When a crab crawls out of its basket

From a very young age we are each cast into a mould. It shapes us as we shape it. We grow and evolve among like-minded people, or at least, among people who share a part of our mould. But as we grow, that mould solidifies. It shaped us and was shaped by us, but now it holds us in place. We are trapped: crabs in a basket.

Those who share our mould have an interest in its solidity – in their stability. And so each time we maintain our position in the mould, reach each moulded milestone, we are congratulated. Our stability props up theirs, reinforcing the mould and our shared part in it.

If our fellow crabs go to university, get jobs, settle into suburban bliss, maybe get married and pop out a sproglet or three, and we each do the same, we are bolstering the mould’s walls. We can feel safe, secure. By choosing the same path, we reinforce the decisions of others, who see themselves as like us, but also in relation to us.

But what happens if we deviate from the path? Maybe we don’t get married. Don’t have children. Don’t go to university. Our fellow crabs will feel uncomfortable, but in most cases, superior. They will pity us for not filling out the mould, not achieving, but they are not threatened by our perceived failure. We are safely tucked beneath them in the basket.

But if we decide to follow a different path, achieve different goals, it’s another story altogether.

The moment we start to escape, our fellow crabs panic and desperately try to claw us back inside. Like boiling water poured over them they flail and cry, and grab and scrabble. There is no congratulation, but no pity either. Instead, we are criticised, reviled, ridiculed. If we climb up and over, we leave them behind to face the boiling water alone.

But it is not only our leaving that weakens the mould. It is also changing our position within the mould in relation to them. We may have grown up being the Quiet One, the Left-Out One, the Sporty One, the Nerdy One, the Fat One or the Thin One. Whatever our role, it is part of the mould, and a part of our group identity. Breakaway from that, try to get louder, get noticed, gain weight, lose weight, binge drink, have a sex change, however mild or extreme, and the crabs will again claw us back. Because when we shift they have nothing to hold them, shape them, and also nothing to shape.

In some ways, this is more threatening to the mould than climbing up and over. It is abandoning the mould – rejecting it, and their part in it. We will cause the mould to buckle and shift, showing others that it is not immutable, but malleable: they might have chosen another path, too.

This post first appeared in Rhonda Perky’s Bits on Sep 6, 2010

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