, ministers, teachers – but a great deal more is much less obvious. We copy behaviour, we unconsciously read body language, we absorb the messages of our culture from TV, books, posters, newspapers, magazines, the clothes people wear around us. This mass of information works its way into our minds and we adopt narratives, stories, frameworks, which help us make sense of it all and learn survival techniques.

The problem is, so much of what we absorb and come to believe as true, is nothing more than someone drawing a chalk line around us and declaring there will be terrible consequences should we overstep it. We move around within the boundaries, never straying too close to the edge for fear of what might happen. Eventually the chalk lines are washed and blown away, but by then we have internalised them. There are no chalk lines to be seen and we have consciously forgotten they were ever there. We think we can wander somewhere else whenever we want to, and so believe ourselves to be free, but subconsciously they are now engrained.

If we accidentally stray close to where the lines used to be, we start to feel uncomfortable and wander back again. We don’t analyse our behaviour unless it is specifically brought to our attention; we just react on autopilot. Even though the chalk lines have long since gone, we still don’t cross the boundaries of where they were, and we don’t even realise we’re constrained.

Despite the fact that these lines are nothing more than man made constructs, usually created to serve the purposes of someone else, we come to believe they have an authoritative truth to them, thus we are even less likely to question them.

Of course, some lines, some rules, are beneficial – they help us live together in relative safety, but many of them are placed there not for our benefit, but for the benefit of someone else who doesn’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. Every time we are told to buy this gadget, consume that product, use this service, vote that way, we are having chalk lines drawn around us. We are always told they are for our benefit, but the ones who benefit most are those who are selling us the product, service or message.

Once we begin to truly realise we are constantly moving in an internalised world of chalk lines, then this gives us a powerful tool to detect them, understand our own behaviour and constraints, and start writing a new narrative for ourselves.

I daresay there will be more blog posts to follow on this topic as I organise my thoughts.

11 comments:

PI said...

I used to believe that if I stepped over the chalk line I would be struck dead. After many years of pondering I stepped over and survived. I don't have any conclusion - I am just very grateful.

Kitchen Bitch said...

How right you are: in order to live a fulfilling life we need to push the boundaries that have been created for us, a bit like teenagers do with their parents. Examine the rules and ourselves and take ownership of all our past actions, decisions, desires even. Practise the art of living. Of course, there is a problem with the external world: in order to survive we need to fit in to it. And unfortunately the world we currently live in is a capitalist one: money is required for just about everything. From every angle there is pressure to go out and earn a living: sell your labour, sell your soul. Who needs a soul when you can have a complete home cinema sytem for under an thousand quid? Actually, what is a soul?

Charlie said...

In the prison system they call this institutionalisation. When people leave they just cannot accept thier freedom.

Stinkypaw said...

It's all about what we choose to believe and how free we want to be. I'm not even talking about freedom as being locked up , but freedom from within... Interesting post.

Kim Ayres said...

Pat - we're grateful you survived too :)

Kitchen Bitch - even if I didn't know you were reading a lot of Nietzsche at the moment, I think I'd probably be able to guess :)

Charlie - that's it - we're all institutionalised on some level or another.

Stinkypaw - the problem is that most of what we think is our free choice is already constrained by the narrative we've adopted.

When we read a story, we suspend disbelief and accept the rules of the world we read about - whether it's superheroes, talking animals or a period in history. Similarly, we accept the rules of the narrative we adopt about who we are and what we are capable of. We are only free to choose within the boundaries of the narrative we're in. To change our range of choice, we need to change the narrative.

Carole said...

Life moves so fast, it is hard to take time and really think, or analyze my behavior. I am so busy doing one thing or another, my thoughts constantly moving to keep up with the flow of what needs to be done, who needs to be taken care of, how to arrange schedules to keep up. Some people can think on their feet--Kim you fit in this category--but I have to actually schedule thinking time in. This post makes it clearer to me what you are saying. But to be honest it scares the beejeebers out of me. What if I have lived for 53 years inside chalk lines that don't exist. That people made up to soothe their way of thinking. And how do I figure out what is right...what path isn't a chalk line that someone else has drawn to soothe their way of being. I know that fear is not a good reason to no try but I wonder, will I be trading my chalk lines for someone else's? And while I have been wandering around within my chalk lines, I have married, raised three boys, made lifelong friends. All have been colored by my chalk, in one way or another. Do I owe them a certain behavior? I think the reason your posts are so attractive to me, is that they have forced me to put my toes over the chalk lines my life is. Yet, I pull them in rather quickly when the water gets to cold...or to hot.

Binty McShae said...

I know what you mean... although sometimes those lines are there for a reason. After my year of hell last year I have repeatedly stepped outside of the perceived outline of myself, maybe in order to assert a new identity. Sometimes that leads to fantastic new places, but others just end up in a mess. Still, it's all part of the adventure, right?

Shebah said...

Kim, you might like this quotation by that great Irishman George Bernard Shaw

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man".

Kim Ayres said...

Carole - I think to begin with it's all about awareness.

Before we moved I used to go along to a weekly Tai Chi class, at the end of which there would be a session for those who wanted to explore the martial arts aspect of it. For the most part, this involved getting hurled across the room by the teacher, but what slowly became clear is that there are 3 stages of understanding.

The first is you get hurled about but have no idea how or why. The second is that you still get hurled about, but you can see what's happening, even if you can't do anything about it. Eventually you move to stage 3 which is being able to counter the moves and not get hurled across the room.

Long before we can set about changing our lives, we need to become aware of the forces acting on them.

Binty - They can certainly serve a purpose, all I'm saying is that it's better if we're aware that they are there, so we know whether they need to be or not

SheBah - That's a great quote - thank you. It also puts me in mind of a line from a The The song: "If you can't change the world, change yourself, and if you can't change yourself, then change your world."

Julie said...

As a new reader, I was impressed with this entry.

I grew up in a small town and was expected to be similar to all the other family members who had grown up there as well. I was expected to come home from college with a fiancé (if not a husband), buy a house and raise my children. Whether I actually got a degree didn't really matter.

I must have forgotten about those chalk lines because I received my degree with my family looking on (but no fiancé or husband in sight).

Then I moved 2,000 miles west and then 3,000 miles east.

Twenty years later, I live about 500 miles away from where I started, and I'm nearly a newlywed.

I'm grateful that I was ignorant of those early chalk lines, though, I'm sure I've imposed new ones throughout the years.

Kim Ayres said...

Hi Julie - welcome to my ramblings and thank you for taking the time to comment.

Congratulations on the forthcoming wedding :)