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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

Lessons of the campfire: People as
spiritual beings to be loved and respected.

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As a child, I never did any camping because I never became a Boy Scout. Besides, as one who was living in a rural/small town environment in south-central Wisconsin, camping was an irrelevant experience. Upon graduation from secondary school, however, my family traveled from Wisconsin to eastern Washington (where my dad had once worked on a wheat ranch during summertime), and then on to San Bernardino, California (where my dad had attended secondary school, and where a married brother and married sister were still living), and did tent-camping along the way.

After my marriage, however, and while my wife and I were living in Ohio, we started to do some tent-camping together. We purchased a “pop-up” camping trailer, and started using that for camping. When we moved back to Wisconsin, we brought the trailer with us. While living in an apartment complex in a suburb just south of Milwaukee -- and being overly trusting of others -- one day we found that someone had hooked up to our unsecured camper, and had stolen it. Although the camper was insured, we didn’t use the insurance money to buy a new camper, and haven’t camped since. I guess we had decided that we had outgrown camping.

That may be the case, but I still have camping on my mind, and what I recall especially about our camping days was lighting a campfire when darkness was approaching, sitting near the fire, watching the flames, listening to the crackling, and just relaxing. Now that was an enjoyable experience!

As I was reflecting about my past camping experience recently, it occurred to me that a campfire can be thought of as having symbolic significance. True, dancing flames give off heat, which feels good especially in the cool autumn air, and gives one a sense of physical well-being. Beyond this, though, is the fact that flames have symbolic importance.

The flames themselves are real. You can feel the heat that they give off. But at the same time are intangible, non-material. Those characteristics, it occurred to me recently, are also true of us humans.

Most of us think of ourselves especially in terms of our physical bodies. Some in our society -- models, actors, etc. -- carry this to an extreme: Their physical appearance is what concerns them most, because that is what can be “cashed in” in our society -- and if our society is about anything, it is money!

However, my experience in sitting around a campfire -- as I reflect on it now -- makes me realize that we humans are primarily spiritual beings. The real you and me are comparable to a campfire: The “real” us is non-material, but still real. Put another way, we humans are fundamentally spiritual beings.

The fact that we have the concept of “personality” suggests that we have at least a dim recognition of that fact. But few in our society think of themselves and others as spiritual beings. This is not surprising, of course, given that the emphasis in our society is on economic-materialistic matters, which emphasis militates against perceiving others as spiritual beings.

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Fortunately, such an orientation is not totally absent from our society, as evidenced by the heart-warming treatment of a secondary school female student depicted in this video, and another one also in this video. In both cases a girl was perceived for the spiritual reality that she was, and is, by some fellow students, and honored for that fact.

Unfortunately, although children raised in loving homes may be able to express love toward others while they are still living at home, when they move away from home, and enter the world of work, that change in environment -- with its new demands -- may change them. Work environments are often competitive in nature, and one may therefore feel pressure to regard one’s fellow employees as mere things, rather than spiritual beings, and to then treat them as mere “stepping stones.”

I hope that this does not occur to the students in the above two cases who demonstrated such love for another student. But, nobody knows what the future will bring for them? If they were living in Albania, their orientation to loving behavior might grow rather than wither -- but they are living in the United States, rather than Albania.

My reason for mentioning Albania here is that the concept of “besa” has been present in their society for centuries:

The word's origin can be traced to the Kanun, a collection of laws which regulated the Albanian social, economic and religious lives, together with traditional customs and cultural practices of the Albanian society from the year 1400 to today. Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of "Albanianism".

“Besa” means “keeping promises” and “word of honor,” and was most notably expressed during the last century:

During World War II, Albanians, 70% of whom are Muslim, saved over 2,000 Jews from Nazi persecution. 2 Rather than hiding the Jews in attics or the woods, Albanians gave them clothes, gave them Albanian names, and treated them as part of the family. The concept of besa is incorporated into their culture. Before World War II only about 200 Albanians were Jewish. At the end of the war about 2,000 Jews were living in Albania.

(By the way, there is a film about this which, unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of viewing.)

In short, the Albanians treated members of a different religious group, not as different from them, but like them in being spiritual beings. If Albania had been a basically Christian country, would Jews have been treated in this kind way? The fact that Germany was a “Christian” country . . . Do I need to say more?!

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What’s so heartening in learning about besa in Albania -- and secondary school children in Tennessee and Texas -- is that it “shoots down” the claim that humans are naturally selfish and “nasty.” Albania provides proof positive that kindness can be a national characteristic, something that those of us living in the United States find virtually impossible to believe -- as evidenced by the fact that when instances of kindness do occur in this country (as with the secondary school cases cited above), they become “news”! Were kindness to occur on a regular basis throughout our country and every day -- as has been the case with Albania -- it would no longer be “news.” [1]

When we in this country think of Muslims, the word “terrorist” too often comes to mind -- reflecting the poor quality of the mainstream media in this country. The example of Albania, however, gives the lie to that myth -- and gives one some measure of hope that the United States might also, eventually, become a “good” place to live, with the emphasis here on “good”!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. For a recent article that not only discusses “besa” but the fascinating career of Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of noted Sufi leader Hazrat Inayat Khan, see this.

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Al Thompson retired, in 2014-JUL, from an avionics firm in Milwaukee, WI.  He may be contacted using this email address:

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Copyright © 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2014-SEP-26
Last updated 2014-SEP-26
Alton C. Thompson
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