Went for a post-prandial lurch down to the local shrine in my neighbourhood the other evening. How it works in Taiwanese culture is that every district has a small temple-type arrangement, which serves to protect the residents from harm and as a font for wishes, prayers, and acts of piety and remembrance for the dead. There are apparently larger setups, one per city, which serve as the central faith hub for the entire city, though I’m afraid I have yet to visit one of these. What the movies got right is the open floor plan around a central table or similar, and the congregants lining up to receive a stick of incense with which they approach a screened-off altar and silently offer prayers or make requests. What the movies missed out on, perhaps due to budget concerns, is the on-site presence of both a crèche full of screeching anklebiters and a communal hall which at this very moment is being enthusiastically and sweatily occupied by the All Taiwan National Elderly Women’s Synchronised K-Pop Dance Team, who for medical reasons require that the jam be turnt up all the way to 11. Once I’d come back from the outer reaches of Iveseensomeshitilvania, I realised that I was the only person there without a look of total serene contentment on his face, that not one other person in this intensely holy place was bothered by the noise and what I can only assume was the love child of an affair between a Rorschach test and a sweet potato building up to an admittedly astonishingly flexible and well-timed Shmoney Dance just a few meters from their serious prayer session.
And then it hit me. Far be it from me to pander to stereotypes, but South Africans are fond of a party. They’re loud, sociable, and really don’t need that much in the way of Dutch courage in order to have a good time and make new friends. But then, come Sunday, something bizarre happens. The same grown men, and believe me I’m speaking from experience here, who spent the night hitting on teenagers and honestly, truly believing that nobody saw them pissing up against the bar, are suddenly in church with an expression on their faces, a strained, sweaty kind of seriousness, that can only mean some serious religioning is about to go down. Contrast this to the man who until just a few hours ago was driven entirely by the ambition to drink enough Jägerbombs that you’d have no choice but to fall into bed with him out of a strange obligation birthed from a combination of pity and awe. Left to his own devices, meanwhile, your average Taiwanese goes about the daily business of prayer with a minimum of ceremony and no particular urge to play the role of pious upholder of the moral fabric of society for anybody other than himself. Religion is a private and internal affair in Taiwan, and as such there appears to be an understanding that the actions of those around you, here in a very literal and loud sense, have little impact on your life and your prayers, and that to take notice of and be bothered by the kids playing nearby or whatever during your meditations is not just unnecessary but a kind of dishonesty about the nature of what you’re doing. What good, I wonder, does it do to lie to god about the kind of person you are, to separate your moral and immoral lives through careful image maintenance? Wouldn’t god know?
It’s called riya in Islam, the act of convincing oneself that one acts toward the veneration of sovereign, when in fact ones actions are overtly or covertly intended toward attracting the veneration of the self by society. Now, I don’t presume to know a great deal about religion generally and Islam specifically, but I do know that taking away what’s due a much bigger and stronger person than yourself is a proven way to attract a smackdown, and that the extended historical persistence of a deity more often than not directly correlates with an itchy smiting finger. Perhaps it is only the Old Testament gods, and I sincerely hope this is the case, but I came across a resource a while back that states thus: “god is not love; god is power, and power is not the same thing as love”. But I’m not doing the resource justice. Here check it out, it’s got a fascinating logic of consolidating good and evil as two facets of the same gem (http://joyrip.com/#sthash.q2OQ95W0.dpbs). It is, even the shallowest of evangelicals will admit, a very human habit, in our pettiness and our insignificance (galactically speaking), to assume that sovereign cares for us, watches out for us, owes us something even. A beyond-being, possessed of power outside the physiological and psychological capacities of human understanding (thanks for this line by the way, Mr Rickman. I hope you’re happy, wherever you’ve gone…) and unlimited in scope and vision, which is nevertheless squeezed by narrow human minds into the penguin-suit and bowed back of attentive servitude? Nah, bruh. You can’t even be arsed to clean up the coffee rings on your kitchen counter, and you assume that The Ultimate owes you a leg-up in life?
But then again, quoth the devil’s advocate, convince yourself that the signs and symbols that crop up each and every day in your life are anything other than confirmation bias, and you can’t help but feel a certain, I dunno, otherness at work… So some personal confusion, obviously. This bothers me more than a little, I’ll admit, for a cynical soul would be right in saying that teachers are especially prone to riya, owing to a work environment that encourages competition for status through attempting a unique re-evaluation of an old theory, or manipulating kids into liking you through assuming a totally different professional persona. But a story springs to mind. The other day, off to the local IMAX with my boss and her family for an eardrum-shattering, awe-inspiring, paradigm-shifting viewing of “London Has Fallen” (9/10, because death humour), she and I somehow end up discussing people-watching. And of course, since a kicked dog never quite forgets the boot, I attempt to explain away my lack of appreciation for the club scene as an appreciation of aesthetic “realness”, wherein it is just so much better duh to be in a coffee bar or in a park, having real conversations with real people, because obviously clubs are all about impressing other people, about donning another, fake, personality in order to be someone you’re not, lest the sucking blackness inside take you. To which, ever patient and beyond petty melodrama, she responds that, surely, assuming another and presumed fake personality is just a way of giving voice to another, very real, aspect of your so-called real personality? Good and evil, war and peace, button-ups and Tap Out shirts, bacon and lettuce and tomatoes plus bread: all separate and distinct facets of one unified, glorious, interlocked, and scrumptious whole. As it so in the warring between the tribes of the library and the sports field respectively, surely it is so between the prayer that rattles the church windows and the prayer that must out of necessity be kept quietly confined in one’s own head, lest it get out and lay waste to a city block?
In the end, though I’m fully aware that this statement is (a) an easy way out of thinking critically, and (b) a total invalidation of everything I’ve written above, I am and was consoled in my daily life and through a long history of patience-bending service industry jobs by the words of The Big J himself, the truest and realest OG that ever lived for sinners and died because some prick nailed him to a cross, Jesus Christ. Among other things, well worth delving into by the way, hint hint, he speaks about it never, ever, being his place to judge. Thank whatever gods will listen for difficult people, for they are a vivid example of how you don’t want to behave. I hope it’s more complex and nuanced than this, but it seems to boil down to either there being a sovereign god, in which case your judgement is pithy and unimportant in the eye of a greater plan, or there is no sovereign god, in which case you are but an inestimably tiny ball of chance and good intentions mucking about on a speck within a speck within a mindbogglingly huge cosmic void until such time as your inevitable and entirely meaningless death.
Now that’s the kind of positivity I can get on board with.