‘Hello there, let’s start with your surname first?’
Your son’s surname?
I smiled and said, ‘Of course, it is the same as me, Anand.’
‘Well, that’s fab but nothing is of course, Mr Anand.’
It’s just the start of a conversation with the receptionist (let’s call her Sue) to get our little boy booked in for a dental check-up and I’m left shocked. In less than fifteen seconds into this conversation, my worldview has been shredded apart.
Now, where did that ‘of course’ come from, I pondered. Upon reflection, I realised that it is my Hindu Faith – the monogamy myth – that you marry only once and your children share the same surname as their father – the belief I have lived by at a deeply unconscious level. Well, one could say that my wife’s maiden name and her surname can also be our son’s surname but that’s how far my reasoning takes me.
And where exactly does this realisation come from? I think these are images hidden deep in the unconscious which subtly but powerfully influence our decisions and shape our thoughts.
As I sit back thinking about this monogamy myth, so many stories and readings come to mind. The Hindu goddess Lakshmi left Vishnu, and Gauri did the same to Shiva when the two became angry with their husbands. But there was no mention of divorce, only separation in those stories, and the two husband gods then worked hard to bring their goddesses back home. Even today, one can observe sculptures of goddesses separated from gods in temples around India. The symbolism behind these stories is breathtaking. Women shared power, relationships mattered more than self-indulgence, and when conflicts arose both the husband and the wife made the effort to make their relationship work. When things did not work out, couples would separate in bodies but they were still connected in their souls. These stories and sculptures are no longer popular in patriarchal, modern India. Instead, people in India (and around the world) are each day being fed with narratives of masculinity and distorted history to serve political purposes.
In Hinduism (which by the way is not a religion but a philosophy of life), marriage is not considered a contract. One does not need a divorce because consent is not even part of a Hindu marriage. Marriage is considered a rite of passage, a commitment and an eternal bond between couples. Marriage does not end at death; relationships are meant to last for many lifetimes. The concept of afterlife does not exist in the same way as in Abrahamic faiths. There is not one life, but many lives and there are infinite chances to live even within each lifetime.
Well, these are all myths and things have changed over the years. The idea of marriage, second and third marriage, civil partnerships, and divorce are becoming normalised in modern India but my point is that myths and beliefs transcend time and space and trigger instinctively when someone challenges our values and what we consider so blatantly obvious.
How interesting that a tiny expression ‘of course’ brings to the surface a whole lot of images, stories and memories that can reveal the moral principles and ethics of our everyday lives.
And how important it is to pay attention to these subtle expressions – ‘of course; ‘definitely’; ‘certainly’; ’obviously’; or ‘that’s normal.’ Really? Did I even care to ask for whom?
Such is the power of language when we learn to listen with intent. It takes us back to understanding why one person’s ‘of course’ is another person’s no-no. It explains why everyday gossips, projections, scoffing, brawling, and water cooler complaints that seem so trivial on the surface are the result of tensions that exist so deep in our worldviews, ideologies, myths and beliefs.
We think we are scientific, reason-able, logic-driven, evidence-based decision makers but we are the same mythical creatures driven by emotions and feelings and trapped in our own myths and beliefs. The logical, scientific modern man fails to understand that as we go about our lives each day we take in only a fraction of reality to make sense of the world around us. And when it comes to making decisions, the information that we use gets even lesser. Now add a tiny flavour of dissonance and time constraints and you know what forms the core basis of human decision making. It’s the myths and beliefs, of course! We are far less sophisticated and rational than we think we really are.
In that moment, when Sue posed the question about my son’s surname, I could not see her beliefs and myths because I was so entrenched in mine. Caught in a moment of reflexivity, one cannot see another person’s belief, only curse or ridicule it. The problem is that what we resist, will persist not because of some laws of physics but because our imagination struggles to grasp the mysteries of the vast universe. In those moments when Sue confronted my beliefs by asking me what I thought was self-explanatory, my first reaction was to dismiss her behaviour as a mindless ‘tick and flick’ exercise. That’s not just pure laziness but it also deepens my differences with Sue. What I learned from this experience was that my beliefs have not matured to absorb the possibility of a son having a different surname than his father (maybe because he is a step-son or a child from another marriage) even after living in the West for two decades. That’s how we live by our myths.
What I have also learned from this experience is that nothing that appears, of course, is, of course. The first lesson in anthropology teaches us to question the obvious, make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.
The next time you laugh at someone, see their ideas as extreme, or see them as a threat to your own existence because they simply don’t agree with what you consider ‘of course,’ slow down, listen carefully and question your worldview. Chances are that you may have reached the limits of your imagination.
Thank you, Sue, for helping me to surpass the boundaries of my worldview.