What I learned this week reminded me of a story I encountered many years ago during my days of studying anthropology. Even though it had impressed me a lot back then, I had not thought of it for a very long time. Maybe because I was missing the connection to my own everyday life?
Well, here is the highly abbreviated version: Somewhere out there is - or maybe once was? - an African tribe that had a very particular initiation rite turning its boys into men. For them that threshold consisted of a ritualised fight between pairs of boys battling each other. However, the only weapon they were allowed to use was a double-bladed knife. This knife was forged into a ring and worn on their wrists. Thus one blade was facing outside while the other faced inside towards their own skin. Now, leashing out at each other during the fight, every single cut they landed would cut just as deeply into their own skin.
It’s been many years since I thought of that story. What a wonderful - and pretty bloody - way to illustrate such a simple truth: There is no way we can be cruel towards others without being cruel towards ourselves. Each cut we inflict on others is cutting back at us just as deeply. What a powerful way to illustrate the nature of brute force - and the scars it leaves upon us every time we apply it.
I guess the problem with life outside of this African tribe is, it can take a life-time and longer to realise this truth? We are simply missing the rite - that bloody, painful, physical moment of realisation. That moment when an idea turns into experience. After all story is so much easier to forget than a scar.
What a tempting idea to imagine what happened if we were all made to wear such knifes for a while? How gentle and careful it might make us when approaching each other. How gauging and considerate of our own possible loss before entering new conflict or fights? In the end it might just make us tired and bored of fighting against others - just as much as against ourselves?
To me the loss of such living rites might be the most significant depletion Christianity inflicted upon Western culture. Because isn’t that what magic is all about: turning a physical act into a mirror of wisdom. And discovering the price it might ask you to pay.
After some additional research this morning, the closest thing to a source for this story are the Turkana people in north-west Kenya. Their wrist-knifes look exactly like the exhibits our professor showed us on an old overhead-projector. Yet, I couldn’t find any mentioning of their rite. Maybe in the end, I am wondering now, he just made the story up? In the end, however, what difference would it make? I guess, what matters is that the story in itself held sufficient power to stay with me for many decades - and finally locked into my own life when I was ready to see.