Monday, January 31, 2011

orphans in another time

There's something to be said for putting a dearly-held belief in another context.

This morning, I wondered playfully about the number 666 whose definition on the Wikipedia web site includes:

In modern popular culture, 666 has become one of the most widely recognized symbols for the Antichrist or, alternately, the Devil. Earnest references to 666 occur both among apocalypticist Christian groups and in explicitly anti-Christian subcultures. An appearance of the number 666 in contemporary Western art or literature is, more likely than not, an intentional reference to this number of the Beast symbolism. Such popular references to 666 are too numerous to list.

I did read an LATimes article once that suggested this bit of biblical extraction was mistaken. It just happened to be a wrong translation and the number was actually something else ... something like 616. But let's not let facts cloud or revise widely-held beliefs. If popular references are "too numerous to list," think of all the hard work that would be entailed in revising that belief.

Anyway, my goofing-off thought pattern went like this: What happens to the deeeeep meaning and importance of 666 in a culture that has not yet made friends with numbers? The strong, or even absolute, sway of the belief collapses of its own weight. If a belief is utterly correct and no one believes it, what happens?

Or take the example of the people in (was it? I can't really remember) Nepal or someplace landlocked and similar who placed an enormous value on a certain kind of shells. The shells acted as a means of trade and as a matter of status (I've got 100 shells, you've only got 10). How would that play out along the ocean's edge, where shells were as common as salt water?

I once knew a Roman Catholic priest who had spent 15 years living with a jungle tribe of Indians in Brazil. Tony loved living there (until his church sold the Indians out), but he did have to make some adjustments. He was forced, for example, to make friends with local shamans who had their own way of solving a difficult pregnancy/birth. The shaman would beat the woman's belly with a stick as a means of getting the baby out. Even if Tony had had the medical experience, how could he convince those who were convinced, en masse,  of the shaman's methods?

In Egypt, lately, there are thousands of people in Cairo's streets calling for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the long-time ruler. The United States, which funneled billions of dollars into maintaining Mr. Mubarrak's stable, if repressive, regime has shifted course and now urge the man they propped up to listen to the will of the people. What was once a solemn and praised relationship seems to be losing its belief-based (money, power, location) savor.

And the list goes on and on. In this country, there are evangelicals and stock brokers and college professors and Buddhists and motorcycle fans and ... the list goes on an on. Many, perhaps most, use their own belief systems to counter or set aside or criticize the belief system of another.

But what I find interesting in all this is not so much how alliances and enmities are created by firmly-held beliefs, but rather the unwillingness the individual might feel when taking a 'given' in their lives and placing it elsewhere ... in a place or thought-mode that simply does not believe or hasn't the tools to comprehend the serious nature of what the individual has decided is serious. Surely beliefs have a way of encouraging wonderful accomplishments and wonderful horrors, but the willingness to use beliefs as the tentative mind-sets they actually are seems hard to come by. And this unwillingness leads invariably to sorrow and confusion because, of course, there is no perfectly-accepted belief, no absolute, sure-as-shootin' framework.

Popularity simply cannot assure peace, so it is worthwhile to investigate these soaring spires that in another time and place might simply be a pile of rocks or less. Just because we are surrounded by orphans doesn't mean we can't learn something from them. I don't mean that embracing a listless, preening relativism is likely to still the scene. I just mean that releasing our grip, bit by bit, on what seems like family but actually proves itself over and over to be a lonely orphan is worth the price of admission..

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