Monday, November 7, 2011

Al Adha: Death, the Meaning of Life, and Bubble Wrap

I was staring at the fidgety cow that, in a matter of hours, would be cut up and divided into black plastic bags and delivered to each family in the village. I wondered if he knew. Did he know he was about to die? And, if so, what was his take on it? 

It got me to thinking of an episode of Scrubs. Not the one where Turk dances and lip syncs to Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison”, although I do enjoy referencing that one from time to time.  I was remembering the one where JD has to tell a woman she is going to die, and he is astonished when she takes the news calmly and says she is ready. She tells him she’s done everything she wanted to do. He proceeds to make a list of dreams she probably hasn’t fulfilled to try to convince her to fight (go to Asia, learn a foreign language, go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, etc), and, it turns out, she has done them all.   

It may surprise some, but I think about death a lot. A lot. Not merely because of my phobias of confined spaces, deep water, heights, heavy winds, angry geese, or a more recent fear of being sideswiped by a truck or motorcycle while riding my bike. I often use it as a litmus test to determine if I am satisfied with my life. Would I be content with the way I leave things if it were to end now? Usually, I find I am. No matter what recent scrape I’ve gotten myself into, what lows I may experience, or what deficiencies I still possess - generally, I find I’m happy. I’ve had a pretty good run - thanks to some special folks along the way.  

I watched two cows and two goats bite it today, on the Muslim holy day of Idul Al Adha, or Eid-al-Adha. While it got me to thinking about life and death, it also made me wonder at the surprising similarities that spring up between the religions. Al Adha signifies the end of the Hajj season (see Glossary), but, really, it commemorates God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son to prove his obedience. Abraham had committed to fulfill God’s wish, and as he was preparing to kill his own son, God revealed that Abraham's sacrifice had already been fulfilled. Abraham’s son would be spared as Abraham had proved his love of God superseded the love of all others, even that of his family. 

The story is roughly the same one shared by Jews and Christians, although I think the name of the son changes. It was the same story that always freaked me out as a kid, and I found it compelling that this same story I learned in my religion was the basis of a holiday for a faith that, for most of my life, has been totally foreign to me. It got me to thinking about how much we really share. Like, did you know the Koran also has stories of Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, etc, although the take may be slightly different (based on my poor level of theological knowledge). These stories are shared by three of the world’s major faiths, and, from what I can see, it would seem these three faiths all worship what appears to be the same God. Zooming out and taking a look at what a mess things are today, you’d think this shared history and common commitment to God would really get people holding hands and singing that Coke commercial song around the world. Alas, more often than not, it divides. 

Obviously, I am oversimplifying a bit. But it still seems worth it to take this opportunity and reflect on those things we share in common. In the words of Sargent Shriver: 
"Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us."
In my short time, I have certainly been confronted with many differences between the two cultures, but here are some fun things I’ve found that Americans and Indonesians share in common: 

  • Everyone likes ice cream (South Africans named Susan excluded).
  • Justin Bieber evokes strong responses in tweens.
    • Assembling wedding invitations is tedious in both cultures.
    • Dads cry at their daughters’ wedding.
    • Grown men look like little boys right after they get their hair cut.

    • Bus drivers all seem to know each other and wave as they pass.
      • We love popping those plastic bubbles used for packaging. See my host ibu and niece enraptured below:

      Similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s pleading to “look to the (black and white) cookie” as a means of eradicating racial tensions, I say – let’s look to the bubble wrap, people. Relieve that tension therapeutically - not violently!

      I think back again to that cow before he died. I guess a cow doesn’t lead much of a life – or, I dunno – maybe grazing, eating grass in the open, Indonesian sunshine could be viewed as a pretty good existence. But maybe the fact that this cow represented a religious sacrifice of my community and would provide food to a hundred families is an important purpose also. 

      His death also served to teach me how sheltered we keep ourselves from some of the gruesome realities in life. I’ve eaten hamburgers and steak for years, and this was the first time I was seeing what has to happen for my Royale cheeseburger or meatball parm sub cravings to be satisfied. And the killing, cutting, hacking, skinning – all of it was being done by my fellow teachers and students. They all knew what to do, and I just stood there looking on dumbfounded, getting in the way. I mean, in this day in age in our American service society, who even knows how to kill their own dinner anymore? Come a natural disaster or nuclear fallout, where will be without our pre-packaged ground beef and chicken nuggets?

      Yes, I learned a lot from that cow. I like to think he felt content at that last moment before I learned that real animal blood looks fake - like bright, red paint as it spews forth onto the ground. I hope at the last, he knew he was serving a higher calling. And I thought of his life on this earth and his greater purpose fondly as I ate fried bits of him for dinner.

      Your memory lives on, my friend.  
      Some of my students and the cow with many lessons to teach. I only posted before and after pictures and refrained from showing any pics of the actual killing to keep it PG.

      The cow and goat getting prepped in the woods behind our school.

      How the "h" did I miss out on learning to use a machete before reaching high school?

      All of the students pitching in to help cut up and divide the meat.

      Bu Yani and Bu Anis weighing the portions to make sure the meat is divvied up equally.

      More students helping to bring in more meat to be cut.

      Final goodie bags to be delivered to families in the area and to the poor.


      1. I had a similar revelation in Burkina in my part-Animist, part-Muslim community. An Episcopalian priest once stumbled upon my village who spoke English, and as I shared my revelation with him, he just smiled and nodded. "It appears," he said, "that your God is getting much bigger." And I always remembered that. Americans like a pre-packaged God with simple rules and tidy philosophies and rituals. Perhaps we're just too simple to really grasp the grandness of something so spiritual and other-worldly. Whatever the case, I found - and still find - this "bigger God" to be so much more...well, believable.

      2. I haven't been able to get proper internet to post in a timely manner, but I'm pretty sure you posted on our one-year anniversary, Lisa! Can you believe it? Crazy. Thanks for all the support.