I am confronted on a daily basis with images of the beautiful, the cheerful, the successful, the problem-free. We all are… the cultural narrative in the west seems to be dominated by these kinds of aspirational images. This is part of what has made television, films, and many novels so difficult for me to consume; these images and narratives are boring. They don’t reflect the complexity and subtlety that I see in the people around me, nor the horror of the world that I live in. In fact, I have come to feel as though these things are consumed with the intent to self-anesthetize… to escape to a place where people don’t struggle to feed themselves, a place where everyone can be beautiful and successful.
I don’t want to be anesthetized, and the lack of complexity makes it all feel so grotesquely false that I have a difficult time maintaining interest.
I love the world that I live in. I love its beauty and I love its filth. I love the joy and the pain, because it is real, and because it means that I am still here. As trite as it sounds, without pain the joy becomes nothing more than mental noise.
When I was in school in Singapore, I took a comparative religions course. We were studying Hinduism, and during a discussion on the nature of the goddess Kali, one of my classmates, an American, raised his hand and said, “So Kali is the Hindu devil?” Of course, she is not. She is an image of death, of change, of ferocity and empowerment. She is a much darker and more complex view of divinity than that which is presented by the gentle shepherd Jesus, or the white haired, white robed God of current Christian myth.
I was stunned to hear someone trying to force the facets of another culture into the modern Christian framework, and moreover I felt that the question displayed an inability to grasp the complexity of human existence. For that student, good people are good, bad people are bad. Good things are from God, and bad things are from the Devil. In all honesty, it’s difficult for me to blame him, since this is what American culture has been about for decades.
It’s strange, because western culture used to include stories that were more complicated; stories in which normal people did extraordinary and even terrible things. Our stories used to have death and torture and rape in them, even children’s fairy tales. And I’m forced to wonder; is it the deification of the binary that has caused such a simplification? Our stories seemed much more real and complex when we existed as pantheistic groups, and even in highly organized polytheistic systems, such as Hinduism or the Greek and Roman religious structures. Though more ancient and arguably more barbaric, these models seemed to more realistically represent the complexities present in the world as viewed from a human context. Even in native faiths, the so-called trickster archetype represents so much of the conflict present in humanity; the generous and the selfish, the foolish and the wise, the brave and the cowardly. So in monotheism, which prizes the binary, the good and evil, how can we not be presented with a watered-down, patently false, greatly simplified, pre-packaged non-challenging view of the world?
I actually don’t believe that Christianity (just to use an example that I am most familiar with; I haven’t done a great deal of research into Islam or Judaism or Sikhism) was always this way; from having read some of the non-canon books of the bible, we can see some foolish and dastardly behavior from some good people. I do, however, believe that the modern religion has been pruned and groomed to simplify. Why? I don’t know. I’m not a cleric, an historian, or a sociologist… but given Christianity’s history (again, the one I’m the most familiar with) with oppression, a history that continues in the modern day, I would say that it is probably because it makes people easier to control and manipulate.
It also sells really well. I guess a view of the world in which the good guys all wear white, and decisions are easy to make, and in which the virtuous are always rewarded can be attractive… but I feel that it leaves us ill-prepared for life as human creatures. It does not outfit us with the tools needed to cope with reality; with sadness, death, horror and ugliness.
Our oral histories, our pantheistic traditions of storytelling, used to fulfill this purpose. Within them we were presented with complex ethical situations, with conflicting goals, and with death and pain. We are without the trickster, without the rapist god, and without Kali. When the world that we are forced to interact with does not sync with the simplistic binary model, we are left with disillusionment, alienation, and a sense of existential loss. Death is practically taboo; the corpse fetishized and preserved, images of death in media conversely dramatized and sanitized… if you have ever watched someone die, you know that it is not so clean nor peaceful nor dignified as it is often presented in the media, unless it is depicted as a highly dramatic event, the worst possible thing that could happen. Which feels strange, knowing that it is perhaps the one single thing that will happen to every man-jack of us. We are confronted with smiling, successful, and beautiful people, who are sad or angry due to outside influences… and then we look at our sometimes miserable selves and wonder what is wrong with us.
Nothing is wrong with us. The illusion, as attractive as it may be, is simply not real, and its temptation leads us into lives that are less real, less honest, and less fulfilling.
I don’t want that. I want to live, to be me, and to see things as they are to the best of my ability. I want problems to solve; I want to feel that moment of clouds clearing after a storm. I want intensity. I want reality.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my way is just a harsher version of the same drug. I will tell you, though, this way feels a lot more interesting.