This crust of dirt we proudly inhabit is remarkably not normal. Not in the least bit. And it doesn’t require a profound observation. It just requires a suspension of what we accept as normal.
After all, isn’t our idea of eating at a dinner table nothing more than putting pieces of carefully arranged green leaves on lacquered stacks of wooden planks? Do we not take oddly shaped pieces of metal to puncture and saw away at slabs of finely cut meat? And when we have an entertaining conversation, aren’t we really just speaking gibberish? We point, reference and label something as something, and string together sounds to make a longer sound.
Our lives are a complex history of many disparate beliefs, some so connected to our core identity that we never once stop to consider them aberrant. But as any newcomer in a language class will attest, without any understanding of a targeted language, the sounds and symbols produced may as well be arbitrary nonsense. A language makes sense only insofar that the vast majority of its native speakers agree on its intricate grammar and pronunciation. But that’s also true of everything we believe and understand.
Religion holds scared truths and hidden revelations only to its believers. The grand finery worn by bishops and the subdued monastery robes of Shinto monks have only as much meaning as your beliefs are willing to go the distance. Yet, a grasshopper would not distinguish between a nun in vermilion robes or an overdressed ape. Likewise, an atheist would feel no more spirituality from being inside a ‘holy’ church than a Muslim would in a blessed tribal pagan ritual.
Faith holds sway only in proportion of the strength of its followers. Because governments give concessions to many religions, it is often taken that religion is in some way a valid truth vessel. Yet, if not a single person believed it, wouldn’t it be true to say that the pope who wears long, white and sleeved robes may as well be the biggest (and most successful) cosplayer in the world? With a generously endowed beard, he would make for a fantastic Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
Power, however it is measured, is also proportional to the people who believe in it. Kim Jong-un only makes as much sense as he has because not only can he threaten military retaliation, his soldiers and government are built on a huge belief: that he is a deity, or if that fails, a powerful warlord. We pay attention to him because he can materialise the threats. Put Kim Jong-un in any other country and he will probably he your typical geeky South Korean gamer who eventually kills himself from gaming too much.
It’s not new really. As children, we played games of impersonations, pretenses and bad acting. But they worked out to be hours of simple childhood fun because the participants believed in them, albeit for a while only. But even at that age, we believed plenty: we point at a wooden piece and acknowledge that as a chair; we put on clothes because everyone believes it an offense if you went otherwise; as school prefects we follow instructions because everyone in the committee agrees to an accepted behaviour.
Depending on which country you reside in, being a plumber can be highly respected (and sometimes a well paid job) or a career that eventually ends up in the flush. In Singapore, you will hear people aspiring to give talks or to venture into science…but plumbing? Or a domestic helper? Not at all. Our collective beliefs are that powerful – to the extent that plenty of people have killed themselves over academic pressure, a failure to conform, or the inability to achieve success.
Even monogamous marriages, which are a recent social invention, reflect a powerful underlying belief – we now construct plenty of stories, poems and movies over undiluted loyalty to our significant other. In contrast, during Japan’s Heian period, court and marital affairs were the norm rather than the exception. Depending on the system of beliefs that reign at the moment, you can either feel really good about yourself or suffer an existential crisis.
And even if we understood our lives are predicated on nothing but fragile, whimsical and capricious beliefs, we still suffer crippling depression or feel great joy because it is that difficult to escape from this grand construct we call life. It is truly the game of life.
So have you thought (HYTA) about how your life is constrained by beliefs?