Where do I stop and where do we start?

The other evening, I walked into the living room to find my wife and two sons sitting together watching television.  Given that at this stage in life they don’t share many common interests, this was a bit of a surprise. I decided to join them and quickly realized that the show was about dysfunctional families; my surprise just shifted up another gear. The show is called “Die strengsten Eltern der Welt”-the strictest parents in the world. The show is about rebellious, “problematic” children who get sent to all corners of the world and live out family life with their host parents for two weeks. The host families range from the tribes people of the amazon to sheepherders in Macedonia. You can imagine that life with the host family is very different then back home in Germany. In this particular episode, the kids were tough; it took them three days before they ate anything and communicated normally, two more days to understand that you have to work and earn your food just like everyone else in the family. In fact, it was only when they were presented with no other alternatives that they begin to see reason and started communicating normally; which led to a normal relationship with the host parents. The lesson being that in the mountains of Macedonia, only as a family can you survive. Everyone has a job and must do their share. Shared is also the food, sorrows and moments of joy. That is the basis of the family unit and where we basically learn to answer the original question.

It is rare that you fine a human being that wants to live in isolation; why do you think they punish prisoners with solitary confinement.

As society evolves as we move up “Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs” it has become easier for kids to rebel and even parents to replace a partner, hence the rising number of divorces. Just think about it, one hundred years ago the majority of the population lived in rural areas. People literally did not have the means to travel. Few in your village would have had the reason, let alone opportunity, to visit the nearest town.  Fewer still would have made it any further. Although the automobile had been invented, it remained just that, an invention and not a common good. If you had to go somewhere, it would be by train or by horse (and just 30 years before that people did not have the train option). You were effectively stuck. Your choice of partner was restricted to what was available locally and just like the sheepherders in Macedonia today, you had to work together as a team to survive.  When the kids on the show made the same conclusion, and accepted their situation they started to see thing with different eyes.  Here is how it went.

On the third day the kids broke down and renounced their hunger strike. So after a good breakfast the hos father thinks they may be ready for some work, like the rest of the family, everyone has a task. Well you can imagine what happens next. The kids refuse to do the work, they tell their host father off and walk away to go sit on a nearby hill. After letting them simmer for the rest of the morning the host father again approaches them again. He tells them that they can’t keep running away from their problems all their lives. He asks them to come back with him and help him with the work.  Again the kids refuse, but this time they are caught off guard by the host father’s calm, and in the end reasonable request. As they reflect on his words and what he is asking of them, reason begins to sink in and their resistance to the whole experience starts to melt away. What is interesting is that once they begin to embrace their situation they also begin to enjoy the different experiences. Well maybe the morning wash in the cold mountain stream was not as pleasant as a hot shower at home, but all of a sudden it becomes fun because it is different and unique. When faced with the experience of slaughtering a sheep, both kids were, again, pushed over the edge of the comfort zone. Yes, they both ate meat but it’s one thing to pick up a package of sausages of the shelf at the supermarket and it’s something else to stick the knife in the animal, cut it’s artery and let it bleed to death. Here again once they identified with their host family the perception changed. This was a normal act in the mountains of Macedonia; you don’t have a grocery store down the street so if you want to eat meat then you have to butcher it yourself. When you identify with someone, you start to see things from their perspective and you then begin to understand that their point of view is not, in most cases, so unreasonable.  As you understand more and more about the under person and their situation you naturally start to see possibilities of contributing of your own knowledge and experience to the situation. In our example the both kids were reluctant to kill the animal, but the boy was willing to part take in the killing and helped hold down the animal while the host father did his deed. You could see by the excitement in his eyes as he was swept away by the experience. Although there are many other facets to identity, which we will not get into at this point, it is a key factor to change. Just as the boy was having difficulties at home with his parents and education, he was identifying himself with the wrong crowd, where petty crime is, somehow, a way to prove you belong to the group. It is sometimes hard as an adult to resist the ongoing bombardments of messages and information we receive from modern media and society (A large proportion of those messages aim to create a appealing identity. In extreme cases some kids have been killed over a pair of Nike basketball shoes), can you imagine what it’s like for a teenager? It easy to fall in with the wrong crowd; I always tell my kids that in a peer group situation, the one who is courageous is the one who can say no, the real “chicken” is the one that gives in.

So as we have seen identification with the other person is the first step to accepting that there is a “we” and that “I” does not necessarily have to stop because the real acid test for a team is when the sum of the “whole” is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words a team can produce more than the sum of what the team members could produce individually.  Once this sinks in, and you belong to a real team (not just a group of individuals), you will have created a strong identity that will be appealing and change will become easier.

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