How to Overcome Societal Traps

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Once we are born in the material world and become members of society, we are thrown into a sea of social norms. These norms can be laws, rules, regulations, customs, traditions, and other forms of behavioral regimes. Social norms when effectively enforced can be coercive to people. Each norm carries with its sanction and punishment. This sanction can be psychological such as ostracism, rumors, and gossip, public shaming, etc. or penal in nature such as imprisonment, suspension, banishment, or paying off fines. Norms limit our freedom and action in society. They also structure our mental life and thinking. If caught by authorities violating them, we can be trapped in society for life.

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One story that struck me in a documentary shown in a local television is the story of a homeless Filipino migrant in the United States. He said before he became homeless, he lived a happy family life with his wife and children. But this happiness was overturned when his wife filed a divorce. The law on alimony in San Francisco requires a husband who divorced his wife to pay 70% of his monthly income as a support to his wife and children. According to him, this has radically changed his life. He was unable to keep up with the payments and incurred debts from the government. Thus, he lost his job and left his normal life and became homeless. He can’t return back to his old life since this implies paying his huge debts and finding a high-paying job. His story is an example of a societal trap in the material world that people may sometimes find themselves imprisoned, unable to free themselves from material bondage for violating societal norms. For people who live without a spirituality and life of prayer, to live a societal trap is probably the end of the road. It can be a life of boredom, without meaning, progress, and hope.

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Material bondage is not an end, however, for people with a deep sense of spirituality, particularly for those with strong beliefs in the supernatural or God. Religiosity can provide people with a sense of meaning and purpose which can “empower” and provide them with a sense of control in the face of potentially stressful events (Hood 1974; Matton & Rappaport 1983). Spirituality can give us resilience and courage to face difficult situations in life. Thus, one secret to transcending the limitations of our material limitations is searching of an appropriate spirituality that fits one’s ultimate goals in life. Searching for ultimate values and meaning of life is the key to purpose-driven life that transcends the material world. This is not escapism but an acknowledgment that there is more what the material world can offer.

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Chasing the Ultimate Meaning of Life & Happiness

       Do we really know where we are going to in life? The following lines of the song of Diana Ross entitled “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” are loaded with philosophical and sociological meanings that can challenge us to find the ultimate meaning and happiness of our life:

     “Do you know where you’re going to,

Do you like the things that life is showing you,

Where are you going to,’

Do you know?…”

Happiness Depends on Our Ultimate Life Goal

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We only live once in this world. As rational beings, we are creators of meaning. What makes our life meaningful would depend on our ultimate goal. The primary goal we envision for our life is what basically guides us in our daily living. Its achievement can ultimately make us happy. The quality of our happiness would fundamentally depend on this life goal. If our supreme purpose is to seek wealth, then our happiness would consist of gaining profit in our investments, increasing savings, achieving dominance in the market, creating new breakthroughs in business innovation, etc. If our ultimate purpose is to chase pleasure in food, sex, alcohol, or other forms of addictions, then our happiness will be enjoying and prolonging pleasure in our bodily senses. If our basic aim is to love God by serving others, then happiness would be spiritual consolation and the joy of serving God’s poor and underprivileged. If our aim is to change society according to our ideology or political beliefs, by fighting oppressive social structures and regimes, then our primary happiness would consist of personal joy of seeing that some of our reforms are realized in society. In short, our ultimate life goal can define the quality of our happiness.

Our view and enjoyment of happiness, however, can change through time. We are historical beings. Our ultimate life goal change as we continually search for the true meaning and value of life. That is why we hear conversion stories of people who have found their true meaning of life and change their original life goals.  St. Augustine of Hippo, for instance, was a true sinner and womanizer before his conversion to Catholicism. But after he found Christ in the Gospels as the true meaning of his life, his personal life radically changed, from being a pleasure seeker to being an avid servant of Christ and a great theologian of the Catholic Church. In his famous book, The Confessions, St. Augustine declared the basic orientation of his life: “My heart is restless until it rests in you, O Lord!”

