Today, I had an interesting encounter with one of my colleagues here in Cairo. He wore rings on every one of his 10 fingers and the rings had the symbol of the skull.
When I first saw them my heart went ‘thump thump.’ I cannot really say it was fear but more of trepidation and a bit… ok maybe a lot… of unease seeing so many skulls on one person’s fingers. The unease was mainly because of the symbolic meanings that skulls have to me. The most outstanding would be that the skull is a representation of death and mortality. I will have to come to terms with my fear because the inevitable truth is that I will die someday but for now, let me be afraid.
When studying the history of Germany in the time of the Third Reich with Hitler and his Nazi Regime, I remember my history teacher, Mr Mlauzi (God rest his soul in peace), telling us that the skull was the symbol of the totenkompf verband, a branch of the Schutzstaffel that was responsible for manning the concentration camps where thousands of Jews were massacred. Then it was a sign of hate.
On many pesticides and poisonous substances the skull represents the danger that the product poses to the human being. Pirates used it as a symbol of their defiance against death; a sign of rebellion.
Bikers and sailors today get it too as an expression of their defiance against the forces of nature.Ordinarily in my culture the skull has a sinister meaning representing things demonic and/or evil. In my church if you were to conduct a quick survey I can guarantee 99% of the congregation would tell you that the skull is a symbol of the anti-Christ therefore connoting great evil. I will be honest and admit that for a moment there it did cross my mind that maybe my colleague sold his soul to the devil.
With all these unusual meanings can you blame me for being uncomfortable around skulls?
Fortunately for me and maybe for you, today I reproached myself for being so judgemental. I retracted my assumptions about why my colleague wore so many skull rings and decided to take the time to ask him and listen to what he had to say. He said that he loves them because of what they represent to him. I asked what that was and he told me that the skull is the symbol of the true human being, every human being. At that moment when he explained himself I thought “Yeah, right. True human being my foot.”
After a while I reflected on his statement and it occurred to me that he had a point, a very valid point. There is no human being who can deny that beneath the flesh, skin ad hair on our heads and faces,there is a skull. That skull is neither black nor white. It is just a skull and it looks the same. Indeed the skull is the representation of the most equal state that all human beings can ever be. The barriers that we have set up based on how light you are and how dark I am, or how pretty you are and how ugly I am, or how immaculately adorned you are and how disheveled I look, or how fat your cheeks are and how gaunt mine are, and even how smooth your hair is and how kinky mine is will all cease to matter when it is just the skull. No skin color or texture. No measure of flesh, its shape and size. No differing hair textures, colors and length.
So from revulsion at seeing so many skulls on one person’s fingers, I practiced tolerance by respecting his choice to have them on his body, then I displayed wisdom by enquiring into his obvious love for skulls in a diplomatic and respectful manner and I acquired enlightenment which I am sharing with you now. I have not suddenly developed a love for skulls but I now understand why he wears them.
If only we could all take the time to understand what we do not know, face our fears and tolerate what we dislike then there would be no ethnic cleansings, religious wars, racism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia or other forms of intolerance. If only all human beings could realize this basic idea that when you take away the things that make other people think they are better than others we are all the same…