To be part of something bigger

[In case some references are confusing: By September 2003 I was seriously considering leaving Taiwan for a town in South Africa’s Gauteng province called Bronkhorstspruit.]


I will start this piece with a fact: There are things in this life that are bigger than any single individual.

Now, everyone should already know that their entire existence is dependent on things that are bigger than them, that they could indeed not even have come into existence were it not for the fact that there were people before them, all of whom were also dependent on things bigger than they were. Everyone knows these things, right? Everyone knows there are things bigger than any single individual!

My original statement, still amazingly profound despite the fact that everyone knows it, clearly needs a little red pepper to give it sufficient kick to be the focus of an essay.

(Two weeks later. Wednesday, 17 September 2003. Small hours of the morning.)

Regardless of whether you consciously think about it or not, everyone belongs to the Bigger Picture in some or other way – that includes the psychologist, the philosopher, the poet, the preacher, the Hells Angel on his Harley Davidson, the member of the Mafia, the inner city gang member, the president of a large company, the peasant in China, the hobo in the alley, and the politician blabbering into the microphone. Most people have a reasonable idea of how they fit into the Great Puzzle, even if they don’t have the right vocabulary to formulate an intelligent thought on the subject.

The way you fit into the Bigger Picture is like a passport you could show to a cosmic immigration officer who wants to know, “Who are you?” This “passport” contains information on the species to which you belong (“Mr. X falls under the species Homo sapiens and should not be viewed as a household pet”), your age, and your name, or names (the one your parents gave you, the nicknames your friends call you and/or the name you have chosen for yourself). It contains information about where you were born, where you went to high school (if you ever got this far), and whether or not you attained a tertiary qualification (and if so, where). It also contains data about your likes and dislikes, your talents, your interests, what you’ve done with your life so far, what you still want to do with your life, your dreams, your ambitions and your failures. Other relevant information includes whether you consider yourself a member of any religious community; if so, what particular religion, and even what sub-sect or denomination. Where you live, what socio-economic class you can be placed in, whether you are married or not, your sexual orientation, whether you have children or not, and what you do on a daily basis to survive, are all further particulars that determine your individual cosmic code that makes you a “legitimate” part of the Bigger Picture. Another determining factor is associations, which include family, friends, acquaintances, business partners, even enemies (“ABC is the son of EDF, husband of GHI, father of JKL and MNO, best friend of PQR, business partner of STU and archenemy of XYZ”).

Two final thoughts deserve mention: You need to know as much as possible about yourself and you need to be this person who emerges from all the bits and pieces of data to be able to legitimately claim to yourself and before others the Unique Cosmic Code that makes you a part of the Bigger Picture.

To not know “who you are” and with that how you fit-in-and-belong to the Larger Reality is to feel alienated from the environment in which you find yourself. This lack of membership, this failure to belong, leads without many exceptions to one or more of the following conditions: loneliness, a sense of isolation, quite possibly anxiety, and an aggressive attitude towards your environment and the people with whom you are in daily contact.

Imagine the following situation: Bob X from B. Town meets John Z at a barbeque. John Z introduces himself as “John Z from Pretoria” and holds out his hand. Bob X smiles politely, shakes John’s hand and introduces himself as “John Z from Pretoria”. The real John Z will probably shoot a quick and somewhat annoyed smile in response to what he’ll assume was an attempt at humour, but he will quickly move on to the next group when he realizes that Bob X is quite serious – the latter is convinced that he, too, is “John Z from Pretoria”. Later that evening Clare K from Cape Town introduces herself to Bob, and once again he replies with genuine sincerity that he, too, is “Clare K from Cape Town”.

By the end of the evening everyone, except perhaps Bob X, will be convinced of the fact that Bob is in big trouble. Why? Because you have to know who you are to survive and to function in an environment outside institutions for dysfunctional people.

* * *

What do these insights have to do with whether I’ll go back to South Africa early next year, or stay in Taiwan? Everything.

If I’m “Bob X from B. Town”, I want to introduce myself as “Bob X from B. Town”, and I want to be convinced of what it means to be “Bob X from B. Town”. I also want to know if “John Z from Pretoria” feels good about what it means to be “John Z from Pretoria”, I want to feel good about who I am. And if “Clare K from Cape Town” introduces herself to me, and I come to the realization during the course of the conversation that follows that she is convinced that she’s not “Linda Q from Johannesburg” and she also does not want to be Linda Q, then I want to know deep down that I display the same belief about myself.

Am I currently convinced of who I am? Am I furthermore convinced that “Brand X, formerly from Taiwan and Korea, but now from B. Town” will be able to proudly recite his Cosmic Code at church meetings and sport gatherings? Or is it more valuable to me to maintain my membership, for now, to a group of people who live … outside?

(Still Wednesday, 17 September 2003; late afternoon.)

So, it seems that I’m currently experiencing one hell of a Bronkhorstspruit backlash. Fair enough, I did not spend seven years in the Far East to just suddenly jump on a sentimental bathroom mat one day, and whilst the mat flies out the door, to wave at everyone like some crash course Zen guru and say, “OK guys, I’m buggering off then … come fry some meat with us in Bronkhorstspruit!” No, this whole idea should be pelted with rotten cabbage and old eggs like any other plan. If the plan does get up the next morning and, with a cabbage leaf still clinging to its forehead like an uncombed strand of hair, appears on the porch and declares, “I’m okay! Howzit?!” then I know, I’m onto something.

