“Xenophobe: A person unduly fearful or contemptuous of that which is foreign, especially of strangers or foreign peoples” [Wikipedia]. Regardless of where you fall personal on the spectrum of political opinion, you have to be at least a little awestruck at the recent US presidential election. There’s a reason why there’s been such an outpouring of public jubilation: as a country, we’ve just punched through another critical cultural barrier that for generations has kept our country from achieving its highest aspirations. I can’t stress strongly enough how significant this process of tearing down cultural biases in public and private is for a person or a people to gain access to a life of signific ance.
In other articles, I’ve written about how damaging the cultural biases toward extreme individualism and ruthless competition have been to the male psyche, putting serious roadblocks in the way of self-examination, self-expression, and essential network-building so that midlife for many males becomes literally an overwhelming crisis, rather than the path to full maturity that it should be. To overcome this debilitating isolation, men need also to overcome their life-long cultural biases. Today, I want to add this third cultural bias – uncertainty avoidance – to the other two. As a matter of fact, I believe that this cultural bias, that afflicts peoples as well as individuals, must be overcome in order for a person (or a nation) to attain maturity.
The cultural phenomenon called ‘uncertainty avoidance’ (see Geert Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations) depends on how strongly one agrees with the statement, “What’s different is dangerous.” With the current election, the majority of voters in the US, at long last, has publicly repudiated that paranoia. I can only hope that this will make it only that much easier for those of us who are entering the midlife transition to do the same. I’ve also commented in previous articles that fear lies at the core of every midlife crisis. Exactly what the dimensions of this fear may be depends entirely on the physical, mental, psychological, cultural and spiritual makeup of the individual. The more profound the perceived change may be, the more difficult it will be for a person to transcend this ‘other = different = dangerous’ reaction, and, consequently, the more difficult will be his or her transition into maturity.
Who are the men and women who have successfully completed the transition from adulthood to maturity through the midlife passage? They are men and women who either possess an innate sensitivity and openness to others (and therefore can interact cooperatively with others without fear or anger), or, they are people who have passed through a personal ‘trial by fire’ where their arrogant self-reliance has been tested and found wanting, leaving them in a state of humble interdependence. In short, life has taught them the difficult lesson that it’s often necessary to ask for (and accept) help, and accept reliance on others as an important precondition for any kind of meaningful growth or progress.
What lesson can you take away from this experience? Only this: that the difficulty you’ll experience with the midlife transition (and the consequent probability of having to experience midlife crises) increases in direct proportion to how fearful you are of the ‘other:’ that is, people who don’t look like you, or talk like you, or think or believe like you, or behave like you. The more xenophobic you are, the more difficult that your midlife transition will be because, after all, change always means leaving the old and embracing the new: losing something to gain something else; allowing the old to pass away so that something different can be born.
Whether you experience that transition in terms of fear or excitement – whether your focus is on what you may be leaving behind or what you’re about to gain – will determine, to a great extent, the ease and, ultimately, the success of your transition. The majority of the voting public in the US made their decision known last night. How your decision plays itself out in your midlife transition may yet to be seen. Either way, the forward thrust of acceptance, trust and engagement will always overcome the backwards drag of fear.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown
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