Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stepping Outside the Social Grid

The Bali people's daily living takes shape around a system of ritual where Hinduism and agriculture meet. People in Bali depend upon an agrarian system to keep them fed. They work in rice paddies, and their survival depends upon each member of their society knowing exactly their role. Their rice growing society depends upon communal service: "Rice terraces require an unbelievable amount of shared labor, maintenance and engineering in order to prosper, so each Balinese village has a banjar--a united organization of citizens who administer, through consensus, the village's political and economic and religious and agricultural decisions. In Bali, the collective is absolutely more important than the individual, or nobody eats" (Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert).

Balinese people know exactly where they fit in the culture, from birth order to their place in the 13 rites of passages that mark their lives. The balance of their civilization depends upon conformity. So when you walk down the road and someone asks where you are going, you cannot reply "I'm just wandering" without distressing the inquirer. It is better to make up an answer than not offer a reply that fits their expectations. If someone inquires, "Are you married," it is better to reply "not yet" even if you are a lesbian, rabid feminist, 80-year-old nun.

On the one hand, what a comfort to always know exactly where you fit in your culture, your work, and your family. On the other hand, "different" disrupts their social grid to the point that they are distressed simply because you are not married. Or Hindu. Or fill-in-the-blank.On the other hand, what if you don't fit? What if your soul feels the urge to fly? Or to love someone of your own sex? What then?

And how different is that, truly, from our own culture? I live in South Carolina. I've lived in the Midwest or  South for 37 years. I struggle for authenticity in my life, claiming it as a banner. Waiving it around as my hope for salvation in a land of Christian fundamentalists and Southern culture. Yet I work in a place where the only Southerner is the owner. We have employees from Boston, California, and South Africa. We see a client base that is also "other" because of addiction. I've considered changing jobs, but don't dare do so. I'm lesbian. Not a safe to be publicly gay working for the local school system. The Christian fundamentalists won't tolerate it.

Cameron and I dream of living in a place where we both can find authenticity. As Cameron progresses along her path, identifying more and more as male, we both know transitioning here simply won't work. She has too many links to the past, to family, to those who won't understand. And while I was truly encouraged at the measure of support that came to the demonstration last week at Converse College, I also know I can't call five of those folks by name. They aren't present in my daily life offering support and strength. Moreover, we've not found our nitch spiritually here, either.

Guess we've stepped so far out of our cultural, social grid that we're having to define who we are, not by societal exceptions, but by our own intuition. But there are still many places that's not acceptable. Many places that still depend upon a social grid to provide identity and direction.


  1. Fascinating post. Most Americans would react with horror to that level of regimentation. Individuality is the beating heart of America, family cut offs and isolation a way of life. I cannot imagine that as a gay couple we would fair well at all in would be interesting to find out what the "exceptions" do in that culture.Do they leave? Do they have a societal niche that they can retreat into? Every society has them, the mavericks, the nonconformists, be that society collective or individualistic. However, whats interesting is, that while we have a great deal more freedom to be individuals, to be authentic, there is a lie at the heart of American individualism. There is a narrow range of freedom, of individualism...there are limits and walls, and they are not discussed. The people who fall within the safety of these parameters laud individualism, unless you step out of the box. Then the fun stops. You can be an individual, as long as you are like everyone else. As long as you fit the box. As long as you are white. Male. Straight. Economically privileged. Step out side of that, of your approved "place", give an inappropriate answer...and individualism evaporates. Better you should say I am not married yet, then say you are gay. Better you should be a woman in the home, church and work within your narrow space, then strive to be...oh, a CEO in business. Welcome to the glass ceiling, girls. Yes, we have individuality and freedom in many ways so far beyond a place like Bali. And the you discover you live in a place where the government votes cheerfully and without conscience to deny you the right to marry, makes laws to deny you health care, can forbid you the right to see your beloved on a hospital bed because you see, you don't fit (and I know they just passed a resolution to change that. Trust, we'll still be bumping into that for a long time to come.) Better you should say, she's my sister - an approved reply - than thats my lover and I need to see her. America is not as different as it would like to think itself is. Our walls are wider...and oh, has it improved over the decades ("If These Walls Could Talk 2" is an eye opener But in the end, we run into them all the same. It is that balance thing - we need the stability of collectivism...but true change and innovation always comes from outside the camp, the walls, the mavericks. We need both. That is why embracing diversity as a paradigm is so important. Diversity honors both collectivism and individuality. Some parts of America are more diverse than others. Unfortunately, we live in an area that is not only oppressive of individuality, it's practically a hive mind!!! There is room for much more thought...I think I may have my own blog post coming on. Thanks for the wonderful post - I love a girl who thinks really deep thoughts!!!!

  2. Oh, and regarding an approved answer, far better you should say, I grew up in (fill in the blank with the church or faith, or I'm spiritually searching, or anything than say "I am an atheist." Talk about a group that is universally disapproved of and attacked!

  3. Or how about, "I'm a witch." Doubt they'll think I mean Wicca!

  4. Lots has changed in Western culture but there's still plenty of regimentation to go around!