All kinds of things come up when building a new world. Not only must one deal with geography and government, one must also establish customs for its people to observe. Rites of passage are commonly seen in fiction (The Giver and Divergent come to mind), but there are also little everyday things to which to attend. Or, in the case of Thresh, every year things.
The tradition of annually branding children may be the most troubling aspect of Threshan society. From their first to sixteenth birthdays, Threshan children are marked by their mothers with a brand. In fact, each previous brand is re-seared into the flesh of their upper right arms. It’s a gruesome ritual, one that causes even me to shudder when I really think about what it would be like for a mother to do that to her child.
As I consider this ritual, however, I wonder if it isn’t as outrageous as it first appears. I certainly don’t advocate branding, but when you consider the priorities of Threshan culture, branding is a logical act. Thresh is built in large part on the notion that strength of mind and body are to be praised above all. Branding, then, is a natural method both of instilling strength in the young and of giving the young opportunity to prove their strength. I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but if we look at cultures throughout history and even at present in various parts of the world, we’ll discover that branding and other bodily mutilations aren’t uncommon. Branding is nasty, but it isn’t unprecedented. In Thresh, it’s the natural result of a society that elevates the noble and necessary trait of strength to an unhealthy level.
We can judge, but don’t we in the modern Western world practice our own forms of branding? What values do we elevate to unhealthy levels? What scars do our pursuit of these values leave on our children and ultimately, the whole of our society?
The pursuit of beauty is a prime example. Beauty, in and of itself, is a wonderful thing, but we aren’t measuring it accurately. We have children fighting eating disorders, teens being bullied over average-sized behinds, mothers yearning to cream away stretch marks, grandmothers trying to look like twenty-somethings. Scars show not only on our wallets, but on the graves of those who died too young and the loneliness of those who live with meaningless beauty. On a smaller scale, the disappointment of leaving the store empty handed because nothing fits just right is another sign we’re getting something wrong here. We haven’t learned that we are beautiful, that we are loved, just as we are. We’re striving after a meaningless ideal of beauty, just as Threshans strive after a meaningless ideal of strength.
Of course, beauty isn’t the only thing we elevate beyond what is good. It’s just the most obvious. Wealth, power, having-it-all-togetherness… The list goes on. And I’m sure it won’t stop until we follow Grit’s example of hurling the branding rod to the ground. It won’t cure society’s ills, just as it didn’t cure Grit of her misconceptions, but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a bold statement that we are getting something dreadfully wrong. And it is evidence that we are stronger, more beautiful, more valuable than the rod by which cold society measures us.