Walif Chbeir understanding culture

I’ve lived over five decades across three different continents, witnessing firsthand both subtle and drastic differences in the lifestyles of those who call home France and Canada, and I’ve recently returned to a land whose culture I hold dear, my birthplace of Lebanon. When I reminisce on years spent in each distinct location, I consider every experience forged beside all the fabulous people I met, every sight that stole my breath, every enticing scent and unforgettable sound, and I recognize in each a binding agent; a glue of sorts, which defines and ties all unique experience, be it sensory or interpersonal. Culture, while it may be what divides us into differences, is foremost an agent of unity. Because regardless of where we’re from or whatever else we may possess, culture is a thing we all have, and it’s a thing we all somehow share with every human being we meet.

To understand an individual’s culture is to understand a massive facet of themselves, as culture is the common lens through which our defining experiences are filtered. Consider how you know what you know. Consider the combinations of symbols and sounds you use to separate the world into specifics, taking and naming bits of sensory input based on what you’ve experienced those who most surround you call them. A chair is a chair, of course, but it’s also un silla, kursi, chaise, and thousands more. Language is a crux of culture; the way in which we separate, order and define our symbols varies just as distinctly between languages as it does between individuals.

Consider why you do what you do, think about the subtle pulls which direct your every reaction, tugging you toward actions meshing with a set of commonly held ideals, beliefs, or perspectives, based on how you’ve experienced those people you hold close act in response to everything.

Some tend to think of culture as (relatively) static in the short term, maybe even rigid; a legacy we’re given, bigger than us. But living in the human blender that is Lebanon (and elsewhere) has allowed me an alternate definition of culture. The culture I see is fluid; individual. Because culture, like ourselves, only exists in relation to the cultural distinctions cast by others, and just as images shift appearance based on their level of light exposure, every person’s culture morphs a bit in relation to the ideas and symbols cast by those with whom they surround themselves. This is easily proven; simply ask multiple people of the supposedly same culture to define or describe that culture; I guarantee you’ll never get the same answer twice.

What is important is to realize an individual’s culture is really their individual culture. To understand culture not as a set of supposed strictures which predefine, but as the adhesive which slips into individual spaces, pulling differences and distinctions toward one another not as opposing forces, but as mechanisms of unity, bundles of shifting ideals, beliefs, perspectives and mannerisms which only gain mutual meaning when traded, swapped and shared.

walif chbeir