“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” & “Nine Lives”
One of the more interesting features of the Hmong belief in the Shaman is how these individuals are constantly consulted for their guidance in matters. A simple situation in which Lia would fall off a swing due to change in her medical condition became a point of conflict as the Hmong shaman interpreted and unknown issue:
“In September of 1986, Lia fell off a swing at the Schelby Center, hit her head, and went into status epilepticus, the condition, dreaded by all her doctors, in which her seizures, instead of spontaneously resolving after a few minutes, continued one after another with no intervals of consciousness. It was unclear whether Lia fell because she seized or whether she seized because she fell, but in any case, when she was taken to the hospital, she was found to have adequate levels of Depakene in her bloodstream. Parental noncompliance, for once, was manifestly not a factor. Nao Kao’s diagnosis was that “the teacher made her drop from the swing and when she fell she was scared and her soul went away too, so she got sick again.” In Lia’s MCMC admission summary, her medical history was noted to be “complicated” and her social history to be “very complicated” (Fadiman, 1997).
This situation shows how deeply the Shaman is respected as a wise man or healer as he is consulted for almost all situations. Another feature of this leadership that sets it apart from the ability of doctors to take a lead role in Lia’s case is the ability to explain all situations. Where as the doctors are baffled by Lia’s case, the Shaman is always able to explain it. This gives the Shaman a significant leadership advantage in dealing with the Hmong.
This same form of spiritual leadership presents itself in the “Nun’s Tale” in “Nine Lives” by William Dalrymple. In this tale a Jain Nun decides to fast in the ritual known as Sravanabelagola. This fast will kill her. The nun commits to performing the fast because of her witnessing her friend die. This story provides the basis of how religion can be a controlling force as she must control her emotions and then examine her own faith against the actions of her friend. In this sense, her friend becomes a spiritual guide leading her to death.
Both the case of the nun and the Shaman’s interpretation of Lia represent how religion within society can lead individuals based on faith alone or can provide the means for a person to become a spiritual leader based on their own faith. The nun who first starves herself is not attempting to coerce or lead her friend into undertaking the ritual, but she does anyway. Both stories highlight faith and how it provides answers to the unknown and can control behavior. There is also an underlying idea in both of these stories, that faith can be dangerous depending on how it is applied.
Fadiman, A. (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Dalrymple William (2010). Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India: Vintage