My obsessive compulsion

I seem to have a predisposition to find human behaviour obsessive-compulsive.

On a recent inter-city journey, I observed another observer – an observant Jew – go through his rituals for worship on a rather busy train.

As he draped himself in a large shawl, wound leather bands around his hand and fixed a small box to his forehead, I confess I wondered why on earth he was going to all that trouble to read a book that he had almost certainly read before and, in effect, talk to himself. Who was he doing it for? Was it for the invisible watcher in the sky? Was it in case he encountered friends or acquaintances on the train? Or was it obsessive-compulsive behaviour the reward of which is a sense of comfort, order and propriety? (Clearly I lean towards the latter explanation.)

Religious observance always strikes me as an extreme case of magical thinking but that doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing; most human beings are probably ‘guilty’ of some degree of magical thinking. I’m certain it has its place in human history and development. In societies where the knowledge that we now take for granted, such as the causes of disease or forecasts of the weather, did not exist, I would probably have said ‘Anything goes’, as far as magical thinking is concerned. Knock yourself out. Whatever gets you through the night. Just don’t sacrifice any children or animals to your synaptic connections. Ditto for people for whom poverty, or war, or any other hardship makes life hard to bear. In that case, do what you have to do. Think what you have to think. Cross yourself thrice and say the alphabet backwards before turning on the light if you have to. Just keep to the golden rule, and don’t do anything to anyone else that you wouldn’t do to yourself.

But in the hugely privileged western world in which I am writing this, why would you do it? There are so many opportunities; places to explore, people to meet, books to read, conversations to have… why would you circumscribe your experience of life by indulging in such repetitive, time-consuming behaviours as the guy on the train?

I suspect it stems from the fact that, advanced as we are, there are still huge gaps in our body of knowledge. We don’t have a unifying theory of everything. We don’t know what happened in the moments before the big bang (do we?). And our inability to tolerate uncertainty, our need to have some sort of explanation, leads us to prostrate ourselves before the magical creation of our own minds. Unfortunately there is a continuum in this. If we were creating our godheads anew, to answer the needs of the age in which we live, we wouldn’t produce the same set of gods; the ones we have are conspicuously antiquated. But because we have inherited the gods of our forefathers and foremothers, we can’t just jettison the junk. In order to give any credence to the ‘divine’ explanations of the things we desire explanations for, we have to continue to pay lip service to the accumulated superstition of generations. In order to accept that god created the universe, we also have to accept that god doesn’t like it when we take his name in vain, or that god has an opinion on keeping the Sabbath. If we didn’t, we’d be admitting, in effect, that our predecessors were deluded. And if that can be the case for our predecessors, why could it not be the case for us? It is a precarious edifice, and one that takes some protecting.

My argument would be that we should show some cajones (or the female equivalent), square up to the limits of our understanding and accept that we aren’t omniscient. To do so would be to display far more humility than these showy acts of obeisance to the gods of our fevered imaginings.

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