Why we do what we do

Bitco David and I chewed the fat today about cabbages, kings, and other things – when the topic of personal responsibility, choices, and we do what we do came up.  I commented that my educational background was in cultural anthropology and I figure anyone who works with people, as I did, would be better off understanding cultural anthro first.  David shared his experiences regarding choices made under pressure.

Often the choices we make are influenced by what is going on internally or what is going on externally.  It is not really a “freedom of choice” thing.

Anyone happen to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from college?

In general, people make the best decisions they can from the options they are provided with at the time.  There may be no good options.  If  you need food, water, shelter, and warmth then you do what you have to do to get it. There may only the the best of the worst options.  Attempting to survive is not making decisions you have to live with – it is a primal need.

A freely made decision is more like having someone take you to any restaurant of your choice and tell you that you can order anything you want and they’ll cover the tab.  That is freedom of choice. Making choices based on limitations isn’t so much a choice as a desperation move.

Back when humans moved from troop-primate behavior to clans or tribes we didn’t have members of the clan who were not valued.  Everyone worked together to survive.  It is true that a blind or deaf child might die young due to the harsh living conditions, but any member of the clan that survived helped doing something.  We know from Neanderthal graves that they took care of people with serious injuries or deformities.  These folks did not live in a vacuum.

A deaf child grew up with the clan and perhaps did not speak.  But there have always been signed trade languages around the world.  It would be wrong to assume there was no communication.  The child would develop a “home sign.” That child could help gather food, as an adult perhaps was a skilled flint knapper or had some other skill.  Similarly, a blind adult or a mentally ill adult who hallucinated voices or visions, or even an epileptic might be a shaman.  Life was hard – we all lived together or we all died separately.

Nowadays we have deaf culture, which actually doesn’t meet the anthropological definition of a culture (but, oh well…) and we treat the less than perfect as if they were defective in some way.  Yet, in our past we cherished each member of our kinship group because we were all necessary to the survival of the other. The cognatively dull could still participate in gathering or cleaning or hauling water.  A man or woman who didn’t adhere to the rules of the kinship unit were not sent to jail, but were punished through loss of wealth, loss of esteem, or loss of power – and the ultimate punishment was expulsion, a near-certain death sentence.  There were no prisons.  Those are relatively modern.

We have teenage gangs now – as well as then – because they replicate the very primal need of primates to expand out from the home group – the unattached males. Only back in the day, there were older males teaching them how to hunt or how to become “men” through various means. We don’t have it now – haven’t for a long time – and we have chaos as a result.  There is no place for them to go – no new territory, no way to make a mark in their world.

Our rituals are largely gone.  Our extended families are gone.  We think the nuclear family is king, when it never was. We don’t invest in each other.  We barely know our neighbors.  We hear people screaming and don’t even call the police.  When I was a kid I learned braille to learn to write to a blind friend.  I learned ASL to talk to a deaf friend.  I had friends with withered arms or legs from polio and didn’t consider them defective. When, as an adult, I worked with the homeless, they were more likely to have empathy for someone else who was suffering than most of those who see suffering as a personal choice.

The deaf in our modern society are isolated in a way they have never been until more recent history. No, they didn’t have all the amenities that perhaps we do now, but they had family.  There were communities of the deaf that sprang up on Martha’s Vineyard and Paris (among other places) when society began concentrating in the past 300 or so years.  We didn’t always have such barriers and separations.

And because our communities were smaller, our families larger and more involved with each other – people knew who was deaf, hard of hearing, blind, etc. Nothing then or now is perfect, certainly, but our alienation from each other seems more complete now than at any time in the past.


  1. I have always invested myself in others. I’ve always been the friend who people turned to and I just naturally reached out to help those in need. Now that is much more difficult, but still I try. Now I’m much more invested in my friends on line, mostly those who have chronic illnesses.

    In my real world I feel alienated. My old friends do not know how to handle my illnesses, or my loss of hearing (it all happened so fast, and as I was getting sick, they were starting families…I don’t blame them, but it has hurt)
    I don’t feel that I fit in anywhere, but home, and on line. I’m not happy with this, and think it will change as I get stronger, but for now, I’m mostly alone, except for my husband.

    I don’t fit in with the hearing world because I can’t hear a lot of what is said, I can’t hear in groups, and I can’t hear if someone speaks behind me.
    I don’t fit in with the Deaf Community because I have a CI, and I know very little sign language. (everyone says to learn it, but it’s really a hard language to learn when you are 50 years old, and can’t find a good teacher).

