Experts in intercultural communication remind us of the importance that narratives and rituals play in our lives and in orienting us to our own identities, history, the norms and expectations of our society. Each society uses rituals and narratives for this purpose, and they combine to form powerful tools to teach us.
I’m thinking of the opening scenes of the Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It, where Norman MacLean describes beautifully how he and his brother learned at the feet of their father, a Presbyterian pastor who taught them the value of faith, fluid writing, and fly fishing, in equal measures.
As Norman said:
“We were left to assume, as my younger brother Paul and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John was a dry fly fisherman.”
Learning the values
Hours of painstaking practice, on a daily basis, reinforced their father’s instructions on these three values which had long been central characteristics of this Montana family of the early 20th Century. Norman and Paul learned the lessons well.
When I see that film, I can’t help but think of the times my own grandfather took me trout fishing, and of the times I took my own two sons to hunt for the big bass on Indiana lakes. Then I think about the much greater amount of time the three of us have spent apart, glued to the computers.
The stark truth
Let’s face it: You don’t get much connection to the family or your own identity from the Internet. You may learn about them, but they don’t become ingrained in your DNA as Norman’s and Paul’s lessons did.
Instead, our time spent in the virtual world of the Web provides us with narratives that are snippets or soundbites, constantly interrupted by hyperlinks to “related stories” to which we happily leap, distracting our attention from the main story or narrative that — frankly — was getting a little too long anyway for our short attention spans.
Welcome to the virtual world
And instead of the rituals of the family dinner, learning writing or fly fishing from Dad, we spend hour after hour vicariously living others’ experiences, often with a stand-in avatar for us as we get lost in some online video game or doing armchair traveling around the world.
We already know we have become more splintered as families as everyone heads off to their own laptops to explore their virtual worlds which may not be representative of the corner of the world we inhabit at all. That being so, how do we expect to understand that culture as our parents and grandparents did?
It’s not just family members going their own way, but also members of the same culture or society doing the same thing. The younger we start out exploring the world on the Web instead of the real world in front of us, the more time we spend away from the rituals and narratives that teach us about that culture.
And, since we learn a lot about our own identity from our culture, we make it harder to discover that identity.
No mall directory
Is it surprising that we wake up one day to discover that, like the first-time shopper in a huge shopping mall, we have no idea where we are in relation to the places we want to be or how to get there? There is no mall directory, because there have been no narratives and few real-life rituals to point us to our destinations.
The other day I was watching a TV commercial for one of those online services that helps you track your family tree. Something like Ancestry.com. There was this woman who was talking about her great-grandfather as if he were someone from an alien planet whom she knew absolutely nothing about until she paid this online service to discover his identity.
Then I realized, I don’t even know who my own great-grandfather was. As a child raised on television, I can tell you the name of Tonto’s horse, but not the name of my grandfather’s dad or mom.
A telling sign about how we’re losing our sense of our own culture? Wouldn’t our grandparents chide us for side-stepping the importance of knowing our own family history?
Is our time spent in the virtual world, as opposed to the real one, exacerbating that disconnect from our own culture? At best, it doesn’t help.