The Wall in the Armenian Mind

"There is some part of your brain that insists that the cost of being wrong is infinite and another part of your brain that insists that the cost of missing an opportunity is zero. The truth is nearly the opposite."
—Kyle Bennett

One of the things I miss about Americans is their proactiveness. Whatever their other shortcomings, they have a higher level of openness to new experiences than the people of virtually any other country I've been to. When an American learns about a new concept, technique, or tool, and they understand why it would be a good idea for them to incorporate it into their lives, they will generally begin to act on what they have learned. You can show them better ways to do things, and they will be quick to forget the old way and replace it with something they see is clearly better. Progress happens quickly there, on both personal and collective levels.

American culture facilitates change and innovation. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it is a relatively young country, founded less than 250 years ago. Furthermore, it is a nation composed of immigrants: people who left their original homes and longstanding traditions. Perhaps it has something to do with the ideological premises behind the American Revolution of 1776 that enabled breaking with the rule of monarchy and all the backwardness inherent to the concept of divine right to rule. Whatever may have changed since then, The United States was initially founded on the concept of the individual as sovereign.

Armenians, though, are steeped in millennia-old traditions and an overbearing cultural identity. One consequence is that they have a lower internal locus of control. Though Armenians may be generally creative and intelligent as individuals, it does them little good to think in complex ways about big problems if they cannot put the solutions they arrive at into practice. The Armenian mind can generally think for itself very well. There is only a wall separating that capacity to think from the equivalent capacity to act.

There's a difference between understanding an idea and putting it into action. The wall in the Armenian brain is that which separates and compartmentalizes ideas from their associated actions. It forces Armenians to live in a divided subjective world, one where they conceive of how things can and do work and another where they must do what others insist is necessary to do. For an integrated mind, there can be no separation between the two.

Armenians have fallen into the habit of talking about, promoting, and publicly associating with exciting new ideas. It's a popular trend here, especially among the young. But when unprecedented action is required by endorsing these ideas, a different personality takes over. This part is afraid of standing up or stepping out. There is safety in numbers, it thinks, in conforming to the herd's general motion. Making noise attracts the attention of those who would only harm.

Zebras and other Serengeti prey animals learn to stand together in broad groups that obscure their numbers, making it hard for predators to be sure where one zebra begins and ends. The hunter is an opportunist. It always looks for the easiest target to minimize its chance of failing to procure a kill or, even worse, being hurt in the process. No prey animal can risk being the one to stand out from the crowd and get picked off. Doing whatever other zebras do, no matter how little sense the herd's actions make, is a matter of survival.

At first, I thought the failure of the Armenians in my life to do the things they kept telling me they were going to do had something with me. "Yeah, Gregory, we'll try that. We'll do that. Of course, we'll get you involved in this thing as soon as possible." I kept waiting for all these things to happen, for years in some cases. Indeed, these kinds of speculative ambitions were part of the reason I bought my house in Kalavan instead of any of the other villages I looked at around Armenia. I thought that maybe the people making these kinds of empty promises just didn't like me. Maybe I smelled bad. Maybe I had offended them somehow. But I realized it was happening everywhere in the country with virtually everyone. I began to perceive the wall in the Armenian psyche that stops them from acting on their thoughts.

Thinking is not choosing. Thinking is easy. Thinking is like watching TV. A thought just flows across the screen of your mind. Ideas only require the intellectual faculty to hold them in mind. They are easy to feel enthusiastic about. Armenians are great this. Where they fail is with the choosing that comes with all that thinking. It's an emotional deficit: a type of shame induced by long-standing intergenerational trauma. Choosing makes your actions conform to your thoughts, which makes acting on an intention or ambition possible.

"One thing you should learn about Armenians is that they are faking themselves most of the time. They will tell you that they are interested in something you propose. They will tell you, 'Yes, sure. I will do that tomorrow. No problem. I'm looking forward to it.' But you should learn to ignore them most of the time. They are not going to do it. Do not believe what they say. They just repeat the words they think they should say. And it doesn't matter that they don't have a reason for not doing it. They just will not act unless they are forced to."
—Advice from a local

Many Armenians will openly characterize their culture as depressed, victimized, and self-defeating. In fact, I have never been to a country with so many generally intelligent and skilled people who are so deathly reluctant to apply their intelligence and skill. There is some sort of pathological fear of stepping off the beaten and culturally condoned path in both setting goals and devising strategies to achieve them. It is often only upon receiving unspoken permission from an authority figure that any new idea is seen as realistic and worthwhile here. But when friends, family, and even all of society will criticize or attack you for thinking differently, fitting in with their demands becomes a matter of survival.

Consequently, Armenians often won't see obvious opportunities to solve problems, improve the outcome of their actions, and therefore improve their lives. They look around and don't see the rest of the herd acting differently, so why should they be the first ones to? The idea of figuring things out on their own through trial and error or self-study seems too fraught with the risk of making a mistake along the way, and all mistakes are interpreted as lethal. They haven't learned how to believe in themselves and push themselves to become and achieve more than what they observe is possible around them.