    Why I do what I do….right now it seems like it’s necessary. But I do find ways to add to society. I’ve begun to work on making blankets for the needy. I can crochet even on days I can’t get out of bed. Through my blog I think I’ve reached people who felt very alone with there illness. It helps me so much to know I have helped those people just a little bit.

    I love the way you write, and the things you say are so important.
    I’m glad I found your blog.

    1. Howdy Wendy,

      Investing is the same whether it is In-Real-Life (IRL) or in cyber life. At least, that’s my opinion. 🙂

      It is in times of challenge that we find out who our real friends are. Or, perhaps, who our “rainy day” friends are (ala Gordon Lightfoot). I’m actually more of a rainy day person. People who are having fun in the sun can always find people who want to have a great time. It is when times are difficult that we really need others who are good in the clinch. I am more likely to be in someone’s life on a more immediate basis if they going through hard times. That’s just the way it is for me.

      Remind me… how long has your Meniere’s been at catastrophic levels? I was impacted young (14) and struggled for a good 10-12 years and then it burned itself out (except for the lingering issue of progressive hearing loss and tinnitus). I sometimes have light-headed feelings, I sometimes get dizzy when getting up from an exercise mat (I’m told that is positional dizziness), but I no longer suffer from full-blown Meniere’s dizzy spells.

      Like you, I have a foot in two worlds I was mainstreamed and expected to function in a hearing world (despite always having hearing problems). I still can in some situations – in others, notsomuch. In a one-on-one situation where I control the environment I generally do pretty well. In any amount of noise I start to have problems. Groups are a huge problem for me. I do better in ASL environments, although I’m not really where I need to be to transition. And, honestly, my family does not sign so I’ll always be in two worlds.

      Now, realize that lots of folks in their 50’s and 60’s learn ASL from scratch. I have a friend (David of DeafInPrison.com) who is “of an age” and he is learning it using meetups and some materials I loaned him. He is going to start making it possible to connect to the meetup remotely, so once that goes online you can practice in the virtual realm.

      You might want to start going to SigningSavvy.com (the free site) and check out some of the other sites I mention on the ASL resources page. Even if you don’t learn grammar/structure you’ll learn signs – and signs end up being strung together so that when you meet Deaf folks they can help you with your grammar so long as you can make the sign. Don’t make more barriers for yourself. Where there is an Internet connection there is a way. 🙂


  2. Marsha,
    Thank you for all the good advice and resources. I’ll check more out.

    My meniere’s story is long. I’ll try to be brief. First attack I remember happened late in 1993 or early 1994…that winter. Then I had them rarely for years. In 2001 I started having attacks more often, and ended up in the ER one night after throwing up for close to 10 hours. That’s the first place I heard of Meniere’s. The ER doc suggested I get tested for BPPV and Meniere’s. I went to a well known ENT, he said I had Meniere’s in my right ear. He gave me a tube in it. I was fine for a while. (my doctor now says I just went in remission again) This happened over and over. Then I went Bilateral fall of 2009. The ENT I was seeing said he really didn’t know much about Meniere’s. I told him he was fired.
    I went on a search for a doctor who specializes in vestibular disorders, especially Meniere’s, and found my otologist. By this time I was having vertigo numerous times a week. I had Endolymphatic Sac Decompression on my right ear spring of 2010. Then on my left ear Dec. 1st 2011. (oh, I got hearing aids March of 2011) My hearing in my left ear plummetted in June of 2011, and never came back, we kept thinking it was fluctuating and would come back, but it didn’t. I got my CI in July of 2012, in my left ear. Now we are planning for one in my right ear. It still fluctuates, but is down beyond my hearing aid’s reach most of the time.
    I still have mini vertigo attacks often….but some are Migraine Associated Vertigo, and from Intracranial Hypertention. I had 3 severe attacks last year. A big difference from having at least 1 a week.

    A lot of doctors don’t say it Burn’s Out any longer. My doctor doesn’t. He says your symptoms my get less, but it’s always there. He said there have just been too many people who have been told they had burn out then 10+ years later they have an attack. He’s at Duke, so you know they think differently than a lot of doctors. I know that’s been a great thing for me, but some people think they are too questioning.

    ahh…breathe. so that was probably much more than you wanted to know.
    In a nut shell, I’ve had a pretty rough 3 years. Not only with the Meniere’s but my migraines have gotten much worse. However, don’t get me wrong, I’m ok with my lot in life. I have much to be grateful for….like having people like you pop up in my life.
    thank you for all your encouragement, and sharing of all your knowledge.


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