Or do we have the ability to alter them?
My grandfather was an immigrant who found refuge in the United States, sailing right past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor. He was only 14-years-old and made the journey by himself. He was charged with earning enough money to bring over his mother and sisters and he did so. He found work in the garment industry, in the sweatshops of New York. There he spent an entire lifetime bent over a sewing machine working on the same pattern day after day, year after year for his entire adult life. He was a captive of that single pattern, attaching collars to men’s jackets.
When I think of that work, I think of how important the making of patterns is to every human being. The human brain is actually a pattern seeker and it develops by looking for patterns and finding them everywhere. The mind searches for an organizing principle in order not to be overwhelmed by experience and, in this way, function in the world as it is. To function well, it must be neither too rigid nor too fragmented. At either extreme, psychotherapy names a disorder, be it obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or schizophrenia.
How many of us could spend a lifetime inside the same pattern over and over? The answer is that we all can and do, albeit less consciously than the assembly line worker. It is the only way that the human brain can organize the flux of images and information coming at each of us every moment. The human brain itself is a pattern seeker and a pattern maker.
Gender and race are two of the patterns that most of us depend on unconsciously hundreds of times every day to anticipate our interactions with others, especially strangers. It takes only a split second of vision to make these judgments. As we mature, we are able to question these patterns and even to alter them if they no longer serve us well. The essence of consciousness is the ability to question these unconscious patterns. It is also at the heart of psychotherapy.
Patterns are organized by meaning or what I prefer to call mattering, to include the mind and heart. Reframing is one technique for changing the meaning, which allows the pattern to shift. With a reframe, you can now see differently. Many therapies, especially the existential and constructivist approaches, rely on this breaking of the pattern to achieve a new meaning. For example, when the typewriter was first invented, it was considered machinery that only men could operate. That belief changed 180 degrees and, in our contemporary climate, has lost its gendered identity as men and women alike use computers. The activity has not changed at all. Only the gendered meaning has. Each of us has the ability that my grandfather did not have, that is, to update the patterns. It was not in his hands, but it is in yours.