Once anthropologists discovered a primitive tribe whose leaders wore nothing but pieces of their children’s skin. The origins of this practice, which violated traditional assumptions regarding the instinctive concern of parents for the welfare of their own offspring (and for the future of their community as a whole), eluded explanation for some time. Until, that is, an additional and equally baffling practice was documented so often it too could not be ignored: the abandoning of grandparents to their fate in difficult times. The key to understanding both turned out to lie in an examination of how the parents’ generation viewed its own role in the tribe. As the productive core of both the family and, by extension, the tribe at large, this middle generation found it natural to stress that their own needs must perforce take precedence over those of the old and the young for the ultimate good of all. If resources grew scarce, the greatest portion should naturally go to those most in a position to survive and thrive, again for the ultimate good of all. It made sense, then, that the least productive members of the tribe, aging grandparents, should be taken out with much beating of drums and choreographed song and dance by tribal headsmen, then placed between a rock and a hard place and left to fend for themselves. There was no denying that the old might suffer, but mercifully not for long. And on the brighter side, their offspring could then get on with meeting their own needs, reassured that they’d been cruel only to be kind and that the sacrifice had been for the benefit of the tribe in the long run. Soon, however, these offspring began to feel something was amiss, for their share of the tribal resources seemed to fall increasingly short of what they considered necessary to cover their personal needs and desires. They deserved more. So much more, as it turned out, that time-honored practices to bring about a redistribution of wealth every once in a while for the good of all tribal members were deemed too slow and were therefore abolished. As a consequence, collective identity and mutual sacrifice gave way to hoarding, and hoarding gave way to conspicuous surfeit on the part of some but deepening want on the part of everyone else, as those with the most ended up with even more and those with the least ended up with next to nothing. Claiming the good life for oneself alone (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 the “haves” of the tribe began to find their epidermis 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 foresight. Faced with the potentially disastrous consequences of this self-serving behavior, the tribe adopted without much debate the first remedy their leaders proposed: partial flaying of one’s own children whenever needed to provide that extra stretch of skin necessary to save one from splitting wide open from personal excess. What better way for children to honor their kinship obligations, the justification went, than by volunteering patches of their supple skin to graft over the growing holes in your own? After all, you gave them that skin in the first place, didn’t you, so wasn’t it only natural to expect they’d pay back the debt when the time came? Flush with this assurance, those in the middle generation who’d been carrying on with the most expansive of lifestyles could continue to do so without much concern. Whatever the ultimate result of their lack of restraint, all remained confident that their children could still be expected to make the necessary sacrifice when called upon to do so. And if that sacrifice wasn’t enough, there would always be the skin of the next generation, of course. And the next. And the next after that.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans