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“I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts…it is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant all the same, and we can never be rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it, I fancy I see ghosts creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the world. They must be as countless as the grains of the sands, it seems to me. And we are so miserably afraid of the light, all of us.” – Ibsen (from his play “Ghosts’)

Sometimes when one of us proposes we do something different than the usual way it is reclined along the following dialogue:

“I got an idea, rather than going to Kobalt on Friday as we always do, let’s try going to Bar-1”

“No thanks”

“Why not?

“It is custom” (translation: I don’t want to change what we usually do).

This expression is a tongue-in-cheek reference taken from a book (I forget which one) about a man visiting a country in which he encounters a lot of questionable if not downright dysfunctional attitudes and actions. When he asks ‘why’ or suggests alternative ways of doing and thinking he is told over and over the way things are done are done as ‘it is custom’. No one is willing to think outside the box let along alter the status quo.

“It is custom” is one of mankind’s greatest impediments.* Most of the time we are so enmeshed in cultural norms we don’t question them. It is sort of like a fish being asked how’s the water and it thinks what is water?” A lot of my professional and personal life is getting folks/ myself to recognize what they are immersed in isn’t an absolute truth nor is it unchangeable.

Speaking of my own culture (America), a lot of misery and disease here derives from it. If a person fails it is their own damned fault. Public shootings cannot be stopped. Health care is not a public service. Many in the land are beginning to question these so-called truisms. They either try to alter things and are met with the resistance of thems in charge who are all too ready to say ‘it is custom’ or they devolve into dropping out of society. The rise of depression/anxiety in the land (especially in children and adolescents) is correlated with the consequences of ‘it is custom’ thinking. They are immersed like fish in the foul waters and do not thrive. Society addresses problems with pat answers and band-aids and the usual point-the-finger-at ‘them’ who are the scapegoats.

I don’t know have answers to fix things, but I can do my part by constantly challenging ‘it is custom’ beliefs whenever I sense one. Given our negative bias towards things we tend to think ‘it is custom’ ways cannot be altered. This is not so. When enough folks do what was considered written in stone can change. Let us hope so.

I wrote this on a Monday morning before the work week began. I will challenge patients with depression and anxiety to look at the context and their surroundings for contributions to their symptoms. “It is custom” can questioned at home/at work/in the nation and maybe make a difference.

*Other impediments include our tendency to split folks into ‘us vs. them’, to obtain more than is necessary, and build strip malls.

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