Overall, culture is the footprint of our collective ways of actually obtaining the basic necessities of life from our home planet. Necessities including air, water, food, shelter, warmth, fuel, clothing, sex, safety, healthcare, and help with projects we can’t handle alone.

Omitting environmental protection (along with the arts, sciences, religions, sports, entertainments, and other cultural interests), the U.S. President’s cabinet of top advisors is concerned with agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health, housing, homeland security, interior, justice, labor, state, treasury, transportation, and veterans affairs.

That brief list hints (by what’s on it and what’s missing) at the intricacy of the infrastructure necessary to maintaining a modern national culture. The shadow of the Washington Monument reaches farther than we commonly suppose. In that shadow, the U.S. is governed by a lopsided, Washingtonian synopsis of the culture we engage with every day of our lives, whether we know it or not.

We are governed by the rules of “fair play” in the form of legislative and judicial decisions, edicts, proclamations, ordinances, policies, and guidelines of every imaginable sort. We are subject to the rule of law—layer upon layer of it—which regulates our engagements in more ways than we can keep up with or even imagine.

This system results in a state of full employment with good pensions for government employees, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of our system of laws. Think of the potholes filled, snows plowed, ditches dug, wrecks hauled, votes counted, tax bills sent out, hearings held, reports issued, checks cashed, jails filled, witnesses sworn, and on and on. The pulse of state never skips a single beat.

On the other hand, we now use the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to gauge the success of the U.S. Economy, and by extension, the standard of living of its culture and people. Little Bhutan on the slopes of the Himalayas, to the contrary, gauges its national quality of life by an index of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Other alternatives to the GDP include the Happy Planet Index, Better Life Index, and Social Progress Index. Or if you’d rather wallow in the mud, there’s the Misery Index.

How about cultural ratings based on Justice for All, Peaceful Solutions, Nonviolent Alternatives, Earth Forever, or Small is Beautiful? Once you start thinking about other ways of rating cultural achievements, it’s hard to stop.

One thing is clear: It’s time to raise the bar for the cultural measures we use to rate our success. The GDP ignores environmental degradation and exploitation as direct consequences of production, as well as inequality of wealth distribution. Who are we kidding. Who else but We the People?

Clearly, culture descends from above and outside as a distorted reflection of the concerns we sent aloft in the first place. We the People are the proposers of culture. The instigators. The starting impetus is our doing, each of us bearing the burden of the share for which he or she is personally responsible. And for which her/his parents are personally responsible. And their parents before them.

But the disposers—the administrators—of culture are the powers that be. It is they who take our little yearnings and view them through the lens of their personal advantage. Culture is like an archaeological dig down through the midden of human activity until we hit bedrock, which is nature’s doing before our tribe came on the scene. Ultimately, our culture is founded on the native ground of our planet. We inherit a version of culture that, beyond being built on that substrate, is modified by the cumulative impact of all who have come before us.

Culture shapes us according to the free-floating pressures and concerns most alive in our minds at the time and place of our birth—and those same concerns as translated and answered by those who are in charge. Where do we find shelter? Water? Something to wear? A place to sleep? Our next meal? Work? Help? Care? A potential mate? A dump for our waste?

Our culture shows us the path. As wayfarers, we learn from those around us. We go where they go and do as they do, modifying their example to fit our personal needs and desires. As we engage with our culture, so do our minds learn, so do we become.

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(Copyright © 2009)

OK, so we wake up in the crazy house of our minds. Trusted institutions are falling apart, making us feel like we are falling apart. The world we thought was so real and reliable turns out to be only the shaky fantasy we chose to believe in. Now we get it: the real world is the natural world, the one we have turned our backs on to make it easier to dream the American dream. We’ve never been good at checking our facts—must have been sick the day they taught that in school.

The hardest of all lessons is that minding your own store—your personal consciousness—is a job that cannot be outsourced. Personal judgment is just that, a responsibility each of us must meet for herself. The buck for directing our own outlook and behavior stops with us. Which is the reason for seeking the deepest, broadest life experience we can get, whether through hard knocks or a good education.

It is not enough to stand before the mirror peering at our exteriors. The problem lies within. Self-knowledge is the key to each of us improving our share of the world situation. But how do we get it? Amazon doesn’t stock either Self-Knowledge for Dummies or the CliffNotes study guide. Yet if we want to avoid an even worse institutional collapse in the future, we’ve all got to rip off the blinders and take a good look at ourselves—from the inside where our attitudes and actions originate, not the outside we’ve grown so accustomed to.

