The Value of Impurity by Karl Jechoutek

The Value of Impurity by Karl Jechoutek

This Advent in 2008, there are precious few opportunities to feel optimistic. A global economic crisis is upon us, and will be with us for some time to come, stalling the fight against poverty and disease. Wars, conflicts and atrocities proliferate and perpetuate themselves throughout the world, and there is no end in sight. We all feel threatened by a wave of crime, lawlessness and xenophobia. Environmental responsibility is sorely lacking. Not a pretty picture, on the whole. On top of all this, the pre-Christmas marketing strategies of retailers call for an assault on our senses, persuading us to feel in a spending mood months before the actual underlying celebration is due.

Our religious traditions have spent centuries trying to make us see the value of responsible consumption and self-control, the long-term benefits of moderation, and the need for considering others in sharing our hard-won wealth. Christianity provides a long series of examples of appropriate behaviour that benefits both others and oneself, motivating the individual to engage in self-development by helping others. Islam uses generosity as one of the main pillars of the faith, admonishes believers to refrain from showing off when sharing one’s bounty, and frowns on showing condescension towards those less fortunate. The Sufi tradition condemns selfishness and greed, and asks that one should not always expect a return for one’s effort. Classical Buddhism teaches that training others to be unselfish by one’s own example is more excellent than building the most precious temple. Good rulers are judged by their record on charity, justice and concern for the common good. Tibetan Buddhism simply enjoins us to work at developing love and compassion until they become a fundamental part of us. Classical Hinduism asks us to take delight in the welfare of all beings, and to act without concern about the consequences for oneself. There is, in short, a wealth of advice on how to conduct a self-disciplined life of moderation and generosity.

Alas, our best efforts to spread this good news are not always rewarded with success. We can be forgiven for feeling frustrated and disillusioned when our efforts have not yielded any fruit, when we feel that we have made no difference. Have we failed miserably when we perceive that nobody has listened to us, and that we ourselves have not come up to the standard expected of us?

The scriptures of the major religions are full of reminders about how minute seeds can unexpectedly sprout into abundant harvests, implying that our perception of failure is misplaced. So there is a case for optimism.

What is more, we can add what I would like to call an ‘ecumenical defence’ against undue pessimism. The more hybrid and cosmopolitan our society is, the more faiths interact in a marketplace of spirituality, the less reason we have to lament that our version of the truth is implemented imperfectly. Imperfection is the very essence of being a hybrid community, one where individuals form their identities from a kaleidoscope of faiths, cultures, races and ethnicities. Cape Town in all its hybrid glory is a prime example of this mix that defies any search for purity. ‘The most important thing to learn is the value of impurity’, Salman Rushdie tells us. A thoroughly mixed cultural bredie is the best tonic against the potential disappointment that things are not going entirely our way – they are not meant to do so. A second-best outcome of our efforts to make the world a better place is not a failure, it is a reason to celebrate success.

So what is so valuable about recognizing our impurity and imperfection? First of all, it teaches us that each one of us designs our identity actively, rather than having it decided for us by someone else. Celebrating our individual impurity is a powerful antidote against those who would instruct us that ‘we’ are primarily a pure breed of Christians, or of Africans, Whites, Muslims, you name it, and that all other identities are less important.

Amartya Sen, in his aptly named recent book on ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’, makes it clear that the little word ‘we’ can be abused easily to exclude others and to manipulate people into thinking that one of our identities is the overriding one and has to be defended at all costs. Second, exploring all the different components that make up our image of ourselves shows us that some of them may very well be difficult to reconcile. We should feel at ease to move between identities as the circumstances require, acting as a Christian when called to do so, being a good artisan when dealing with others on professional matters, or enjoying music in the company of other music lovers. Finally, by recognizing the many varied components of our thinking, we are creating a new hybrid self, a unique combination unlike any other, an expression of our individuality. Rather than defending one common truth of a single group against all comers, we are the embodiment of dialogue within ourselves and between us and others.

In view of all this, optimism should be the order of the day, as we realize that life is a messy and difficult course to navigate, where compromises and strange combinations are the rule, not the exception. This is a good thing. The search for the perfect can be the enemy of the workable compromise.

Recently, London bookies shortened the odds on the existence of God to 4:1, quite respectable odds in the big picture of things. Now there is a news item to lift our spirits.