A few years ago, I was on a cruise ship that stopped for a day in Haiti. While all kinds of excursions were offered — scuba diving, swimming, or a picnic on the beach — I felt a compulsion to just walk around. I walked away from the ship and found a young man about to conduct a tour. He was quite literally tall, dark, and handsome. He looked happy and had a huge smile on his face. For $10, he would take you around the area by foot, pointing out all the things that Americans want to see. He showed us fruit trees, places where fighting had taken place, and a few tiny monuments. It was pretty superficial, but most people got just what they wanted and were happy. Then he brought us back to the beach. “I’m happy to stay and answer questions for anyone,” he announced. At that point, most of the people on the tour got up and left.
I was thrilled. I had him to myself. So I asked him to tell me about his life and about his beliefs and religion. He said, “Do you want to know about voodoo. Most American’s do, but they don’t ask?” I answered, “Sure, tell me anything you want to share.” This is what he shared with me, as best I can remember.
“I am a very lucky, young man. I was born very smart. Even though I had to walk about 8 miles, I went to school each day. I learned to speak proper English, and I have even traveled to America. One day I want to live there. But what I want to share is that Haitians are not primitive people. We are good and honest people. And we are wise.”
“When I was in school, I was the smartest one,” he said with a huge smile. “I thought that was good; so did my mother. But the other kids were jealous. Jealousy is a terrible thing. One of the students had the voodoo priest put a curse on me so I would not be smart. I started to fail in school, and my mother knew it was a curse. She knew that I would not change in that way unless I was cursed. But we didn’t have the money to pay to have it removed. So she got several jobs and saved up the money. She worked so hard for a long time to get the money for the curse to be removed. But she did it. And now I am smart again.”
He looked at me and said, “I suppose you think that is strange. You wonder why would I believe that someone could make me stupid. Why would a curse affect me? Many Americans would ask me that.”
I shared with him that I felt enormous compassion for him. I recognized that often people put thoughts in my mind that seemed hard to shake, but they were never strong enough to completely ruin my life. I could shake them off and let them go. I wondered why it was different in Haiti. Or was it? I also wondered why he thought the voodoo priest was good when he demanded so much money to make things right. I guess that was the question that sparked his amazing answer.
He corrected me with enormous finesse by sharing one of the most profound statements I had ever heard, and it resonated so deeply within my heart. “In our Haitian memory,” he said, “and in our stories is a remembering of a time when there was not jealousy. People did not think ‘I get to have and you don’t.’ There were no haves and have nots as you say in America. We know that is how God made us. But jealousy came along and people started to say, ‘I deserve to have it all because I have the power, or I have the right name or right ancestry.’ But we know those are just rules that someone made up to have power. It makes us all very angry.”
“Same with the curse. You civilized people do the same thing. If you go to the doctor and he says, ‘you will die because you have this disease,’ most of you believe it and die. That is a curse. And like my mother, you work and work to find the money to get the treatment to remove the curse. If your religion says ‘you have done wrong,’ you believe it, and you take the punishment. You ask the priest or minister to forgive you, and you give him money or allegiance to remove his curse that labeled you a bad person. If another is envious of what you have, often you feel guilty and create a problem in your life. You feel he or she has cursed you with envy, and so you give something away to another to even the score. You call it charity. This looks normal to you just like the curse of the voodoo priest looks normal in Haiti. We are not so different as it seems. We closer in Haiti to the old stories. That’s all.”
“I saw this in America because my eyes were opened from my life in Haiti. Your advice from trusted people looked just like our curses from voodoo priests. You respect the educated, the clergy, and the government; and they can say bad things to you and you believe them. It is just like our voodoo priests. They say bad things to us, and we think they have the power to make them come true. No difference. You assume that they know and so their advice has power over you. You are drugged on knowledge.”
I just looked at him. If I had any notion that Haitians were unwise, unknowing, or primitive, it was all gone in that moment. I was moved by his insight and his rare and kind confidence in expressing so purely what his life had taught him. I thanked him for his insight and gave him a very large tip, which suddenly felt grossly inadequate.
Curse is a funny word. If you remove the S, you get cure. One could say that the s stands for sin, Satan, or the serpent who promoted the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Either way, far more people worship the curse than the cure.
The rest of the voyage, I could only think of this young man. I began to look at the places in my life that I felt were wrong or caused me to suffer and started looking for the wisdom and truth underneath. I began to challenge more vigorously the things I was taught by learned people, and I began to question more deeply the validity of beliefs I borrowed from others. That young man caused me to question things that no one else had ever caused me to question. He gave me a great gift. He pushed me to question that which I considered normal knowledge. And I’ve not stopped one day since I met him.
Since the earthquake, Haiti is in the news daily, I think about that young man often. I continue to share his story. I wonder what he might be saying now. I suspect that he would say that we are all much more alike than we are different. And most of the island is asking themselves “What did I do wrong?” or “Why did this happen to us?” And when they seem to receive no answer, they assume that they were cursed. Their curse is our expert advice. Cursing in both our cultures is actually considered admirable if you have the right title — the title that provides you with the ability to judge another without having walked in their shoes. But it’s always devastating to the one who receives the curse; and in some way, abuse has been normalized under the premise that authorities can decide the difference between good and evil.
The truth (God/Goddess) doesn’t care if you are the voodoo priest or clergy; nor does s/he care if you are the one that accepts their ideas as correct and true. S/he doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t recognize good and evil. A belief causes events to come into our lives but the bad things usually happen to those who are labeled bad or wrong. That’s the nature of the curse. It excludes the curser from punishment. All the blame falls on the person who is cursed.
Letting go of our beliefs is our ticket to freedom. You can call it a miracle, or you can call it exorcism. You can call it removing a curse, or you can just call it letting go.
I hope my Haitian tour guide (teacher) is well; and I hope he makes it to America for good — that was his dream. We surely could use people like that young man in American today.