Once anthropologists discovered a primitive tribe whose members wore nothing but pieces of their children’s skin. At first it was thought this tribe’s unusual behavior had evolved in total isolation. No other explanation suggested itself for such an unorthodox and seemingly shortsighted practice. With further research, however, it became clear they’d actually adopted the custom of skinning their young from a much larger tribe, one numbering in the hundreds of millions and spread over an entire continent. Researchers identified at least two periods of contact between these groups, both resulting in the transfer of important rituals. One of the rites passed on at the time of the first contact solved the nagging problem, encountered during periods of shrinking resources, of having more mouths to feed than tribal headmen had either the will or the wits to address. With much beating of drums and choreographed song and dance, the most unproductive members of the tribe, aging grandparents, were put between a rock and a hard place, then abandoned to their fate. There was no denying that left to their declining powers, the old might suffer, but mercifully not for long. And on the brighter side, their sons and daughters could then get on with their own lives, reassured they’d been cruel only to be kind. Freed of any obligation now to care for those judged to be a drag upon the tribe, they could concentrate on enjoying the fruits of their good fortune without cease or second thought. And the more of these fruits they enjoyed, the more, it soon became clear, they felt they deserved. As a result, time-honored practices to bring about a redistribution of wealth every once in a while for the good of all tribal members fell into disfavor or were actually abolished at the insistence of powerful, well-connected clans intent on keeping all their trinkets and tubers for themselves. Community spirit and mutual sacrifice rapidly gave way to hoarding, and hoarding gave way to conspicuous, gluttonous surfeit on the one hand and deepening want on the other as those with the most got more and those with the least ended up with even less. Claiming the good life for oneself alone, understandably, never pausing to doubt this was one’s due or that it might ever come to an end, can take a dramatic toll on people who follow such belief systems, though. As the outcome of this insatiable self-regard grew more and more grossly apparent and many of the tribe began to find their skins drawn thin over swelling excess, few any longer had the ability to restrain themselves or even to acknowledge a price must eventually be paid for such dangerous lack of control. Just when it appeared the future of this tribe as a whole might be in real jeopardy, the second great transfer of rites occurred, one fitting easily into the existing socio-mythic structure that already included the abandonment of grandparents who’d outlived their productivity and/or utility. Faced with the potentially disastrous consequences of their appetite, the tribe readily adopted the practice of flaying one’s own offspring whenever needed to provide that extra stretch of skin to save one from splitting wide open. Since their genotype was close to yours, the justification went, what better way for them to honor their kinship obligations than by volunteering patches of their skin to graft over the growing holes in your own? After all, you gave them that skin in the first place, the folk wisdom continued, so wasn’t it only natural to expect they’d pay back the debt when the time came, and with interest? Flush with this assurance, one might carry on the most expansive, even outsized of lifestyles without undue concern for the consequences and without having to reassess what soon took on the aura of hallowed tradition. Whatever the unwelcome result of the tribe’s runaway cravings, all were confident its children could still be expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of their elders. And if that sacrifice wasn’t enough, there would always be the skin of the next generation. Or the next. Or the next after that.
Copyright © 2006 by Geoffrey Grosshans