Happiness as Cultural

People from various walks of life can have different goals and philosophies in life. Thus, one may inquire: Which ultimate goals in life are “superior” or more sublime than others?  Is serving God or humanity a superior goal and object of happiness in life than seeking pleasure, chasing wealth, fighting for social reforms or some other noble or religious purposes?


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Well, the unintended consequence of becoming human is to be born in a particular set of parents and community and to grow up in a particular culture. We neither choose where we must be born nor control how we should be brought up as a human being in society by our parents or guardians during our formative years i.e., from infanthood to early adolescence, which is said to be crucial for our personality formation. Social scientists believe that each culture is as good as the other. Thus, there is no “inferior” culture and cultural conception of what constitutes a meaningful life. Culture plays an important role in constituting one’s ultimate goal in life. If one is brought in a capitalist culture which puts more value on material prosperity rather than spiritual pursuit, he or she would more likely see the ultimate goal of his or her life in terms of material pursuit rather than in terms of service and growth in holiness. If one is born in a primitive society and culture where following tradition and communal goals supersedes personal ambitions, then the individual life goals would more likely reflect the collective goals. If one is born in a criminal sub-culture where people in the neighborhood are members of criminal syndicates and often talk of deviant techniques and criminal exploits, then expect the members of this neighborhood to pursue criminal careers and see prosperity through crime as the ultimate purpose in life. Unless there is external intervention or socialization on non-criminal or religious pursuits, individuals within this subculture could never be converted to other forms of lifestyle and non-criminal worldviews. Thus, it is crucial for individuals to think outside the box and explore other worldviews through education to go beyond the limitations of one’s sub-culture in understanding the ultimate purpose of life. Some people change their worldviews and goals in life by mere reading of books. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, was converted from a hedonist soldier to a spiritual mystic and founder of the Society of Jesus, the largest religious orders of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church, by accidentally reading the book of the saints while recuperating from a serious wound in a castle in Spain and asking himself: If the saints can do great things for Christ, why can’t I?



Is There More that Meets the Eye?

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Is there more that meets the eye? Is there a life beyond the material world?

There has always been a debate on the existence and relationship between the two dimensions of life: the spiritual and the material. For Christians, the material dimension is not the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. Christ said: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole worldbut loses his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The Beatitudes also warn Christians that the poor in spirit are blessed by God, implying that accumulation of wealth can be dangerous to people’s salvation. A true Christian must be detached from material wealth and spiritually attached to God. But does this mean that one must be materially poor to be closer to God?

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The word “detachment” from material wealth does not mean material deprivation. Material detachment is an attitude in life that sees wealth as a means to an end rather than an end in itself as many materialists and hedonists would believe. A person can detach from material things if his or her ultimate meaning or goal in life transcends the worldly life and anticipate the coming of  the afterlife.

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The German sociologist Max Weber made an interesting study on the connection between religion and capitalism. To him, what drives the Protestant capitalists (especially Calvinists) in Europe in expanding their businesses is not pleasure or mere accumulation of wealth for fame or honor, but spirituality: becoming wealthy is a sign of God’s blessing and being predestined to be saved by God in the next life. The Calvinist Protestant theology that guides the spirituality of these capitalists views capital accumulation as means to an end. Thus, Protestant capitalists, Weber discovered, were frugal, determined to expand their business empires since they see the connection between accumulation of capital and salvation.

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Whether we believe it or not, life has two dimensions: the material and the spiritual, the real and the ideal.  Life is more than we eat. That is why religions are born to give meaning to the great tragedies and mysteries in life, such as death, oppression, or exploitation, and to the realization that there is more that meets the eye, that there is a reality “out there” beyond human experience.

