I'll admit it–I'm a tad embarrassed.
I can't decide if I'm embarrassed in light of the nonchalant display of nudity that is currently lounging alongside of me–quite proudly, and with reason, if I do say so myself–on this clothing optional beach, or if I'm embarrassed for another reason–perhaps at my own relative prudishness, something that seems to stand in stark contrast with my normally quite liberal, open-minded ideals.
Either way, it's causing me a bit of uninvited self-doubt.
My inability to look at the naked man alongside of me without feeling the heat instantly rush to my face serves as the unexpected reminder that, just maybe, there's a part of me that's still subconsciously tethered to the rigid, puritanical ideals that have shaped the belief system of our nation–one of the belief systems that I've been so meticulously attempting to unpack, examine and, in most cases, reject in favor of a less inhibited way of life.
But here it is now, staring me in the face, daring me to put my money where my mouth is.
Yet here I sit, in my white two piece and floppy straw hat, strewn comfortably across a lounge chair in the shade, as those that surround me unabashedly prance about in a friendly game of nude volleyball.
On this court, sports bras are obsolete, and–by gosh–shorts? Don't be silly! Stuffy and antiquated, I tell you!
I have never felt so overdressed in a bikini. A string bikini, at that.
And so I wonder: What is it that prevents me from untying my top and revealing–ahem–nature's work?
Where's This Nude Beach, Anyway?
I should mention, of course, that I'm in Negril, Jamaica. As I write this, there are yellow-colored, cartoonish-looking crabs gliding sideways across the sand in front of me, as the transparent Caribbean water teases them with the possibility of whisking them away at a moment's notice. The water is approximately 82 degrees fahrenheit, the sun is beaming across it, and there's a gentle breeze tickling my face and, of course, there's the well-endowed man to my right who's tickling my reality.
Since arriving two days ago, I've gone sailing with a decidedly charming Jamaican; attempted water skiing, managing to severely bruise the entirety of my left inner thigh; finished Liz Gilbert's Committed while floating aimlessly on a raft in the bay; had to forcefully reject a Jamaican teenager's advances–the DJ of a nightclub–who insisted he loved me within, say, 3 minutes and 26 seconds of meeting me; and bore witness to what was quite possibly the most captivating dance performance I have ever seen–an African dance, performed by a group of incredibly well-built, cut and extremely fit Jamaicans. Let's just say I couldn't keep my jaw closed, with the types of moves these guys were pulling off.
And, of course, as it's the theme of this post, let's not forget the nude beach, mon. As a matter of fact, as I write this exact sentence, there's a couple in the buff passing right in front of me, sprinkled with an assortment of tattoos. (Sorry, no flash photography allowed!)
It Always Comes Back To…
This brings me back to the topic at hand: The limits of my very own unconventional thought patterns being tested by such a simple, almost superficial exercise that I can't seem to pass.
And what it comes down to is the same thing that it always comes down to: Deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that shape our entire perception of the world. Culture is so incredibly powerful in that we aren't as independent in our thoughts as we like to believe; rather, our thoughts are filtered through our given cultural lens, and modified as such. It's unavoidable–everything you do, read, see or hear shapes your brain, and as such, if everything you do, read, see or hear occurs within a fixed cultural context, then it follows that you brain is, in essence, largely a product of your culture.
How Puritan Culture Influences Our Modern Day Thought
So, back to the Puritans. As we all know, they formed the backbone of our culture, and as such, the backbone of many of our perceptions.
Since their influence seems to have had a fairly large impact on us personally, then it seems logical to mention their beliefs, as a sort of indirect internal investigation of sorts.
In brief, to reduce the corruption of the hierarchy that they experienced with the Church of England, they wanted to “purify” things and follow the scriptures to a T. They had a very strong belief in the supernatural. Their lives were bound by and run by religion.
To a point, anyway.
Eventually, even the Puritans own strict religious demands became too much for them to sustain. The experience of American living had taken the edge off of the zeal of the second generation, and efforts became more focused on the building of a society. Yet, the demands of standardized thinking in line with rigid Puritan intolerance wasn't all that compatible for a growing society, and so began the initial decline of original Puritan ideals. Business became more important, and soon we see the rise of–ta da!–the ever-famous Protestant work ethic that we hear often referred to today.
Through the Protestant work ethic, the Puritans were able to experience economic success–one of their largest lasting contributions that is easily identifiable in modern day America, with the heavy emphasis on the value of economic prosperity and social status. In addition, it could be argued that America's relentless aura of superiority had its roots in the Puritan movement as well.
On a more positive note, the Puritans also believed in self-determination, and that each person has the ability to do good. Albeit not the only source, this is reflected in the individualist culture we have today.
And while religion may have taken a backseat to business that isn't to say that the influence of Puritan religious beliefs aren't present today. Many of the high moralistic demands and standardized values that we have today echo those of the 1600's.
These guys meant business; for example, education for the masses was not to educate, per say, but rather so the people could read the bible for themselves. In terms of their views, sexual morality ranked at the top, recreation received disapproval, and Saturday night celebrations were outlawed. Damn. So much for spin the bottle.
It makes sense, as these Puritans weren't just Puritans; they were the radical Puritans who had risked everything in the name of their beliefs, and came to America–likely another reason for our independent spirits. (Though, I do find it a bit of a paradox that they were the original rebels, yet upon having arrived, outlawed all forms of rebellion.)
In Hellfire Nation, James Monroe suggests that the Puritanical desire to create a just society–and its moral fervor in bringing about that just society–which sometimes created paranoia and intolerance for other views, are at the root of America's political landscape. Interesting.
The Naked Truth. Ha.
And so here I sit, still bikini clad, and now with a sense of guilt for being bikini clad. Somehow, I feel as if I'm the one getting the odd stares. I am tempted to make a sign out of a piece of cardboard and prop it up next to myself that reads: Blame it on the Puritans. However, as much as I'd love someone to blame for my reservations, the truth is that my perceptions aside, I'm still in charge of my actions.
And I think that's the important lesson here, when we bring it back to the greater theme of unconventional thinking.
Many of us allow our perceptions dictate our paths in life. In this case, the perception is that nudity is something to be embarrassed about, and so my actions reflect that perception. However, on a larger scale the most obvious example of this is our perception that success means lots of money; so without further contemplation, our actions reflect that perception and we seek lots of money. Or our perception of what constitutes a respectable job; based on such perceptions, we form our lives accordingly.
But, just because we perceive something to be, doesn't always mean that it is, or that something we don't perceive, isn't. As such, sometimes it's better to question those perceptions and, at times, operate outside of them. Our perceptions should not define our lives; our actions should. And in taking a bold step of action, our perceptions are continuously molded in accordance with our experience, and hence, more accurate.
And isn't that where they should be coming from? Not simply inherited from a set of past ideals, but actively created as we live, move, and navigate the world that surrounds us?
So while culture does play a large role in giving us our initial perceptions about things, that doesn't necessarily mean that we must bow to them. This is where the rubber meets the road; there are those who will continue to do things the way they always have, limited by their own beliefs, and there are those who, instead, will embrace difference, allowing their beliefs to be continually reworked and remolded, essentially providing them with a very powerful freedom that few experience.
That is the freedom called living.