One of the short stories in a high school English literature class that I remember until now is the story of two friends who were sharing an apartment. The story’s setting was somewhere in the United States. I’ve forgotten the details of the story so let me just reconstruct it and provide my own dialogue. We’ll call the two friends Susan and Mabel.
It was autumn and the weather was getting progressively colder with the approaching winter. Susan got seriously ill and Mabel took over the challenging task of nursing her back to health. However, Susan was severely depressed by the illness and believed that she would die soon.
The rented room they were sharing had a window facing a concrete wall. Framed by the window was the sight of a leafy vine that had been crawling on the wall. But it was autumn and the vine, just like the rest of the surrounding vegetation, had been losing its leaves one by one. As the sick girl contemplated the sight of the vine, she told her friend: “As soon as that vine loses all its leaves, I would be gone also.”
Every morning upon waking up, Susan would look out of the window to check on the vine — until the day when she saw only one last leaf still clinging to it. “I guess I have reached my end,” she told her friend, Mabel. “Tomorrow when that one last leaf falls, I would be gone also.”
But the next day when she looked out of the window, she was surprised to find that the leaf was still there! “Well, maybe, by tomorrow it will fall off,” she said, “and then I’ll die.”
However, just like the previous day, when the next morning came, the leaf was still there. It had somewhat miraculously clung to the vine. “Maybe it’s not your time to die after all,” Mable said. “That last leaf still clinging to the vine is sending you the message that you will survive this illness.”
And so the days wore on. Susan grew stronger as she looked out of the window each morning to see the last leaf still there. Upon her full recovery, she asked Mabel what might have been the cause or the miracle behind tenacious leaf that refused to fall. “Remember that last day when only one last leaf remained on the vine?” said Mabel. “Unknown to you, I secretly asked an artist friend to paint a leaf exactly on the same spot where that last leaf was. You have been seeing a painted leaf all along.”
I can’t help but equate that nice short story’s theme to our belief in talismans or anting-antings. It strikes a chord and that’s probably the reason the short story clings to my memory. The painted “last leaf” functioned as a talisman for the character of the story. It became the symbol through which the sick woman drew her inner strength to ultimately survive her ordeal.
Was it just imaginary and, therefore, ultimately unreal? If you go by the result, that question becomes irrelevant. In holding on to an anting-anting or talisman, I think we are tapping on an invisible source of power that in the story is symbolized by the “last leaf.” We tap the universal creative force through symbols and that, I think, is the ultimate function of the anting-anting you possess for whatever intention you decide to have it.
One of the criticisms you will most probably hear from a non-believer in talismans is – why bother to have something like that? Whatever you want, you can get from God. You just need to pray and whatever you need, God will give it to you even if you don’t carry around that piece of metal or wood you call an anting-anting.
I can adopt the same line of thinking and throw back the same logic to the critic. If you believe in God and you likewise believe that God is all-knowing, then why do you bother to pray at all? If God knows what you need, then wouldn’t it be unnecessary on your part to still pray and ask Him to give you what you need?
The act of praying and the act of keeping a talisman are essentially the same. They are symbolic behaviors we traditionally hold on to as important elements in invoking the creative energies.
We work and resonate with symbols in relating with the Divine. That’s the reason why we have temples and churches, for example. They are symbol’s of God’s presence in our midst. And so are talismans or other representations of divine or spiritual beings when they are properly consecrated for that purpose. They are symbols that can magnify and become the channel of spiritual energy that we can tap for various purposes in our lives.
Unknown to the characters in that short story, they had tapped into the same principle we have been tapping in our anting-antings or talismans. The “last leaf” had become a symbol and ultimately became the force that enabled one of the characters to survive her ordeal. In essence, it had become a talisman.