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Some people who believe in the afterlife theorize that our mind and memories continue to exist after death.  Our mind is said to be a repository and recorder of our all experiences while we still live here on earth. To George Mead, our mind is a social product. What is registered there reflects our human experiences. The power of our mind is confirmed by the near-death stories of patients who briefly died but were able to revive, confirming that our minds are still active while our bodies are in coma or being declared clinically dead for a short while. If our mind is a recorder and continues to exist after death, we can hypothesize then that we can take a glance and review our entire life after death. We can then take a panoramic view of the quality of our entire life after death through our memories and consider it as one big dream.

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What brings more happiness to our consciousness during this life review after death is probably not the wealth we have accumulated nor the fame and status we achieved in life as they are part of our past material life but the spiritual realities of joy and loving memories we have had with our loved ones, with people we sincerely helped, and with our God. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, who has achieved the pinnacle of success in the world of technology, business, and innovation, allegedly mentioned during his dying moments that what matters most in life is not wealth which can turn a person a “twisted being” but matters unrelated to wealth and memories precipitated by love:

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… In the darkness, I look at the green

lights from the life supporting

machines and hear the humming

mechanical sounds, I can feel the

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Now I know, when we have

accumulated sufficient wealth to last

our lifetime, we should pursue other

matters that are unrelated to wealth…

 Should be something that is more


Perhaps relationships, perhaps art,

perhaps a dream from younger days.

 Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only

turn a person into a twisted being, just

like me.

 God gave us the sense to let us feel

the love in everyone’s heart, not the

illusions brought about by wealth.

The wealth I have won in my life I

cannot bring with me. What I can bring

is only the memories precipitated by love.

Whether these words were indeed uttered by Jobs or not, they, nevertheless, contain wisdom and insight on the limits of our physicality and material happiness.

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Overcoming Opportunity and Relationship Traps

The Need of Intervention in Societal Traps

Serious societal traps or problems require external intervention to free people from serious problems. Powerful individual or groups can liberate the poor and the helpless to end up their cycles of abuse, dependence, and poverty. Three young children in one rural community in the Philippines became orphans after their parents died in an accident. There were no relatives who adopted them. They continued to live in their makeshift home. The eldest was around 11 years old while the youngest was still 4 years old. In order to survive, the eldest sibling stopped attending school and worked as an errand in a local hardware, carrying heavy loads just to earn one dollar per day in order to buy food. In this case, if no external intervention is forthcoming to save the kids from this trap, their suffering and societal trap would continue.

No Person is Totally Powerless

A societal trap can still be overcome by the individual through the creative use of strategies and tactics given the limited resources at hand. People are resilient. One of the best insights we can probably learn from contemporary theorists of power, particularly from the French philosopher and theorist Michelle Foucault, is the idea that power is not possessed through social class or status but exercised through effective strategies and creative use of manipulation and that no person can be considered totally powerless and helpless. Each one can somehow use his or her limited resources creatively to overcome a problem or desperate situation and overcome a societal trap.

The story of David and Goliath in the Bible reminds us that there is no invincible enemy or insurmountable problem as long as people are creative in their use of of their limited resources and inspired by a spirituality or strong belief in something supernatural. The giant Goliath is obviously physically superior compared to the boy David in the Biblical story. But the latter won over the former through effective use of strategy and skill. David used his intelligence and creativity, represented by the use of a sling, to defeat Goliath who obviously relied only on his size and physical power. Moreover, David tapped another powerful arsenal to maximize his courage and determination against Goliath—his strong faith in God and  strong belief that winning against Goliath is “doing God’s will.”

The Importance of Spirituality

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To overcome societal traps requires, first of all, a spirituality to provide people with courage and determination to face their adversary. This probably implies a “conversion” to a religious belief, ideology, or anything superior than the self. People who agree to become suicide bomber, for instance, require a socialization to extremist religious beliefs and practices which embolden them to commit suicide for the sake of religion or ideology. So, if persons are aiming to overcome societal traps, they have to prepare ourselves for a societal ‘fight” by harnessing their life of prayer and spirituality. Life is a battlefield that requires personal strength and disposition to face the challenges and conflicts. Merely following psychological prescriptions would not be effective if the interior self is not prepared spiritually to fight societal traps.

