Himalayan Revelation

The whole idea for what eventually has become “Wrest In Peace” started in 2006 in a remote, tiny village, high in the Himalayan mountains.  I had set up a non-profit organization to work with a Chinese ethnic minority group, the Mosuo, and I was visiting them to help support some of our organization’s initiatives.

A quick divergence to explain about the Mosuo, since most of you have probably never heard of them. The Mosuo are an ethnic minority group in China who live in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, in one of the most remote and undeveloped regions, close to the border with Tibet.  They have a truly unique culture, being one of the last remaining matriarchal cultures in the world, and also having virtually no practice of marriage, and with the father role taken by the uncle, rather than the biological father.  For more information about the Mosuo, and my organization’s work with them, please click here to go to our website.

Mosuo society is deeply religious, a mixture of their own local animistic religion, called Daba, and Tibetan Buddhism.  For them, almost everything that happens is supernatural in nature.  They have no problem with people believing in different gods or spirits, but are almost entirely unable to begin to comprehend a world-view that is not founded on the supernatural.

One area where this causes problems is in regard to health care.  The Mosuo consider that illness and disease are symptoms of some sort of supernatural attack (they could have upset a local spirit, or attracted the attention of an angry ghost), and have a variety of rituals and ‘treatments’ to deal with such problems.  Now, it’s easy to romanticize this, and marvel at their ‘ancient rituals’…but in real life, the result is that many Mosuo are suffering and even dying from conditions that are very easy to treat with modern medicine.

One of our organization’s roles is to try to bring improved health knowledge and health care to the Mosuo, particularly to children (infant mortality rates are much higher among the Mosuo than the Chinese average, in large part due to lack of access to adequate medical treatment, combined with ineffective ‘traditional’ treatments).  But not surprisingly, these efforts have met with a fair bit of resistance.  After all, not only are we asking them to change some fundamental beliefs, but we are also challenging the authority of their religious leaders. Initially, we had a small minority of Mosuo who listened to us, and accepted our ideas; but the majority remained very skeptical, or rejected those ideas entirely.

And here is where we reach the core of this article — because the important thing was not their acceptance or rejection of these ideas, but rather how I reacted to that.  I knew that I was right, and that proper medical care could save many lives, and improve the lives of many more.  And I did what is entirely natural to do in such a situation — I concluded that those who accepted what we were telling them were open-minded critical thinkers; and those who rejected it were closed-minded dogmatists.

But I was wrong.  I was viewing the situation too much from my ‘privileged’ world view, one in which the effectiveness of modern medicine had already been proven.  However, if one took the time to actually put themselves in the position of the Mosuo, one found a very, very different situation.

You see, most Mosuo have little understanding of germs, viruses, or general biology.  Many of them live in remote mountain villages that still have no electricity or running water, living much as they did 100 or more years ago.  They have no access to computers or the internet.  The quality of education is extremely poor, as few qualified teachers are willing to teach in such remote and undeveloped regions.  The result is that information and evidence that I take for granted, that I see as ‘common sense’, is entirely foreign to them.

From their perspective, based on their experience, here is what they see.  They see their family and friends getting sick.  They see local priests treating them, and at least some of them surviving and getting better.  But when they send people to the hospital to get ‘proper’ medical treatment, they see almost everyone dying.

Why?  Because for many Mosuo, a proper doctor/hospital may be a day or more away, requiring travel over rough mountain paths, often by foot or by horseback.  In addition, the average annual income for most Mosuo is around $100-200, so the costs of hospital treatment are prohibitively high.  When you combine these factors, the result is that pretty much the only people who go to the hospital are those who are in truly desperate straits…and by that token, people who are already in such terrible shape that even if the trip doesn’t kill them, it will likely be too late for the doctors to do anything.

So here’s what the Mosuo see.  Those who are treated by their local methods have a higher recovery rate than those who are treated in hospitals.  They have never seen bacteria or viruses, and find the idea that something so tiny could cause so much trouble very hard to accept.  Given their experience, and the actual evidence and knowledge that they have at hand, it is entirely rational for them to conclude that they are right, and we are wrong.

And that’s where I had my critical thinking revelation.  Most of us tend to automatically assume that those who agree with us, who’ve reached the same conclusions as us, are ‘rational’, or ‘critical thinkers’; whereas those who disagree with us, who’ve reached different conclusions, are ‘irrational’ or ‘closed-minded’.  But that is not always the case!  The conclusions we reach are only as good as the actual evidence and knowledge that we have.  If our evidence is incomplete or inaccurate, then we are naturally going to reach the wrong conclusions!  It’s not because we’re irrational or illogical…it’s because we lack the full information necessary.

