Sunday, March 18, 2012

What We Want

I used to think that what we like and want is a deeply personal thing.  That it is something we think about and on which we make a conscious decision.  But after having lived in India for about 2 months, I'm realizing that is not at all the case.

When one arrives in India, it is immediately apparent that behavioral norms, customs, processes, priorities, and aspirations are very different than in the western hemisphere.  That's expected.  But what's interesting is that they like it that way.

For example, let's take a conversation I just had last night.  Where I come from, it is every kid's dream to move out on their own as soon as they become a young adult.  They want their own place and general independence.  In India, that would be viewed as disowning one's family and is thus a very negatively perceived practice.  But young people here want to stay with their families, oftentimes even after they are married.

So what's going on here?  How can one entire society want one thing and another want the opposite?  If what we want is indeed a personal choice, this is not what we would expect.  We would expect a random distribution within each society.

The only reasonable explanation is that what we want is really not our own decision but is largely shaped by our environment.  Perhaps we do have some flexibility within that framework, but we like the framework as a whole because it is what we are used to.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's a bad thing.  In fact, I'll generalize and say that anytime we choose something implicitly, without truly thinking about it, it's a bad thing.  And that is exactly what we are doing when we choose to like something simply because our environment tells us it's the norm.  

Let me be clear: I am not saying that one or the other view in my example above is good or bad.  I'm saying it's bad to choose one simply because our environment tells us to.

There are some people who buck the trend of choosing to like what their environment dictates.  These are generally viewed as pioneers, visionaries and revolutionaries.  Sometimes they are viewed as heretics and terrorists.  This viewpoint, too, is often determined by the environment.

After arriving here, I was forced to examine for myself why I like or want certain things.  What I found was that I, too, had implicitly chosen things based on what my society expected.  I also found that, even after realizing such, it is a very difficult thing to change what I like and want.  Perhaps I haven't yet encountered sufficient reason to do so.  Not sure.

So what is the point?  I'm afraid I don't really have one.  But I think it's important to realize the depth at which our society can shape us.  At least for me, it is deeper than I thought.