After people have developed a strong sense of spirituality, they can probably be ready to think creatively or strategize to overcome own societal traps,   given their limited resources and political power in life.

On Opportunity Traps

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People live in a society that is highly structured in favor to those with more power and influence, whether in one’s group, organization, institution, or society. Opportunities are usually structured in favor to those who have superior talent, resource, ability, or strong political connections with the powerful. In a highly “unjust” societies or dysfunctional organizations, opportunities are not based on merit and qualifications but often based on personal and political connections, on “who one knows” and not on “what one knows.” In this case, the option is either they transfer to another system or organization to escape a the “toxic” corporate system or become innovative in the organization.

One employee is trapped in one company with toxic culture. His salary has not been increased for a couple of years. He was not promoted either because of favoritism prevailing in the company. He has no personal  connections with those in the top management. He cannot also leave the firm because his children are dependent on his educational benefits.  To escape this opportunity trap and raise his family income, he engaged in an online retail business during his spare time. After his business became big, he resigned from his job and gained financial freedom and liberate himself from the opportunity trap. There are lots of success stories of people who were able to rescue themselves from opportunity traps by simply being innovative and creative in addressing their difficult situation, silently creating opportunities to free themselves from the opportunity trap.

On Relationship Trap

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Every relationship, especially involving romance or marital love, has its own functions and dysfunctions, costs and benefits, no matter how sour or abusive is the relationship. It is not easy to separate from a relationship that has somehow fulfill some material or emotional needs of one of the romantic partners. Every failed romantic relationship usually begins with an intense feeling of attraction, intimacy, and mutual care between partners and end up in separation and animosity. Human beings are historical. Romantic partners can change as societal environment changes. Thus, a relationship which begins with an intense feeling of love can end up with a strong feeling of abuse and animosity between partners. One form of relationship trap is staying in an abusive relationship. This can happen in a romantic relationship or in marriage. Abuse can either be verbal or physical.  One study showed that women stayed in an abusive relationship because of the following reasons which can be delusional:

  1. They believe that they can change or save their partners’ abusive behavior., that they are called by supernatural powers to become “saviors” of their abusive husbands.
  2. They appeal to loyalty: They do not want to leave their husbands because they are loyal to tradition or promises to their parents or relatives.
  3. They need their abusive partners’ companionship and support. No felt alone if they leave the relationship. Abusive husbands also have their moments of care after each abuse.

These reasons are not sufficient to allow or tolerate the husband’s abuse. Thus, the state must create more meaningful programs and support systems to liberate women from this type of relationship trap.

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What changed in society to make people so heartless?*

*This post is taken from my answer in  at

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When society becomes more highly urbanized due to massive out-migration from rural to urban, social alienation of people would intensify.People would be uprooted from their kinship network of relatives which serves as a social protection against intruders and deviants. In the city, people become strangers from one another and thus increase their distrust for one another.

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The social psychology of living in the city, therefore, requires dwellers to use one’s intelligence first rather than the heart for security reasons, and in this sense, they become “heartless”! They would not easily welcome strangers into their homes nor easily help people in distress for fear of being victimized by crimes. They would analyze first the situation carefully before helping people.

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This seems to be the general pattern for city dwellers and are therefore seen as “heartless”. The use of the head rather than the heart in the city is not intentional, though. It is one of the negative unintended effects of living in a society with high social alienation and social risk.

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Living in rural societies is different. People are united by common values and beliefs or what Durkheim calls as mechanical solidarity. Rural folks usually know the kinship ties in their community and are familiar of community members. Thus, the trust is high and can easily use their heart rather than their mind in helping people.

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