The good news is that gaining self-knowledge is really less daunting than it might seem. And doesn’t require going to school; it’s something you can do for yourself. My suggestion is to take the idea of a personal interpreter seriously (see Reflection 86: Interpretation, about Michael Gazzaniga’s proposed left-brain interpreter module) and go looking for it in your everyday experience.

What it takes is curiosity and persistence in pursuing details of your personal makeup no one ever told you about. First, consider how much of what you do and say is based on your own integrity as a person, and how much is based on the authority of someone else. What others advise you to do reflects their interpreter—their spin—not yours. Take a look at the advice you give yourself. That is a direct route to your personal authority—your very own left-brain interpreter. 

Yes, it may sound crazy, but no crazier than the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into by not attending to how we make meaning of our lives—as if it was just common sense.

Our respective left-brain interpreters can be in only one mind, so each functions independently. Its job description was crafted through eons of evolution to make sense of the many situations it finds itself in—suiting its actions to them as appropriately as it can.

The second stage of discovering the interpreter is to keep asking yourself, “Now, why did I do (say, or think) that?” Whatever answer you find in yourself will probably be told in the interpreter’s voice. Keep asking; keep listening for a response. If you question yourself because you truly want to know, you will eventually hit upon answers to your inquiries.

Which is not to say that there’s a resident homunculus in your head, a little imp who does your mental work for you—or an infinite regression of such imps monitoring one another. No, this is your one and only mind in action, its various facets working in concert to present the outward and visible impression that you are utterly sure of yourself in any situation (even when you’re not).

Your interpreter is the heart of the consciousness your genetic heritage has bequeathed to you. There is no airspace between you and your interpreter. It is with you always. Monitoring your interpreter is the key to self-knowledge because it is what makes you who you are. When you ask a question, your interpreter wants to know. When you answer one, it is your interpreter that comes online to promote your personal wellbeing in any given situation.

Having become acquainted with your interpreter, you can begin to watch your own consciousness in action making sense of its inner world in different situations involving different actors, issues, locations, goals, and rules of behavior. One of the clearest views of the interpreter is provided during game-playing behavior. Games are always situational, and we always (sometimes) play by the rules, rooting for our personal or home team—the one we identify with. In doing so, we adopt a certain perspective which the interpreter in us staunchly defends. If we switch teams, it makes an adjustment and just as surely defends our new perspective. You can catch yourself in the act of making sense under novel circumstances which emerge during games.

One thing you can learn by keeping tabs on your interpreter is that it doesn’t always play fair. It makes sense the best it can, which sometimes doesn’t meet a very high standard because it is subject to inhibition from other quarters of consciousness, such as the boss standing behind you, or your mother showing up. The interpreter is only human just like you. Its foibles are your foibles. It sometimes tries to make a good impression without putting its heart into it. It flatters, it tries to impress, it pretends to know more than it does.

Getting to know your interpreter is getting to know yourself. All it takes is watching yourself being yourself. That way lies hope for a better world in that you can see yourself playing games, and so watch for self-deception. Then you can be on the level with the world when you act without having to cover up your hidden motives. All this will be revealed when you get on familiar terms with the interpreter module in your brain.

You will get to know yourself in a new light, which can be endlessly entertaining (if sometimes shocking or embarrassing). Take a look at your resume, for instance, to see if your interpreter might have had a hand in it. Or watch yourself come on to a person you find attractive. Listen to yourself tell your children where babies come from, why the dog ate the cookies left for Santa, why you didn’t get the report in on time as you promised your supervisor, why Harvard has no record of your attending classes, the Army no paperwork on your service in Vietnam.

In the interests of full disclosure, I declare that almost the entirety of this blog has been whispered in my ear by my personal interpreter trying to make sense of what it can know within its own theater of activity. Mohamed gave similar credit to the Angel Gabriel, his pet name for his interpreter. Almost the whole of philosophy, psychology, and theology have been scripted by interpreters inclined to justify themselves to the world. Some clever people make a living by turning their interpreters to the writing of fiction informed by doings in the only mind they have privileged access to. There is more than ample precedence for conducting a study of your own conscious mind.

Give it a try. It’s the only route I know that might help us all contribute to making a better world. Humility comes first, then vigilance, then action within our true sphere of competence!

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