Self-determination is the ability to re-parent ourselves: to learn new ways of being that may be very different from the ways we learned as children.
This is difficult, uncomfortable work, but it broadens the path for the feet that follow, making it easier for all of us to out-grow not only consumerism but also all the forms of separation and alienation from each other and from nature that have befallen us.
This article follows on from “Out-Growing Consumerism: School, Screens, and Our Kids.”
An abrupt transition to a new kind of matrix
We are social and adaptable beings. Our lives depend on our fitting into and becoming part of whatever environment and culture we find ourselves in.
This served us well for 90% of our history, when we lived in relatively small, tightly bonded groups of hunter-gatherers, in harmony with our environment and knowing that our well-being was interwoven with that of all other life-forms.
Throughout this time period, the “work” of children (which was achieved through endless play) was to soak up every nuance of the social matrix they found themselves in.
Children didn’t need their parents to screen anything out, because all of the ingredients in the “informational soup” that children were immersed in was useful and needed.
And adults could focus on their responsibilities and relationships far more easily than we can today, because there were no distractions.
The transition we’ve made from a relatively simple and deeply connected existence to a vastly more complex and disconnected one (I’m not talking about the internet here), has happened, in evolutionary terms, abruptly.
Our brains, and the ways we learn, have not had time to catch up.
Our children are still absorbing EVERYTHING around them – and to a very large extent, so are we.
Parenting our children; parenting ourselves
Children are designed to soak up every aspect of their environment without reservation, without discernment, including everything they’re exposed to digitally. They learn all of it, integrate all of it into themselves. Childhood capacity for learning and absorption appears to be limitless.
As adults we continue to be shaped by our environment, but we also develop a new capacity for learning and growth – the ability to self-examine and to self-determine.
To me, self-examination and self-determination include looking closely at our own thoughts, habits, and choices, and deciding if they reflect who we really are or want to be.
We can also examine the influences that are currently shaping us, choosing which to keep and which to screen out.
This takes conscious effort and presence of mind; it doesn’t come easily at first. But it’s literally the difference between living a self-directed life—a life you consciously choose for yourself—or being directed by external influences.
In the world we now find ourselves in, we must parent our children with a new level of awareness of how their environment shapes them – and we must do the same for ourselves.
Things only go wrong (or they go a lot more wrong) when we leave the parenting up to the consumer culture.
The work of parents
We tend to assume that the work of parents and others who care for children is to teach them.
But in fact, if we look at how children have learned for most of our evolutionary history, we see that children learn by themselves.
Our work is not to teach them, but to lead the way by setting an example, mentoring them, and providing them with appropriate resources, materials and experiences. The fodder for growth, if you like, that they need.
Our other work, now, is to screen out the stuff they don’t need.
We need to screen out physical toxins from our children’s food and environment.
We need to pay careful attention to what’s filtering in via digital sources, and work to provide options that build our children’s brains and prepare them to make good use of digital technology, rather than have it use them.
And finally, we can do much to clean up the matrix for our children by parenting ourselves – doing our own internal “house-cleaning and house-keeping.”
Cleaning up our own act
As parents, and as adults who are individually and collectively responsible for where we’re all going, our greatest leverage point is not anything “out there.”
It’s not anything those “other, not-me” people are doing.
The first and most important place we need to focus if we want to make a real difference is “in here” – at the coalface of personal awareness and personal growth.
Unpacking the past, to give our kids a better future
We don’t come to adulthood with a clean slate.
Because of our sponge-like absorbance of everything during infancy and early childhood, we’ve unavoidably downloaded from previous generations all that they’ve learned and all that they were and are—good and bad, painful and joyful, functional and dis-functional.
New dynamics have surfaced since we left the circle of firelight, lived through industrialisation, modernisation, and digitalisation, and listened to experts who told us it was a good idea to use machines rather than our own hands to grow our food, hold our babies, and care for one another.
These powerful new currants have undermined our capacity for compassion to the extent that we now actually debate whether humans are altruistic or selfish by nature.
(I believe that we are altruistic by nature and selfish as a result of the forces that have shaped us recently, but that is probably a topic for another day.)
Regardless, I think we would agree that the challenges humanity faces and has faced have left their mark on us in the form of a complex and challenging inter-generational inheritance.
After we’ve reached adulthood, if we choose to, we can unpack this inheritance, examine it closely, and begin to see what we can do to clean it up a bit.
We can work to integrate it, to heal the parts that need healing, honour and preserve the parts that serve us and will serve our children, and let go of the parts that don’t.
The secret work of adults
This internal house-cleaning is work that provides powerful leverage for individual and planetary healing when an adult, committed and courageous, descends into it. Alone.
Although friends, family, and professionals can all provide needed support, ultimately when we work to bring awareness to not just the nice parts of who we are, but to ALL of it, it’s a lonely journey that no-one else can undertake on our behalf.
“The secret work of adults is that we are all still growing up.”
In my experience several things happen when we dedicate ourselves to this work, when we lean, as much as we can, into the painful parts of it and allow the tears to wash us clean.
First, the resources we need to support us and guide us tend to show up when we need them.
Second, we find that this is the most powerful investment we could have made in our own well-being and self-actualisation.
And third, we build in ourselves the capacity to bequeath our children and grandchildren a blueprint for life that has more of what will serve them well, and less of what will impede them. We lighten the load we’ve been carrying, so there’s less baggage to hand on to our children.
Which leads me to the responsibility we have for using this gift of self-determination wisely.
The hardest work there is
As far as we know, no other creature can undertake the rapid individual evolution that adult humans are capable of.
We can observe our own habits, reactions, thought patterns, belief systems. We can consider where these all came from, and what are the forces continuing to shape them. And we can change them.
We can literally re-parent ourselves: learn new ways of being that may be very different from the ways we learned as children.
Underdeveloped adults, consumers, adrift in a culture of materialism, struggle to find ways forward. We find ourselves falling back, again and again, into the mire of blame, accusation and alienation from each other.
We continue the fight – the good fight, for things that matter, but nonetheless a fight, a continued fragmentation of something that needs to be whole.
Fully actualised, self-aware adults, in contrast, are capable not only of independence, but also of interdependence. Such adults can hold the space for reconciliation, healing, and repair in ways that are not possible for those who are not whole themselves.
In hunter-gatherer or indigenous cultures, part of the crucial ceremonial work of older adults would be helping younger adults to grow continually in wisdom, perspective, discernment, and personal power.
Now, WE must do this work of growing our own selves up, of parenting ourselves, so that we can individually and collectively out-grow not only consumerism but also all the forms of separation and alienation from each other and from nature that have befallen us.
This is the hardest work we will ever be called upon to do—but each person who steps onto this path broadens it for the feet that follow and eases the weight of the world.
“A path is made by walking on it.”
This concludes this five-part series – thanks so much for reading!
Download a free copy of “Out-Growing CONSUMERISM – The Series.”
 “Hunting and gathering was humanities first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90% of human history.” From the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Also: “What Can We Learn from Hunter Gatherers?”