In the United States we like to think of ourselves as unique individuals with something special about who we are. We like to see ourselves as separate entities that are differentiated from the rest of the world. There are ways in which this is true, but there are also ways in which we cannot separate ourselves so easily from the world around us. There are ways in which we are not so much our own thing, but a product of numerous other external things that drive our lives.
In the book Stiff, Mary Roach looks at how different cultures and societies around the planet approach dead bodies. She shows how similar many cultures are, but also highlights differences in practices and taboos related to the dead. She uses different examples to highlight the role of culture and expectations that shape what we see as normal and acceptable and what others see as normal and acceptable. Regarding these differences she writes, “we are all products of our upbringing, our culture, our need to conform.”
We are products. The culture and society determine what is possible for someone with our particular set of genes, skills, and aptitudes. Our upbringing infuses us with believes, perspectives, and self-interests from which we can never truly separate ourselves. Our culture reinforces beliefs, norms, expectations, and taboos. While we are individuals within these cultures, we never truly escape them, and we never truly become something separate from them. We are the sum of a great deal of factors that we cannot even count on their own.