The anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924-1994) was born into an upper class family in
. His mother did not breast feed him because of the “health risks.” He was raised by a long string of nannies. His father was distant and rarely spoke to him. His brother lived in a separate nursery, and had other nannies. Colin really wanted to get to know him, but never did. He was forbidden to visit portions of the house where his parents, brother, and the servants lived. When Colin was twelve, his last nanny was fired, and he finally got to spend some time with his parents. England
Following school, he graduated from
Oxford University, attended Banaras Hindu University in , became an anthropologist, spent several years living with the Mbuti Pygmies, wrote books, and became a Buddhist monk before dying of AIDS. He had a life of prosperity and privilege, but his journey from infancy to adulthood was painful and left permanent emotional scars. India
The Pygmies blew his mind, because their social system was far better, in many ways, than the Western way of life. Observing them, it was easy to comprehend what a dysfunctional upbringing he had received from his dysfunctional society and family. Near the end of his life, Turnbull wrote a powerful book, The Human Cycle. It examined the ways that people in different societies progressed through the phases of life — childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, and old age.
Pygmy culture relied on their ancient traditions for guiding people through life in an optimal way, with generous servings of self-confidence, integrity, happiness, and fall-down-laughing gaiety. Western societies were skilled at producing damaged people. We tend to regard our childhood as a golden age of innocence and joy — before we’re shipped off to dreary schools, jobs, and nursing homes. The Pygmies did not idolize childhood, “because, for them, the world has remained a place of wonder, and the older they get the greater the wonder.” Imagine that.
The Pygmies taught their children everything they needed in order to thrive in their sacred forest, especially a strong sense of social consciousness — “we” not “I.” Sharing, cooperation, and conflict avoidance were core skills. But Western education was more like a factory where heads were filled with knowledge. Students spent years faithfully absorbing facts and dogmas without questioning them. The goal was to produce aggressive, competitive, self-absorbed individualists. “It would have been good training for a life in prison.”
The Pygmies performed rituals of initiation, which ceremonially transformed adolescents into adults. A vital component of this process was reintegration, when the new adults were returned to their community, where they would remain for life. Each young man built a new hut. When Western youths graduated, they bypassed reintegration, and were shot from a cannon into the outer world. They often left behind their family and friends, and spent their lives in urban isolation, with little connection to their neighbors. Because their initiation was unfinished, it was common for them to suffer from terminal adolescence.
Westerners formally practiced religion once a week, which focused on beliefs and rituals. The Pygmies lived every minute of their lives in a shimmering world of spiritual power. They were at one with the forest, the source of their existence, and they regarded it with complete adoration. The forest was heaven. Humans were sacred members of the family of life, not masters, managers, or stewards. They enjoyed a complete lack of religious freedom — everyone was on the same channel, unified by the same belief system — zero conflicts. Turnbull once said that the Pygmies were without evil and infinitely wise.
Western society teaches us that sex is naughty, shameful, dirty, sinful, and disgustingly bad. At a school for the upper class, Turnbull watched in horror as a boy was gang raped by other students. The Pygmy initiation process taught boys and girls about the joys of sacred sex. Premarital sexual relationships were normal, healthy, and not promiscuous. Curiosity about sex was “encouraged to flower into exuberance.”
In the Western world, adulthood usually majored in work, and minored in play — and work was often miserable, soul-killing drudgery required for survival. In the Pygmy world, it’s hard to see a clear boundary between work and play. The vital task of maintaining social harmony required generous amounts of singing and dancing, followed by gathering ripe fruit, or hunting, or fireside chats, or teaching the children.
Westerners sent their old folks off to retirement homes when they became a drag on the independence of their children — away from regular contact with family, friends, and other age groups — away to a place where they had nothing to do, “a pre-death limbo.” Retirement denied the elderly of the joys of old age. The Pygmies had tremendous respect for their old folks, who remained tightly integrated in society, and never retired. The elderly provided valuable services like arbitration, babysitting, teaching, counseling, and guarding the camp.
As they lived, Pygmies moved from joyful childhood to joyful youth to joyful adulthood to joyful old age. “They discover that each stage of life is rich, but that the next stage is even richer; nothing is lost.” Turnbull learned huge lessons from them. It’s gratifying to see how he learned, healed, and grew in the second half of his life. Turnbull gave us a precious gift — the awareness of other modes of living that are far healthier than our own, rooted in social responsibility, functional communities, and spiritual connection to the family of life.