Tim and I are currently on a trip through Southeast Asia. Our first stop was in Singapore. While Tim was occupied meeting with clients (which is our primary reason for being here), I spent several hours the first day wandering through Chinatown. Well, to be entirely forthcoming, I didn’t spend all my time wandering. There was also a stop at a local coffee place for an iced milk tea and some time spent sitting and watching the world go about its business. One of the things I enjoy about traveling in hot, humid climates is the way the local cultures adapt to the weather by learning how to sit in one place with the beverage of one’s choice, chatting with friends or just thinking about life. When it’s that warm and muggy, there is wisdom in slowing down the pace and taking one’s time.
If you know me very well, you’ll not be surprised by the fact that the majority of my time that morning was spent in a variety of places of worship. It seems that regardless of where in the world I travel, I find my way to the local temple, shrine, cathedral or mosque. In Europe and South America, I tend to stop into any Catholic church that I come across. The choices in Singapore were a little more varied. I had the opportunity to visit a Buddhist shrine, a Hindu temple and a mosque, all located within a few blocks of one another. I was struck by the similarities between the Buddhist shrine and many Catholic churches I’ve visited. There were small candles lit and placed before altars. There was incense in the air. There were supplicants on their knees communicating desperate requests for the intervention of a deity, whose image is displayed in three-dimensional form. The Hindu temple also held the scent of incense, and the evidence of offerings given by adherents in the hopes of gaining the mercy and intervention of the deities. I’m consistently intrigued by the human constant of people passionately seeking something to believe in that exists outside of themselves. The details of that search for relationship with a higher power vary, obviously, but the desire appears again and again.
Part of the value and enjoyment of travel is allowing your perspective to be challenged by other cultures. The experience of recognizing the similarities and differences when comparing other cultures to my own helps me re-examine why I believe what I do. For example I believe that adherents of different religious traditions can live peacefully together, each holding firmly to their beliefs while respecting the choice of others to hold firmly to their own beliefs. I believe this not because I’ve seen so many live examples of it. I understand that this isn’t easy. I believe this because I understand the power of choice. I believe we can choose to ask questions rather than make assumptions. I believe we can choose not to take offense when others disagree with our beliefs and ideas. I believe we can choose not to require as the price of relationship an insistence that others agree with us and our beliefs. Visiting Singapore is providing opportunities to see how one country is relatively peacefully living this out. They don’t get it right all the time in my opinion, but it’s instructional to see how politely applying the same rules to all groups contributes to an environment where each person is expected to respect the beliefs of others and to receive that respect in return. The question is, what can we do to see more of this happening in other places?