There are severely damaging drawbacks to being conditioned with such prey mentality. Perhaps you will never even try to look for opportunities to improve yourself and acquire more of what you value. Your mind is not accustomed to processing unconventional improvements to the ordinary. You do not give yourself emotional permission to act on what you can observe and rationalize as true. Permission to act would require breaking down the wall that divides idea from action.

A particular class of Armenians seeks to knock down others who act in ways not sanctioned by local culture and authority. This is also a further manifestation of unconscious fear about their capabilities. Coercive meddlers feel impelled to enforce the same rules that are enforced upon them, to spread their limitations to everyone they know and have been told they should identify with. Anyone acting out of line is a threat to them, or so they have been conditioned to believe. How one arbitrary person happens to have done something must be the only valid way for all people sharing the group identity "Armenian" to do it. Whatever currently exists must always be what exists at the cost of anything potentially better.

The enforcers of collective limitations interrupt the natural process of learning how to manage one's own life through trial and error because they believe that enabling such freedom would only lead to injury and failure. Thus, it becomes personally offensive to them. Imagine if someone succeeded in their unconventional actions, actions that nearly everyone has been brainwashed into thinking can't possibly work. That challenges paradigms of normality and threatens the stability of herd dynamics. To deny Armenians the opportunity to make their own choices like this (and bear their consequences) is to neuter their highest potential and clip their wings before they ever use them.

"Sometimes, I am ashamed that my goals are not the same as every other Armenian. I feel like I am supposed to make marrying someone and having kids as the most important goal. When I see my ideas are different, I dont know what to feel. I feel bad because I have a different way of thinking. I feel even worse when I act the way I want to. I don't know how to escape this."
—Confession from a local

The Armenian mind has ample raw intelligence and capability. But still, the wall rests between how they know things ought to work "in theory" and how they make their choices and perform their actions "in reality." Without synchronicity between the two, all aspects of life here are condemned to function less effectively than they could. Few people live up to what they are capable of because they accept cultural limits that have nothing to do with what is physically possible.

The pivotal change for Armenians, the tearing down or knocking through of the wall in their brains, will not come from the mere introduction of newer, better beliefs. They need the emotional confidence to begin enacting those beliefs. They gain confidence by observing real-life examples of outliers succeeding where the general still fails. Demonstration does more to overcome trauma and cultural inertia than compelling arguments and theories.

But there will never be a mass movement of change here. Only individuals can bridge the gap between understanding and action, intellect and conviction. Only people who care enough about something will develop the strength to act on what they know is true, even if they are the only one around who knows or is willing to do something about it. They have to be brave and self-confident enough to be noisy outliers in a culture that compels them to shut up and play along for protection against imaginary threats.

In a frictionless ideal mind, there would be no resistance between realizing something is a good idea and putting in effort required to put that idea into action. In the real world, there is always some sort of delay and inefficiency to contend with. But we can work to optimize the transition. Armenians can begin to assess why they believe what they believe or why their actions do not align with what they think. They are smart enough to perform this critical self-inquiry but must be emotionally motivated. They have to believe in themselves as authorities capable of determining how things can and should operate on their own, even if they are the only ones in their herd willing to stand out from the crowd and risk being seen.

To Armenians who think bureaucratically and authoritatively, truth comes from on high. Somebody in a position of authority tells the rest of us how we must act. The population is allotted only a small variance of opinions surrounding the dictated truth. People have consciously and unconsciously influenced you to think that certain limitations are in place for what you can and can't do. So even if you don't have any conscious reason to believe these things are true, you emotionally respond as though they most certainly are. It's how you end up with a culture of very depressed, very limited people. Their doubt is the product of placing someone else's judgment above their own, and thus never fully believing in themselves.

For all the problems I could talk about with the Western world, I still miss its emphasis on the value of individual thought, speech, and action. It largely encourages individual discretion and for people to figure out for themselves what works and what life means to them. The encouragement of individual inquiry and expression is something Armenia could benefit enormously from. Every Armenian is an authority unto themselves, capable of observing the world, making inferences and deductions, asserting their values, and determining what is right and wrong for them.

"Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear,
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers.
Tear down the wall!"
—Pink Floyd, The Trial

How can anyone living under these conditions start to respond differently with their emotions than everyone around them? Merely asking this kind of probing question. By doing so, you're consciously analyzing an unconscious trait about yourself. You are thinking about it now. You are wondering, "Why am I like this? How could I be different? Should I be different?" That's what will allow you to eventually change your unconscious emotional responses and tear down the wall that blocks you from putting your knowledge into action.

Choice either stops ideas at the recognition stage or moves them onto the higher state of implementation. Choice is a thought propelled into motion. Whenever someone realizes that some new idea is right and good, there should be an accompanying change in action. "I know this is right, and I will now do something about it" becomes the new creed.

Choice becomes a bridge instead of a wall between the two, a horizontal connector instead of a vertical divider. Willpower rises to meet the capacity of the intellect, but only if someone believes in something strong enough to overcome the fear of novelty. Without belief in something strong, the mind defaults to fear and panic when confronting the unknown. That's what Armenians are still missing: something to believe in that will carry them forward, this culture out of its traditional limitations and into a brighter, more equitable future. 

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