Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
I thought of this while reading Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
Jared Diamond has been traveling to New Guinea since 1964 to study birds, and as a result has learned a lot about the ways people of traditional societies think. Drawing on his own experience and that of anthropologists working all around the planet, Diamond compares these societies to modern industrialized states. Diamond identifies things that we in the Western world could learn from traditional peoples, and he also delineates ways in which life is better in our advanced societies (mostly issues of safety and violence). Perhaps his main message is that we should think of cultural diversity as thousands of experiments by human beings to meet the common challenges of life: child rearing, old age, conflict resolution, war, dealing with dangers, and staying healthy.
What made me think of Krishnamurti’s quote was this passage:
A recurring theme is that the other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children…The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that these admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation as a result of the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting [caretaking by other members of the group], far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment.
As Diamond points out, basically all psychological studies have been done with members of what he calls WEIRD societies—western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic—and with privileged members of those societies (college students). This does make you wonder whether many of the theories of psychological development are really only relevant to WEIRD cultures.
In addition, it makes you think that maybe the reason why so many Westerners are neurotic, insecure, depressed, anxious, etc. is not because there is something wrong with them. Perhaps their inability to find mental health is caused by living in a profoundly sick culture that deprives its citizens of some of the most basic human needs, like security, social interaction, and stimulation.
Diamond mentions some children of missionaries who were raised in the traditional societies, then were sent to a WEIRD country for schooling, and how difficult a time they had. One girl talked about how she had loved the freedom of being able to run into any home in the New Guinean village, and eat with any family on any particular day, and what a shock it was to learn that this was not normal behavior in the West. Diamond writes,
The children tell me that their biggest adjustment problem is to deal with and adopt the West’s selfish individualistic ways, and to shed the emphasis on cooperation and sharing that they have learned among New Guinea children. They describe being ashamed of themselves if they play competitive games in order to win, or if they try to excel in school, or if they seek an advantage or opportunity that their comrades don’t achieve.
One of these children of missionaries, Sabine Kuegler, wrote a book about her experiences in New Guinea, Child of the Jungle: The True Story of a Girl Caught Between Two Worlds. I haven’t read it (yet), but Diamond recommends it as an excellent account of the culture shock that is experienced when someone moves from a traditional society to the WEIRD world. There may be more physical comforts in the WEIRD world, but there is more psychological and emotional health in the traditional world.
Maybe we could learn something from them before it’s too late.