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We cannot change what we do not notice
By Bill Ash
How often do we:
Am I being too harsh?
If my own experience is anything to go by, no. Why? Because patterns we absorb from birth unwittingly trap us in prejudices, biases, and judgments we see as truths. I learnt this attending the therapy course I discussed in Chapter 5 - how the patriarchal aura of my upbringing underpinned my prejudices, biases, and judgments within my family and workplace. I also learnt we cannot change what we do not notice, encapsulated in what Daniel Goleman wrote 1:
The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.
Noticing and dealing with our patterns we absorb from birth is at the core of our conversations. These patterns lie with the stories of our growing up. I call these prejudices, biases, and judgments we see as truths our "scripts" for our conversations, including our internal conversations.
From birth, we absorb the scripts of our parents, social milieu, community, and society. I absorbed the scripts of the archetypal nuclear family and its patriarchal overtones. We also develop scripts from our lived experiences. These scripts affect all aspects of our lives, including our attitudes to sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, neurodiversity, disability, religion, education, and values. They influence and sometimes control our approaches to our relationships in our family and workplaces.
Ventriloquising our scripts of growing up
Our scripts often lie in our unconscious or subconscious. Use of these terms is debated. I prefer to use the expression "out of our awareness." When I grew up, it was common to see a ventriloquist projecting their voice through a puppet or dummy. When failing to notice our scripts, we risk being that puppet or dummy, unknowingly ventriloquising the scripts of our parents and others in our circle of influence.
Figure 13: ventriloquising our scripts
Drawing by Steve Bachmayer
Once we notice these scripts, we can work on changing them. I call this process "re-authoring" our scripts.
Re-authoring my scripts
I came across the idea of "re-authoring" our scripts when studying narrative therapy. Re-authoring conjures up the image of a writer editing a hard copy of their book, throwing away pages with gusto. This takes courage, constantly asking, Why am I holding on to this draft?
While writing this book, I have been challenged by what authors call "killing their darlings". Right up to the editing phase, I resisted deleting passages I understood to be life changing. They may have served me in developing my ideas, though they were not in the service of the reader. With the help of the editor, my darlings were killed, enabling me to redesign my conversations and re-structure this book.
Our scripts may appear to serve us at some time. For example, in the home, the script of patriarchy serves men like me by allowing us to come home at night and be comforted by our female partners with a drink and dinner, and not lifting a finger to assist; to play sport at weekends while our partners take care of the children; and to seek comfort in our all-male social groups. I have spent my life noticing and killing the darlings of my upbringing, or re-authoring them to take care of my and others’ concerns.
Some scripts are laudable, such as the values of trust, respect, and acting ethically instilled in me by my parents, yet even these values may require re-authoring to give them full expression as we broaden our experiences and understanding of the world.
Other scripts are not laudable, such as the script of stress I absorbed from my father or the scripts of sexuality, gender, and race of the Australia I grew up in.
My journey of noticing and re-authoring my scripts
I grew up in a sheltered environment, surrounded largely by my group of privileged Anglo-Celtics while attending "elite" all-male Protestant church-run schools, including a military-styled boarding high school. I lived under the influence of seeing others not as individuals but as archetypes, those of being a woman, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, or an Aboriginal person. We were the archetypical nuclear family. My father, a lawyer, was the sole provider and my mother was the caregiver and homemaker. Within my social milieu, I was introduced as my father’s son, my identity was tied to my family, principally by how others regarded my father. More generally, patriarchy was embedded in me - the idea that men must be tough and not show sissy feelings, that a person’s gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth, that homosexuality is a crime, illness, and sin2, and that Aboriginal people are not fully Australians. These stories had the potential to trap me in scripts of patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and racism.
At high school, I expanded my focus beyond its walls, allowing me to observe and feel the effects of the 1960s movements challenging established political orders, racial norms, women’s place in society, and traditional values. I observed the sexual revolution and the "turn on, tune in, drop out" mantra of Timothy Leary 3. There arose within me more questions than answers. I became conflicted and anxious, feeling trapped in the status quo of my upbringing. I developed a background mood of unsettlement, snowballing through my university days. I needed some space to deal with it. While my parents never allowed themselves to have space to deal with their own background moods of unsettlement, from the depth of my heart and soul, I give gratitude for them never voicing any opposition to me creating my space to deal with my background mood of unsettlement. What more could I ask of them than to, in their way, support me?
After graduating as a lawyer in Sydney, I went to study, live, and work in the US and later Hong Kong. I chose the US over England, where many of my friends would go, for in the US, no-one knew me or my family. I would not be introduced as my father’s son. I was simply Bill Ash, without any assumed scripts other than those related to my presenting in the moment of introduction as a young white male. I travelled extensively in North and South America and Asia, where possible taking buses and trains. I stayed in youth hostels for as little as $2 a night, as well as in campgrounds or with people I met along the way. I walked the streets of cities, towns, and villages, engaging in conversations and forming relationships with people from all walks of life, cultures, and identities. I began to take charge of my identity by embarking on what Roman Krznaric calls an empathy revolution 4, my journey of awareness and empathy. This journey continues today. It is a journey of strengthening my understanding of respect and how respect extends to holding all others as legitimate, not only people within the walls of the social milieu of my growing up - and, most importantly, holding myself as legitimate and being able to stand in my shoes, not the shoes crafted by others.
Re-authoring my respect script
I was brought up to respect my parents, those in authority, and our institutions and their rules. This came easily as my parents, those in authority, and my neighbours were, with few exceptions, Anglo-Celtics.
In walking the streets of cities, towns, and villages in North and South America and Asia, I became like the Polish correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński, discovering for the first time that I was white and male. I learned that to understand myself, I had to understand others by seeing myself in the mirror of their cultures 5.
I came to recognise how respect for our institutions blinds us to what lies behind their structures and rules. Adherence to the discipline enforced by them can deflect from the toxicity of cultures they enable and their exclusionary nature. Calls for resilience in the face of these rules can deflect us from the pain of individuals who are subject to them; this is a failure to take care of their core human concerns. I was recently reminded of this in reading Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, in which - in response to the head of an all-male boarding school declaring the boys to be resilient - the mother of two of those boys ponders how no-one asked what practices were adopted to produce this resilience 6. Were these methods in this fictitious school the same fagging, induction, and masculinity rituals practised in my boarding school at the time I was there? A 2020 example of these masculinity rituals are boys from a Melbourne school chanting on a bus:
I wish that all the ladies,
Were holes in the road,
And if I was a dump truck,
I’d fill them with my load. 7
One former student described the school as having "an ingrained misogynistic culture in much of its student base" 8. Whose scripts were these boys ventriloquising - their parents’, teachers’, or their social role models?
My greatest learning around respect was through my journey of sexuality, how this became a teacher of empathy.
** Bill Ash is a coach, consultant and author and can be contacted at email@example.com
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