The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 1
I’m posting some of my thoughts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman in case anyone finds them interesting or stimulating. It’s a wonderful, enlightening, but sad book.
As I write up my notes, I’ll post them in future blogs. But READ THE BOOK! Your big sister has spoken. 🙂
- The insights and beautiful ideas come so fast that I could hardly keep up. Even Anne’s side-comments are thought-provoking.
- One of Anne’s recurring themes is that we all share a common humanity and it’s tragic when we let cultural or linguistic differences separate us.
Insight: Difference is one way that we learn the true nature of things, including ourselves:
I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one. This is especially true, I think, when the apposition is cultural.
It’s through diversity and intellectual challenge that we discover who we are. New experiences and perspectives shed light on our own. New ideas, especially if we disagree with them, motivate us to define more clearly what we believe and why. Sometimes, they motivate us to change our beliefs.
Insight: We all share a common humanity and should not let superficial differences divide us from each other.
When I play the tapes late at night, I imagine what they would sound like if I could somehow splice them together, so that the voices of the Hmong and the voices of the American doctors could be heard on a single tape, speaking a common language.
The language of our hearts is always the same, no matter where we are from. It’s the language of our heads that sometimes gets in the way.
Birth story: Artistic license? Exaggerating details in service of the larger truth? Like what scholars believe about some of the biblical stories, or the writings of ancient historians such as Herodotus who made up details in order to tell a story that was true in a larger sense. I told my mother about the birth story and she didn’t believe it. Dad is a doctor and he expressed the same opinion more vigorously: I won’t repeat his exact words here. 🙂 Some people have said that elder women in the village would have been allowed to help her.
Hmong beliefs about fertility:
- Infertile couple might call a shaman, txiv neeb, who might suggest that they sacrifice an animal. He would then perform a ritual to bind the demon that was preventing the baby’s soul from coming to its parents for birth.
- The Hmong believe that another kind of demon lives in a cave and can make women sterile by having sex with them. (A way of blaming the woman if she can’t have children? Maybe that’s too harsh an interpretation.)
Hmong beliefs about pregnancy:
- When pregnant, a woman must follow her food cravings. If she doesn’t, her baby might have various defects, such as a blemish or an extra finger.
That seems to be a way in which people can feel more in control and thereby reduce the anxiety of dealing with a world that is somewhat mysterious and unpredictable.
Hmong beliefs about labor:
- If labor is long, the birth canal might be locked. The mother should drink water in which someone boiled a key. That unlocks the birth canal. It’s a little hard to accept that the Hmong take that belief literally. It seems pretty obviously symbolic. But I wonder if there’s some mystical point there. Something about that belief is nagging at me, telling me that there’s more to it than I see right now. And I suppose that “taking a belief literally” means different things in different cultures. There could also be a “placebo effect” — if the mother believes that drinking the key-water will work, then it does work — because of her belief in it, not because of the key.
- Except for prayer, the mother must remain silent during labor. Any sound might stop labor or cause it to go wrong somehow.
- After birth, a woman should not eat or drink any cold foods because it would “make the blood congeal in the womb instead of cleansing it by flowing freely.” She would have itchy skin or diarrhea when she got old.
Many of the Hmong beliefs about fertility, pregnancy, and labor seem to be “useful myths” that help dispel fear by making people feel that they have at least some control over the situation. It’s like today in Western countries, when people pretend that if they just eat right, take vitamins, and exercise, then they will never die. It’s a myth, but if it helps them be happy and follow a healthful lifestyle, then I guess it’s okay.
Every society has its myths — things that we believe without evidence because they make us feel better about ourselves and our lives. Of course, the “myths” can also be true: it’s just that we have no scientific evidence for them. Many things are true for which we have no evidence (just as many things for which we have evidence will eventually turn out to be false).
The placenta is buried under the parents’ bed for a female baby, under the central pillar of the house (“a place of greater honor”) for a male baby; I guess that sexism isn’t an exclusively Western invention. 🙂
In the Hmong language, the word for placenta means “jacket.” Hmong consider the placenta to be clothing that a soul wears into this world at birth and must wear out of this world at death. When a person dies, her/his soul must revisit all the places it has lived until finally returning to its birthplace and donning its placenta to return to the spirit world “beyond the sky.” In that world, it re-unites with its ancestors. Eventually, it will come back to earth to be re-born as a new baby.
Interesting parallel: Death’s journey home and the Western idea of “life review.” The Hmong belief about the soul’s journey after death, to all the places it has lived and finally to its birthplace, sounds like the “life review” that Western people believe in: “When you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes.” Except, of course, that the Western life review starts at the beginning and goes to the end, instead of starting at the end and going backward to the beginning, as the Hmong believe that it does.
- This, again, points to our common humanity.
OCD Americans and filling out forms: The Hmong usually do not know their exact dates of birth, so they invent dates to satisfy the OCD obsessions of Americans who insist that forms be completely filled out.
The Hmong have strange beliefs about demons living in caves; we have strange beliefs about the sanctity of paperwork.
Illness: The Hmong believe that lots of things can make you sick, some ordinary (such as eating the wrong food) and some supernatural (such as being cursed or a demon sucking your blood). But the most common cause is soul loss. Hmong disagree about how many souls people have, ranging from one to 32. But the most important soul is the life-soul, which is also most prone to get lost.
The tendency of the life-soul to get lost is why in the christening ceremony (they call it the “soul-calling ceremony”), the soul-caller (priest) blesses the baby to ward off illness before each person present ties a string around one of the baby’s wrists to bind the soul to its body.
Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.