surface, cultural respect and responsibility seem to be easily understood
concepts. They aren't; they are quite complex and can be difficult to untangle
from the things we've always assumed about freedom(s).
Cultures have many different layers and purposes, and it’s most certain we each belong to several cultures concurrently. Our family provides the culture within which most of us have grown up and in which we have been primarily immersed. The family culture is full of traditions, superstitions and folklore, ancestral information, morals, ethics, rules, skills and beliefs. Our family culture usually shapes our initial outlook on life and everything around us.
Along with family culture are other local cultures, such as: the neighborhood we live in, the schools we attend, our town or city, state and even the country where we reside. Each of these is our individual heritage and has a big influence on who-we-are and who-we-become.
People from the United States of America (who call themselves “Americans” and whom everyone else calls “yanks”) seem to tend towards not recognizing that they DO have a culture of their own. Possibly this is a result of our country’s cultural imprinting of the ‘melting-pot’ theory, whereby we are mixed up to the max from other, older cultures. The truth is we have a very uniquely American culture; there are things that people across the planet immediately identify as ours and ours alone. Although we’ve incorporated many customs, ideas, thoughts, and courtesies, etc., from wherever our ancestors originally came, they eventually melded into what we now have.
We tend to lack respect for the culture(s) from which we descend, often feeling it “doesn't fit” us. This, in turn, leads us to find somewhere we DO fit, especially on a spiritual level. Not respecting our own culture, we generally find it difficult to respect other world cultures. Living in a very diverse culture makes us arrogant and certain that everything is ours for the taking, even someone else’s culture. Sometimes we don't realize we do this, sometimes we think we have the right to do this, on occasion we just do it without any consideration at all; the result is serious harm to other peoples and their cultures.
Our primary cultural influences have mostly stripped us of our basic relationships with the natural world and the natural spirituality inherent to it. Many of us feel this at the depths of our being and at some point began searching for a connection to it. It’s so prevalent, and has been so long out of our culture, that this movement towards true spirituality is often labeled “New Age” and can and does include absolutely everything outside established Western organized religions.
This is where responsibility comes in. If you haven't lived, breathed, experienced and been immersed in a culture or a particular spiritual path, it doesn't matter how many books you read or how many “experts” you train under, you can NEVER be a part of it or claim it for your own. No exceptions.
Now take a deep breath. That’s upsetting news, indeed. We've just told you it’s impossible to claim a cultural/spiritual path as your own if you haven't ever actually been a part of it. We’re going to compound that by also telling you that no matter how many years you’re immersed in a particular culture, unless you were born to it you can never be an “expert” and teach it to others. The only thing we can be expert at is our interpretation of a culture, which is always colored and biased by our uniquely individual viewpoints.
Because of our Western cultural background, we have absolutely no sense of the harm we can do to individuals and cultures by trying to emulate them or spread our particular brand of their spirituality as an expert. Even if we don't consider ourselves experts, we shouldn't discuss cultural/spiritual aspects with anyone outside of the culture the aspects came from. In other words, it’s okay for us to talk to the TRUE experts within the culture itself, but too much is always lost in translations, and we will only ultimately misrepresent what we’re trying to convey to anyone else.
The biggest point we seem to have lost sight of is the harm we do to living cultures, and how many we have irrevocably damaged already. Spirit lives and breathes; it surrounds us. The spirits I live with here are necessarily NOT the ones dealt with by those living in Africa, South America, across the state or across the nation. Every time we take spirituality out of its culture, we siphon off some of its power. That’s not a minor thing, considering the people who live it depend on its effectiveness, many times just to survive.
This loss of power chips away at the basic structure of a culture and its spirituality. Children begin to question the validity of their elder’s beliefs, which pilfers yet more power, which in turn tailspins into everyone going their separate ways and confused about what TO believe about anything. We know that feeling; it’s the one we’re searching to fulfill when looking to other cultures' spirituality.
This doesn't apply just to indigenous peoples of the earth; it applies equally to organized religions and individual belief systems, too. There are many headline examples of this in front of us on a daily basis, if we recognize what’s going on in the “big picture”.
Obviously it doesn't strictly apply to ancient cultural traditions. We can't exactly harm them, since they've essentially been dead for a long time already. But while we believe we are honoring them or preserving them, we still don't understand that what we have in our hands is definitely not the same as it was in the culture it sprang from. It can’t be. Loss through translation is one reason. Another reason is the lack of the living world and spirits from whence it came. The rules of life in one area of the world aren't necessarily the same as in another; most often climate and topography alone make the requirement for different rules.
Respecting and acting responsibly towards other cultures doesn't mean we have to be locked out in the cold without hope of finding our own individual spirituality. There is nothing wrong with gleaning information about a particular culture or spirituality and gaining inspiration from it to find our own spiritual path. They should only serve as guides for us, a road map possibly, for where to look and what to look for. Always the answers are close to home, wherever that is. The answers change as you move from place to place, and you WILL have to work for it. But spirituality is a way of life, not quick answers for the impatient.
Respecting and acting responsibly towards other cultures also doesn't mean we have to like them, believe them or enhance them. We should acknowledge their differences, celebrate their sameness, and value their overall contribution. But never should we take what is not ours.
© 2004 by Doyen Dee Berry