We are all products of our environment. As children, we grew up accepting it all our family of origin, our extended family, our community, our heritage and culture. There really was no reason to question them, nor would we even have known we were supposed to until late adolescence. We in essence took our environment for granted and its reality was our reality.
Our environment in turn shaped and conditioned us. We adopted the speech patterns and habits of the people in our environment and more significantly their ways of thinking and their beliefs. Most of the absorption of these beliefs and ways of thinking took place before we were seven years old during the years when our minds were wide open and before we could consciously accept or reject any of the things we heard spoken or that we witnessed on a repeated basis.
This is true for the rich, the middle class and the poor. As children grow, they mirror their environment in the choices they make...in truth, often not really choices at all but an acceptance of what is expected, what is the norm. And if nothing occurs to significantly alter this trajectory, children will grow up to be an indistinguishable part of this environment.
Now, if a child grows up in privileged circumstances, she will be exposed to many new experiences through her familys networks of friends and colleagues and as she pursues higher education. This, of course, has many benefits but can also have its downside. There are innumerable stories of children who felt the pressure of entering into the professions of their parents, only to find later that this wasnt their true lifes path.
If a child grows up in survival mode due to poverty and a lack of exposure to opportunities that would better her life, she will continue on the trajectory of many others in her environment. But we have also have heard stories of those who came from impoverished backgrounds who were able to successfully rise above them. There may have been an enlightened witness in their childhood (as world-renowned therapist and author, Alice Miller, referred to it) who helped them see a different future for themselves.
If we grew up in circumstances that sheltered us and that didnt offer many opportunities to have new experiences outside of the environments sphere of influence, we may have arrived at adulthood not being comfortable thinking big, making bold moves and taking risks. It may not have been what we were exposed to growing up. This was my experience.
At the beginning of the 20th century, my paternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents took a risk and left behind their homeland and all they knew to find a better life in the United States. They along with other immigrants from the old country formed tight-knit communities where they kept their language, customs and traditions alive.
Once these communities were formed, few from my grandparents and parents generation strayed outside its geographic boundaries. Had it not been for WWII, men in our community of my fathers generation would probably not have traveled to Europe, Northern Africa and the Pacific of their own accord. The adult women, whom I watched closely while I was growing up, were not adventurous types, having been relegated to tending the home fires. If any of them worked outside the home, it was usually due to financial necessity. Thats not to say that professional women were non-existent in the community at large; they just werent in my immediate environment.
The adult people that I knew well growing up did not go to college. Most worked in factories, were unskilled or skilled laborers, shopkeepers. They were hard-working, devout people who cared for their families and neighborhoods. In addition to this, I grew up in the days when every house usually multi-family in all the surrounding neighborhoods had front porches. With so many eyes trained on us, it was next to impossible for harm to come to us and equally as impossible to get away with anything. Our neighbors were as free to reprimand us as our parents. And though our neighbors scrutiny often frustrated our attempts at having fun, it also created security, closeness and a sense of belonging.
All of this closeness and security did have its downside. The sheltered environment in which I grew up - including twelve years in parochial school, the last four in convent schooldid not prepare me for taking risks and thinking big. In addition to being sheltered, I heard many self-limiting statements growing up, rarely because people were mean-spirited, mostly because it was what they truly believed or feared - they knew nothing different. Why do you want to go to college, youre only going to get married (thankfully I never heard this from my parents); People like us dont do those kinds of things; Thats only for the rich and Rich people are crooks. Then there were the personal safety warnings such as Dont go in too deep of water and Dont go near the edge. These statements were meant to protect me from danger, but being a somewhat anxious child, I can remember feeling fearful and I took them to heart.
After finishing high school, I didnt venture far and attended a large, liberal state university in my hometown, living at home for all four years. At university, I was exposed to liberalism for the first time in my life and being a foreign language major, I met many people from abroad. As I gained more life experiences, I began to expand my view of the world.
Within a decade after graduation, I had left my hometown and moved to three other states before finally settling down where I now reside. In 1983, I had an experience that put Dont go near the edge to a reality test and that made a lasting impression on me.
In the spring of that year, I took part in well-known personal development training. I was so excited about what the two-weekend training had done for me that I decided to immediately do the accelerated version of the training several months later. One of the days of this accelerated training was devoted to the ropes course, the first activity of which was the zip line. For the zip line, I had to ascend up a very tall set of stairs to a platform the height of which I dont remember exactly but high enough to be able to zip across a large gorge. I was attached to a harness with safety lines which were attached to the line that was suspended across the gorge.
The moment of truth came when the zip line instructor said Put your toes just over the tape on the edge of the platform and when you are ready, take a step off. My brain heard the command. Unfortunately, it wasnt signaling my legs to execute it. It was probably overridden by the voice screaming inside my head Dont go near the edge! After a time, probably a bit longer that the instructor hoped for, he repeated the command. I edged my toes just past the tape, grasped the bar above my head and took a step off. I remember my breath catching in fear as the weight of my body pulled the harness taut with a barely audible sound.
Across the expanse of the gorge, traveling at a fairly good clip, I was focused on my body, my fear and my destination point on the other side of the gorge. It couldnt have taken too much time...maybe 20 to 30 seconds...to reach the other side. Once my feet touched ground, the crew members on the destination end of the zip line where there to help me end my trip and disconnect me from the apparatus. As they busied themselves preparing the lines for the next persona man from France I had been talking with as we waited in lineI remember sitting on the ground, still a bit shaky, still feeling my tension. But I had done it, I was safe.
Soon the man from France had taken his step off the platform and within a second, I heard a happy whooping sound, then Magnifique (Magnificent), Incroyable (Incredible, unbelievable) all the way across the gorge. He was still spouting happy expletives as he made contact with the ground and was laughing and hugging staff after being undone from his harness. It suddenly dawned on me I could have been having fun! Instead, my fear kept me focused on surviving, enduring and getting across. It never occurred to me that I could have really enjoyed it. I asked a member of the crew if I could do it again (this time, by gosh, I WOULD have fun!), but was told in essence sorry, one time per customer.
Now, I will never discount the fact that I accomplished something that day. For me, as a terra firma loving woman, I had taken a risk. There was something valuable that came just from doing it. I had stepped way out of my comfort zone and way out of the sheltered life I had known. (By the way, the zip line turned out to be the piece of cake part of the ropes coursethe Tyrolean Traversegoing hand over hand on the same line across the gorgeand the Rappelling, were far more challenging, but I did them too.) But the most valuable lesson I learned came from that man from Francethat despite fear, there is an excitement to be savored in taking risks, in going past limits I accepted as the norm as a member of the environment from which I had come.
More than twenty-five years later, well into midlife, I find myself once again taking risks and setting out on a new course. There are such wonderful highs and some not so great lows. At times, I have my doubts despite loving what I am doing. Whenever a new opportunity arises that will push me past my comfort zone, I take a deep breath and step off the edge. When I begin getting stuck in worry and fear and begin to hyper-focus on the goal to the exclusion of the process I am going through, I just have to remind myself Magnifique, Incroyable...enjoy the ride, scary as it may beit is as much a part of attaining the goal as the destination point itself.