I was on an almost empty train the other day and a small group of young people got on. From the chat about University I would guess they were about 17 years old. I was not trying to listen in but in an empty carriage some things were being said very clearly.
Many of the comments were about ‘mum’. What mum was going to do or not going to do. What mum thought and what she liked and didn’t like, and so on. After a while I began to wonder, what was coming across about how mum was seen?
Suddenly it popped in my head that mum was being talked about in the same way as they might talk fondly about a familiar and much loved pet, like a dog or a horse. Mums did things because they were a species, and those species did those kinds of things, quaint funny, sometimes annoying, but forgivable because they clearly can’t help it.
I’m not sure if young people see dads as being a different species to mums or they both come into a species called parents.
Our brains are odd in how they store things by categories. For example, it makes sense that living things are stored separately from non-living things. We know this because you can get brain damage which means you lose just one of the memory groups and not the other. So you can remember the names of living things and not non-living things.
Things that used to be living come in the category of living, and all this makes sense because by and large you eat things that are living or were recently alive but not dead things. So the category might really be ‘might be edible’ and ‘not edible’. The funny thing is that musical instruments come into the living things memory.
I am not sure if there are some categories likes mums, dads, parents. Certainly like animals we tend to bond to the face and voice of those who first look after us.
The problem with this category based memory system is that although convenient it makes us much less flexible than we could be. It becomes an amazing experience for someone to make the shift and find that mum can also be a ‘friend’.
The same categorisation occurs in the opposite direction of course, so our children are kind of always our children and therefore could not really know more, be wiser, not need looking after in a crisis and so on.
I think politicians must have categories of people. So there are ‘voters’, and the ‘rabble’ and ‘businessmen’ (which just about includes women when challenged) and children and babies and old people and nurses and teachers, and so the people who elect them get put in boxes and they will not belong to more than one box for any one category of political issue. Judgements are formed based on categories, so that families come first unless sometimes jobs come first or ‘the economy’.
This kind of thinking causes apoplexy in politicians when they are faced with contradictions, like mums, clearly a family category member, who are also criminals. That may be solved by treating mums as mums first and criminals second, but then you have to consider whether dads should also be treated as family first and criminals second, leading to political gibberish.
The solution of course is to use our understanding of how our brains work and categorise things to ensure we check very very carefully that categories are not locking doors against more balanced judgements, which we would make if we didn’t box things away so tightly.
I think a lot of life crises must have links to these kinds of category shifts. Life shifts you from child, to adolescent (ie no-one knows including you where you belong), to eligible mate, to adult to parent to elderly, and sometimes you want to still be an eligible mate, or even a child but people see you as an elderly person.
I am aware that I am immediately caste as an elderly person now and if I do things which challenge that position people seem to feel threatened, and I am doing no more than I would have done when categorised as parent, or boss, or worker.
So it is easy to drift into being the category people want you to be. Easy to be the parent who obviously doesn’t know best, or someone retired who must choose to enjoy life rather than work, which of course means that work is not enjoyable which is something I have almost never felt.
We really have to challenge these categories, which I think are much more widespread in terms of boxing people than the usual men/women divide. This includes seeing children as things which need teaching when they are desperate to learn and teaching gets in the way. And it includes asking politicians to see people as people, not as votes at the next election.