I did wonder what has caused the backlash against B. Town. As I dusted off and packed away my fitness equipment, I went through the list of things in my mind that would fill my life as “Brand-of-Bronkhorstspruit”: my commercial projects, visits to the local supermarket, barbecue and dessert with the family, and of course my writing. I could even consider registering for an academic course or two in fields in which I am interested, including the Chinese language.

I asked myself what the difference is between this list and what I’m doing now. Obviously the environment plays a vital role in one’s experience of everyday life, and Benevolent Light New Town in the Mountain of the Phoenix is unquestionably a more stimulating environment than Apartments on the Edge-of-Town in Bronkhorstspruit. But how important is it really when you do your calculations at the end of the day?

Ultimately it was the image of me sitting in my apartment, writing, regardless of where in South Africa, that made an internal alarm go off. My identity as a writer is of utmost importance to me. It is to a large extent who I am. It is what I do. It’s not just a noble and meaningful occupation to pursue, it’s a life that inspires me to get up in the morning and to face the environment outside my front door – wherever in the world that environment may be.

I took my seat at the dressing table, ready for a bout of serious contemplation. Then it hit me: More than ninety percent of everything I put on paper in the past five years has to do with my life in self-imposed exile! My identity as a WRITER, at least at this stage of my life, is an irreplaceable aspect of my COSMIC CODE, and WHO I AM AS A WRITER, IS INEXTRICABLY INTERTWINED WITH MY LIFE ON THIS ISLAND!

Who am I, in other words, if I’m not “Writer in self-imposed exile in Taiwan”?

(A creepy Japanese thriller in the local theatre later …)

“Through brilliant detective work, the Internal Service has confronted the prime suspect, and by using outstanding interrogation methods forced him to plead guilty. It is thus my humble privilege to announce to the nation that the culprit is … the Writer! The Writer, ladies and noble gentlemen, is the one who has infiltrated and polluted the People’s morale and willpower with … ANXIETY!”

Loud cries of shock are muted, as usual, without an ounce of civility. The inspector continues as if he has just cleared his throat.

“After further investigation into the motivation of the writer, it came to light that he has followed the past few weeks of negotiations in deep contemplation. By Monday evening, he was convinced of what he had only suspected at first – that he was going to lose his job in the Planned Return To The Home Country; that he was going to get fired, terminated, get the axe, forced to go on early retirement. The writer realized that if he was going to bite the dust, he was not going to eat alone.

“Fortunately, our State is decidedly leftist and highly liberal, so the Chief Open Mind was immediately called in for repairs to the writer’s morale. And of course, noble and polite members of the public, to assure him that he is an irreplaceable part of Our Noble State! After all, we won’t be able to formulate a proper purpose for our existence without the profound material that our sensitive and angst-ridden Foot Soldier Number One in the Battle for the Soul so often throws in our faces!

“So, long live the Writer! Long live Our State! Forward Warriors for Our Struggle! Now, if I can just find those cursed keys to liberate the Writer of his handcuffs …”

* * *

To be part of something bigger than the single YOU is a need that is central to the human experience of life. It is one of the primary reasons why people are attracted to religion, especially the institutionalized version of it. It’s the reason why people prefer to be part of a group rather than to be alone. It’s the reason why people are patriotic. It’s one of the reasons why people support a particular sports team. It is also one of the reasons why a new member of the Hells Angels will appear in certain clothing, and swing a chain at motorists rather than shooting them with dry peas through a straw – the latter choice of weapon will not qualify him as part of the group to which he wants to belong; same goes for riding around on his steel stallion in a suit with a white shirt and a red bow tie.

Because people need to be part of something bigger than just the individual who he or she is in his or her skin, people define their identity – their “cosmic code” – to a large extent according to the groups to which they belong, whether it’s a company or organization for which they work, a fan group of some sports team, nationality, being part of a family, active participation in some or other subculture, or a combination of all the aforementioned.

Relationships are a fundamental aspect of this system of identity-by-association, of knowing who you are by knowing how you fit in through membership to something bigger than yourself. Relationships confirm membership: “You’re one of us.” Relationships reduce anxiety: “I’m not the only one.” Relationships confirm identity: “Here’s Bob X! He knows me better than I know myself.”

Relationships also sometimes keep an individual hostage when a person is manipulated to conform for the sake of membership to the group. Sometimes relationships destroy faith in good things. Sometimes relationships lead to destruction of what is good. Sometimes the stubborn maintenance of a relationship – for the sake of the benefits of membership, or presumed benefits in some cases – leads to the death of the self, or to the death of others.

But relationships are mostly good. In many cases relationships lead to a more enjoyable experience of life. Relationships strengthen when the individual is weak. Relationships provide comfort. Relationships create new life. Relationships are irreplaceable in the quest for belonging to the Bigger Picture.

It can furthermore be speculated in this piece that I, the Author of Pieces, am experiencing a serious lack of defining relationships.