The Buck Stops with You and Me on the Issue of Breaking the Cycles and the Spells That Cauterize Our Brain’s Ability to Provide Sane, Safe, Suitable Actions and Answers

Listening to myself—talking with my children about (grand)children or the neighbors about the (neighbor)hood or my friends about (geo)politics or my colleagues about where “descent with modification” (Darwin’s definition of evolution) has brought us—I hear myself opining more and more these days:

We need to break the cycle. Or,
We need to break the spell.

I usually use the first pronouncement when discussing situations where people’s actions are clearly rooted in pathologies of the past. Breaking the cycle is what Supernanny Jo Frost often does so effectively (at least for the duration that she and her badly dysfunctional families are being videotaped) on the popular ABC-TV show. And what Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, does with dogs and their owners (as much as with the latter as the former) on the popular National Geographic channel show. To a surprising extent, both of these interveners are challenging and seeking to change assumptions and behaviors that have often been handled down from generation to generation. (Views about dogs, too? Well, for example, think about dogs were viewed and handled in your family as you were growing up.)

“I spank. I yell. That’s who I am,” an earnest, totally ineffective young mother of three kept telling Frost the other night. Why did she think that was who she was? Mostly surely because, for the most part, that’s who her mother thought she was. Watching the Frost program, even Frederick F. Flintstone could have deduced in about 90 seconds that if this cycle wasn’t broken, in a few years, this woman’s daughters were going to be screaming, “I spank. I yell. That’s who I am”—and looking for excuses to beat the crap out of their children. On his dog training show, Millan also demonstrates again and again the importance of breaking the cycle of dysfunction, first with the dog or dogs and then with the owner or owners.

And the second pronouncement?

Breaking the spell (as opposed to the cycle) is an even grander, more difficult task because the kind of brain processing being challenged is one that extends beyond simply a single brain and its forebears. Spells result from interlocking “memes” of ideas inculcated in the host mind by the multiple beliefs of multiple people from multiple generations. These memes are so deeply rooted that their origins can be literally lost in time. And their validity can be considered so sacrosanct and unquestionable that merely to raise the suspicion of these memes’ non-utility, obsolescence or mindless destructiveness invites preemptive disqualification of the questioner. Then he or she is likely to be labeled as “traitor,” “heretic” or “enemy” by those captive to the spell.

As our extraordinary new century continues to unfold, it is as clear as the evening news that we are going to continue to suffer bigtime because of our to-now limited success in breaking the spells that block rational thinking on important issues. To name a few of the more egregious ones:

• The spell that allows religion (any religion!) to propagate itself largely unexamined, untested and unjustified to its followers often at the expense of desperately needed and highly desirable choices and alternatives.

• The spell that assigns a mystical, majestic role to war. And the assumption that war is often inevitable and nearly always justified, even just, no matter whose side is impassionedly arguing for such sanctification. And the belief that fighting a war is automatically noble and that dying in one somehow is peremptorily a more suitable, acceptable, admirable substitute than having had an opportunity to live out one’s days in a more normal, less catastrophic manner.

• The spell that permits the mindless assumption of automatic superiority of one’s own kind—the blind and blinding influences of family and tribalism and often nationalism. The first casualty of sameness deified and ossified is the ability to empathize with the needs, rights and pain of “outsiders”—of the other. Of such inanity is atrocity and neglect born again and again.

• The spell that generates the magical transmutation of the idea that special responsibilities attend wealth and the wealthy into the idea that “the rich are different than you and me—and fully entitled to their differences.” Economically speaking, this is the greatest entitlement of all: that the wealthy are deserving of their ability to disappear behind gated walls, tinted windows, purchased privilege and privileges, accountability to the law and obligation to the community and to ignore a solumn responsibility if not to actually act to relieve the suffering of have-nots, at least to not act in ways that aid and abet their pain or cause a blind eye to be turned toward it.

• The spell that spawns the hazy acceptance of the idea that technologies and their implements don’t kill or maim, people do. The very definition of technology is something that extends the ability of people to do something. If people can’t do it, then the idea may never occur to them. If the idea occurs to them but they lack the means, they’ll often leave matters be even if they retain the idea. The failure to be accountable for the consequences of technology often enjoys the cover of plausible deniability right up to and beyond the moment that a life or lives are forfeited, cheapened or weakened. It would be a just, defensible logic that accountability for the consequences of technology gets backdated all the way to the source of the choices that made it possible. Only this almost never happens.

Is it possible to break the cycle, break the spell? If so, how do you do it?

Yes, it is possible. As I read the history of our development, this is a happy by-product of “descent with modification.” Slowly, over the eons, and more recently than formerly, there is learning at work. The unhappy aspect is that knowledge still hasn’t learned very well to speak wisdom to power or ineptitude and still hasn’t found readily effective ways to contravene the consequences of a brain acting against its own self-interest as it mindlessly repeats cycles and spells.

When progress is made, it is usually done one mind at a time. And usually because one insightful, courageous mind took an outsized interest in another. Good questions for each of us to ask: have we taken a look at the spells we continue to live in the clutches of lately? And have we done anything to seek to prevent their pernicious influences from corroding the quality of our children’s lives, the quality of our communal life, the robustness and fairness of lives reaching to the farthest corner of the planet we all share?

In America today and all other regions of our increasing asthmatic, systems-challenged globe, as families and political polities and entities and economies and corporations and professions and educational institutions, we have an earnest need at numerous levels and in numerous arenas for Supernannys and Dog Whisperers of insight, courage and effectiveness. For our brains continue to be beset with many cycles and spells sorely in need of being broken.

Daniel C. Dennett’s pathfinding work on examining the quality of our thinking about religion is available here: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

For info about Jo Frost, go here: Supernanny

Go here for some of Cesar Millan’s ideas about breaking the cycle: Cesar’s Q&A Column and Dog Whisperer

For some fascinating insights about the discoverer of “descent with modification,” go here: Charles Darwin III

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