In a Little Waiting Room

The following is an imaginary dialogue between a Trobriand Islander and a man from West Ceram, illustrating some interesting differences (and similarities) between their respective Pacific Island faiths.

Two men clad only in white robes sit alone together in what appears to be a hospital waiting area. A green tag pinned to one man’s smock says “West CERAM”; a red tag pinned to the other man’s gown reads “TROBRIAND Islands.” Both men look bewildered.

CERAM: I tell you, we must be dead. The last thing I remember was diving for oysters in the lagoon near my village. I think I hit my head on the rocks there – people are always saying it is dangerous. I blacked out, and I woke up here, with you.

TROBRIAND: Dead, yes. Some neighbor had put a hex on me – I had been sick for days, so feverish and in such pain. That’s all gone now. He glances around. But this isn’t at all what I expected.

CERAM: Me neither. I thought I’d wake up in the next world to find myself transformed into an animal – a deer maybe. TROBRIAND laughs. What, did you think Satene would have kept you human? Why do you think she will judge you so favorably?

TROBRIAND: Satene? Human? Well, of course I thought I’d be human! What’s this nonsense about judgment and becoming a deer?

CERAM: Well, I admit I wasn’t a model man. I was envious and short-tempered, and Satene doesn’t like such qualities. She tends to make animals of self-centered men.

TROBRIAND: That Satene sounds tough. Me, I expected to find myself to be a spirit – a baloma – lying peacefully in a canoe drifting towards Tuma. He looks down at his

clothing. Look at me, I have no jewelry, no ceremonial knives, nothing. But certainly Topileta will allow me admittance – he has never turned anyone from my village away.

CERAM: That Topileta sounds easygoing – no one is turned away! Satene, she’s not so lenient. We have to really work hard to get past her… all your life, you must force yourself to think of others, to try and put yourself last. That is what you must do if you want to win her favor, and avoid becoming an animal.

TROBRIAND: It sounds odd to me … like you are trying to trick her by making her think you care for others more than yourself. If you are just doing it to win her favor, then aren’t you still thinking only of yourself?

CERAM: But what else can I do? Satene is in a place far away, that we must struggle to reach. Your Tuma sounds distant; your Topileta is a gatekeeper like Satene. Do you not feel the pressure to attain your status there? After all, it is your final resting place.

TROBRIAND: Not so final! My people do not believe that Tuma is the final stage of life. No, it is a new life, one more life along the way. Though I have no jewelry or special possessions, Topileta will direct me toward Tuma, and the other baloma there will come to meet me. I do not have to strive for this, or worry he will turn me into an animal because he judges me unworthy. True, because I died of a curse I will have to take the lesser road to Tuma, but it will take me to Tuma just the same. And there I will perhaps have a new wife, and a new family. I am young yet. I can live in Tuma a long time before I die again.

CERAM: Die again?! How can the afterlife bring you to death? Look, if I am lucky and Satene finds me worthy, I will remain a human and undertake the arduous journey to find her. If I succeed, I would never want to start over with a new life, and go through all that again.

TROBRIAND: But where do you think babies come from in our villages? They are born of baloma, of the spirits living in Tuma.

CERAM: OK, so when you were a human, you were a product of the baloma … and now you are dead, you will return to baloma … then some day you will be a human again, and then return to baloma again. When does this process end?

TROBRIAND: End? There is no end. Do you expect the gods to have a beginning and end?

CERAM: But we are not the gods.

TROBRIAND: I can see that you believe that.

CERAM: Pensive. My people tell the story of a goddess named Hainuwele. She was very generous, but my people grew jealous of her and killed her. If my people believed that god and man were one and the same, do you think we would have killed Hainuwele? That would be suicide!

TROBRIAND: Yes, I understand what you are saying. But in my village, we do not have a god or goddess to regard as other. We do not point to anyone and say “he is a god.” I see the countenance of god on every face in the village. And my people see that same countenance on my own face.

CERAM: Satene would approve of this, I think! If only I’d had this knowledge in life, I would have treated so many people differently. To see each other in this way would make it impossible to think only of the self. If we’d held such view in ancient times, we would have treasured Hainuwele, and would not have killed her. This is the ultimate view Satene encourages, to regard all life as the self.

TROBRIAND: You can also express it the other way around: that to see each other in this way is to perceive the self in everyone. Either way, the self is not just you, a man. The self is baloma, life. We are life itself. That is the important thing to remember and trust in.

CERAM: The self is baloma, and baloma is all life. He pats TROBRIAND on the back. Friend, I think you have brought me to salvation. Like Topileta, Satene will not turn me away, because I can love her as I love myself, and she will see her countenance on my face.

An androgynous, ancient-looking figure appears in the waiting area.

CERAM: Satene!

TROBRIAND: Topileta!

ANCIENT FIGURE: Sorry for the delay. But we are ready for you now.

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