So, what about those Mosuo who had accepted what we told them about medical care?  It turned out that most of them were actually among the least rational Mosuo.  They didn’t believe what we told them because they understood it and decided, based on the evidence, that it was the best conclusion.  They believed it just because we were seen as authority figures.  If we’d told them that covering themselves in chicken fat while standing on one foot and hopping in circle would cure them…they’d have been just as likely to have accepted that!

The real critical thinkers among the Mosuo were saying, “Right now, our experience and evidence indicates that our beliefs are correct.  If you want to change our minds, we need to see proof; not just have people tell us what they think is right.”  Yet because I had concluded that they were closed-minded dogmatists, simply because they didn’t accept what we were telling them, I had effectively alienated the people who were most important in getting these ideas accepted in their communities.

As a result of this revelation, we changed our tactics.  We focused on finding ways to show the Mosuo actual evidence that proper medical care does work.  We are seeking to bring in doctors who will provide free medical care, so that local people will have a much higher chance of recovering.  We are seeking to bring in teachers to give the younger generation better education to understand about germs, viruses, biology, medicine, etc.

Change won’t come overnight.  It will be slow.  But at least, with this approach, we have a much better chance of bringing about real change.  Not change that is forced on them by telling them, “You have no choice, you must do things our way”, but change that comes about as a result of their own decisions, as they get better understanding and more evidence of the actual causes and treatments of illness.

My secondary revelation was that this problem is not limited to some remote ethnic group in the Himalayan mountains.  That it applies just as much to people in our own societies, in developed first-world nations.  I myself have gone through a long process of evolving and changing my beliefs, as I gained more knowledge and evidence that indicated my previous beliefs were wrong.  In fact, I think that is a process that almost everyone goes through in life.

Yet so many of us still have the tendency to conclude that those whose beliefs are different than our own are closed-minded, ignorant, and dogmatic.  Now, in some cases, that will be true.  There certainly are people who, no matter how much evidence you give them, will still refuse to change their minds, and will cling dogmatically to their beliefs.  But there are many others who believe what they do for the simple reason that based on the knowledge and evidence they have right now, that is the best conclusion.

And thus was born the dream of Wrest In Peace…a dream that has been almost a decade in the making.  To establish a place that is not about just telling people what to believe; to establish a place that is not just to promote one particular belief; but rather to establish a place where the purpose is for people with different beliefs and ideas to share their experiences, their ideas, and the evidence for those ideas.

For myself, I’m certain that there are some areas where my conclusions are correct, and others are wrong…and by sharing the actual evidence for my conclusions, I can help those others to come to better conclusions.

But more importantly, I’m also certain that there are some areas in my life where my conclusions are wrong, and others are right…and by listening to the evidence for their conclusions, I can come to better conclusions myself!

The problem is that I don’t know which of my current conclusions are wrong.  If I knew they were wrong, then I would change them!  And that is perhaps the most difficult part of being a critical thinker — not in helping other people recognize where they are wrong, but in having the humility to also acknowledge that we ourselves can be wrong.  And that therefore, it is important to always be re-examining our own conclusions, especially when new evidence arises that may challenge those conclusions.

And that’s what Wrest In Peace is all about.  Not just another place for people to tell you what to believe.  But a place where all of us can learn together.  Where we can improve our knowledge and understanding by sharing with each other, and by accepting that every single one of us has ideas that are correct…and ideas that are incorrect.

Wrest In Peace is intended as a community bound not by a commonality of beliefs, but by a shared desire to learn from and understand each other.  To accept that disagreement is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we need to resort to intolerance, threats, or violence.

Instead, we can Wrest In Peace.

John Lombard
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John Lombard

I am Canadian, but have been living and working in China since 1993. I am experienced in business (started two successful companies), in education (have taught in some of China’s top universities), and in philanthropy (co-founded a non-profit organization to help one of China’s indigenous minority groups).

I am the founder of Wrest In Peace, arising from my passion to create a greater opportunity for people of different beliefs and backgrounds to better understand and communicate with each other.
John Lombard
Follow Me
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About John Lombard

I am Canadian, but have been living and working in China since 1993. I am experienced in business (started two successful companies), in education (have taught in some of China’s top universities), and in philanthropy (co-founded a non-profit organization to help one of China’s indigenous minority groups). I am the founder of Wrest In Peace, arising from my passion to create a greater opportunity for people of different beliefs and backgrounds to better understand and communicate with each other.

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