The Santa Cages

“Would it surprise you to hear that a man’s unhappiness is due in large measure to the way he is seeking after happiness?”(from The Seven Paths pub. by the Anasazi Foundation) I recently read, (ok, listened to,) the Kent Nerburn book, Neither Wolf, Nor Dog. In the book, the author has been asked by a Lakota Elder, (called “Dan” for the sake of his privacy,) to write his story and get it published. This book is mostly the author’s growing understanding about the differences between the way the Lakota think and live, and what he has been steeped in his whole life. It’s a beautiful book and I highly recommend it.

Elder Dan shares some perspectives on what the Lakota (and many Native American peoples) value, and what the American culture at large values. (Dan puts the culture at large under the banner of “white men,” or “the white world,” though in truth, it is not necessarily racially bound.) Elder Dan’s description is so poignant and so relevant to the conversations in my counseling room that I had to share it here:

“...The most important thing for white people is freedom. The most important thing for Indian people is honor.

“This is why white people have listened to the black people more than to us Indians,” he said. “The black people want freedom, too, just like white people. And since the white people took freedom from the black people, the whites feel guilty about the blacks. You see what I’m saying?”

“...But the Indian has always been free. We are free today. We have always been freer than the white man, even when he first came here. When you came to our shore your people wore clothes made out of chains. Our people wore nothing at all. Yet you tried to bring us freedom.

“The white world puts all the power at the top, Nerburn. When someone gets to the top, they have the power to take your freedom. When your people first came to our land they were trying to get away from those people at the top. But they still thought the same, and soon there were new people at the top in the new country. It is just the way you were taught to think.

“In your churches there is someone at the top. In your schools, too. In your government. In your business. There is always someone at the top and that person has the right to say whether you are good or bad. They own you.

“No wonder Americans always worry about freedom. You have so damn little of it. If you don’t protect it, someone will take it away from you. You have to guard it every second, like a dog guards a bone.”

In the Counseling Room My clients come into session all the time, beaten up emotionally, psychologically and sometimes even physically by this system that demands hierarchy and constant vigilance. It’s wearing everybody out!

Some imagine that it serves those with power and money well, helping them to gain more power and money, but frankly, it’s wearing them out too, and they are so stuck in it that they can’t even see the poison that’s killing them. This madness is not healthy for anyone.

There’s That Shame Again Elder Dan goes on. This is the thread that when pulled, unravels the whole twisted sweater:

“When you came among us, you couldn’t understand our way. You wanted to find the person at the top. You wanted to find the fences that bound us in — how far our land went, how far our government went. Your world was made of cages and you thought ours was, too. Even though you hated your cages you believed in them. They defined your world and you needed them to define ours.

“Our old people noticed this from the beginning. They said that the white man lived in a world of cages, and that if we didn’t look out, they would make us live in a world of cages, too.

“So we started noticing. Everything looked like cages. Your clothes fit like cages. Your houses looked like cages. You put fences around your yards so they looked like cages. Everything was a cage. You turned the land into cages. Little squares.

“Then after you had all these cages you made a government to protect these cages. And that government was all cages. All laws about what you couldn’t do. The only freedom you had was inside your own cage. Then you wondered why you weren’t happy and didn’t feel free. You made all the cages, then you wondered why you didn’t feel free.

“We Indians never thought that way. Everyone was free. We didn’t make cages of laws or land. We believed in honor. To us the white man looked like a blind man walking. He knew he was on the wrong path when he bumped into the edge of one of the cages. Our guide was inside, not outside. It was honor. It was more important for us to know what was right than to know what was wrong.”

Freedom Over Honor That’s the root of the issue right there: The “American Way” demands that we can’t trust ourselves to choose right or wrong, so we set everything up in cages and well-defined boxes to make sure we are making the right choices. That’s not freedom, friends; That’s shame.

We don’t need shame to make us behave. We underestimate ourselves. This is exactly why people bristle and cringe when I tell them that there are no “shoulds, have to’s and musts.” Those “shoulds, have to’s and musts” are internal shame cages. As mentioned in previous blogs, shame attempts to shape behavior with a machete instead of a surgical blade.

The Damage When we instead make choices based on these external measures, we are driven by what we believe we can get away with, rather than what we do and don’t want in our lives. Hiding those choices grows shame inside us like toxic mold. It reinforces the idea that we can’t be trusted to know right and wrong.

In the shame state, we fail to separate personhood from behavior.

If we choose poorly, we are bad people. This traps us in the cage of either-or. Just as Elder Dan said, we are stuck on discerning so-called “good” people from the so-called “bad” people. There is no room for growth in that way of thinking.

The Ripple Effect

When we believe or quietly fear that we are “bad” people, we very often shove those around us into those cages of “good” and “bad” as well. Now we are all caged up, fruitlessly trying to measure who’s good and who’s bad, as if we are all driven by some powerful, relentless Santa Claus arrangement. We are enslaved to Santa-think.

Santa-think enslavement harms everyone. It even harms the environment. Corporations make decisions based on how much profit they can get away with without incurring IRS penalties, and without regard for employees, communities, the ecosystem, or morale. Partners make choices in intimate relationships based on what they can get away with, without consideration for the other partner, other family or household members, any other people who might be involved. And on and on.

The Healing What if we based our decisions instead on honor? Does this choice “honor” the people and things impacted by it? Is it respectful? Thoughtful? Based on love? Is it kind? What if we could accept that as human beings, we are fully capable of making horrible choices at times, and bask in the miracle that we usually don’t? What if we looked at all of our experiences with humility and an eye toward learning, growing, and being connected with others as healthfully as possible?

What if we leave Santa-think and our cages behind, and live lives based on honor, mutuality, respect, sustainability and vitality? ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Are you ready to leave your cages behind and live a more meaningful life? Contact Tiffany today. Let’s make a radical anti-Santa-think plan!