When social change is protracted and long it produces a situation that has no closure. There is apparently no end to it. No classic ‘arrived state’. No final shining land of perpetual sunshine, timely rain, green fields or whatever our imagination tells us is waiting for us. In such a situation, the journey itself acquires enhanced, even supreme significance. Where there is a clear destination, one can afford to ignore the hardships of the journey, remain focused on the destination and everything else will pale into insignificance. But where, as is our situation today, there is apparently no end in sight, every minute detail of the journey is noticed, has an effect and produces some result, good or bad in our lives.
Today we have created a society which is so inward looking, so selfish – short term, instant gratification – and so commercially oriented that we seem to have lost all perspective about our lives. We don’t think of the future, be it in terms of the environment, or the socio-politics we have created for ourselves, or even in terms of our own personal development. We only think of what we can do to make money. No matter what the method. No matter what the activity. No matter what else we have to sacrifice in order to do that. No matter what happens to others in the process.
One of the major illnesses of our times which is in epidemic proportions is the unwillingness to exercise the mind to listen to those who don’t think like us and to engage with them in a spirit of enquiry with rational, logical and factual arguments. We are fast seeing a majority of people whose answer to anything that differs from their pet theories is either to close their ears or to try to drown the arguments in the cacophony of their own raucous, strident bleating accusing the ‘other’ of everything from disloyalty, lack of patriotism to sacrilege. As if in fact simply shouting will make the inner discomfort that instigated it in the first place, go away. What they fail to realize is, that the discomfort is a sign that their hearts are still alive.
And that if they shout long and loudly enough, then over time, their hearts will die. Then there will be no discomfort because the dead feel no pain.
Thabo Mbeki, the scholarly former President of South Africa said, “One day I pray that I will find time to write or otherwise address the issue of the calamitous retreat from the habit of thinking in our country, the atrophy of meaningful critical intellectual engagement, communication, and the occupation of the realm of ideas largely by dearth of originality, superstition, opinionated prejudice, stereotypes and a herd mentality.” President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, 1stJanuary, 2000
I wish I could say that this is a habit peculiar to South Africans. It isn’t. ‘Calamitous retreat from the habit of thinking’ is a universal problem today. And it is a very serious problem and all the more so because nobody seems to want to even recognize it, let alone doing something about it.
The visual media, corporate controlled – network television has played a very major and powerful role in this process of creating closed minds constantly focused towards pleasurable gratification and with the attention span of a monkey. We have an entire generation today, less than 5% of whom read serious books, less than 15% of whom read newspapers (scanning headlines is not reading) and almost all of whom avidly watch television. The spin doctors and mind benders of TV realised this very early and built huge empires based on lies. So today, we eat what the tube tells us, we dress the way the tube tells us, we go for holidays to places which the tube tells us are good. We watch serials and see ourselves in the lives of the actors. If someone were to hook up diagnostic machines to us as we watched our favourite serials, we would have hard evidence of how these fantasies actually affect us physiologically.
Do you see the power of the carefully crafted image and the attention span of monkeys that we have been indoctrinated with? It is not for nothing that the price tag for a 30 second spot on Fox TV is in excess of $700,000. Why? Because you are the people who make it Prime Time – glazed eyes, dropped jaws, slouched bodies with the remote control to your thoughts and emotions in the hands of the producers, to switch them on or off at will.
The tube today can make or break presidents, popes, governments and companies. The tube decides who we will consider good and who we will call evil. Both without a shred of independent evidence. The tube tells us how to vote, who to elect and who to leave out in the cold. And we do it. The tube tells us what to eat and what to drink. And we do it. The tube tells us what to buy. The tube tells us what to sell. The tube tells us what to believe and what to deny, because it is not on TV. The tube is illusion. We are real. But we have learnt to make the illusion real by living it in our lives. Passions acted out by others on the screen while we slouch in our chairs and eat popcorn (or time-pass phalli) believing that it will never touch us. We are told that we are free to choose how we live. We forget that the choice is never free.
We have been conditioned to suspend our thought, to suspend our judgment and to believe unquestioningly what we are shown. Strangely we do this though we know all about film producing, photographic morphing, splicing and all the techniques whereby any fantasy can be made to seem real on the little screen in front of us.
In order to succeed in reaching this stage, the spin doctors made some changes in our minds. They first convinced us that happiness lies in accumulating possessions. And if we don’t have the money to buy things, no problem, as there are always credit cards.
But that to possess things is the most important reason we live. And then they did another change. They told us that it was not only about what you had, it was also about what the next person had. If you had something that was as good as, or God forbid, older, less ‘stylish’ (they also told us what to call stylish), less shiny or less ‘smart’ than what the Jones, Biharis or Khans have then you are a failure.
So it is important not only to have things, but to have things that others can envy, throw out what they have and go out and acquire what you will then have to envy. So envy became the major virtue.
You have to be someone who others would always envy. Not because of who you were but because of what you had. And to tell you the truth, they made these two things one. “You are what you have”, they said. “Your possessions define you”, they said. And we believed them. Your car, pants, underwear, handbag, watch, shoes, neighbourhood, drink and food, all define you. They are all statements of what your worth as a human being is. How else do you explain a handbag that costs $ 125,000?
Or more correctly, how do you explain the mentally retarded idiots who buy them? But this is precisely what drives our commercial society and we have agreed to benchmark our worth in this way. Mission successfully accomplished. The mindset has been changed to worship the God of Commerce. The world is not godless as some people believe. Our God is Money. The major change that happened in the modern world is that we changed from being theocracies to being commerce driven. That is why atheism is the religion of Europe today and is fashionable among many who are influenced by Western education.
We are a society that pays its teachers the least and its entertainers the most. We are a society in which someone who dances half naked on the stage or screen or hits a ball across a net or into a goal or drives a fast car on a track makes more in one hour than a teacher who shapes the minds of a generation can make in a lifetime. Yet we wonder why we find ourselves increasingly in a society that is morally bankrupt, socially irresponsible and intellectually dead. I don’t mean that nobody is good or wise. I’m talking about the majority of people today. As they say, ‘One swallow doesn’t make the spring.’ The majority defines a society. True bankruptcy is a full belly and an empty soul. But what do you say for a society which has an empty belly and an empty soul. The writers of proverbs didn’t foresee that, I believe.
Just ask yourself about the modern TV generation – What do they read? What conversation do they have except discussing the icons of today? What do they produce of intellectual or moral value? There was a time when ordinary people in Delhi and Lucknow wrote and recited poetry, where the hallmark of scholarship was your ability to express yourself in prose or poetry. There was a time when the schoolchildren in England read Tennyson, Macaulay and Homer. So did we who went to English speaking schools in former British colonies. But today? There is a change, right?
Entertainment is such a successful industry because we have made real life so stressful that people need to forget it at least for a little while in order to be able to cope with it again the next day. But in that case, if to become forgetful is the objective, then entertainment has to achieve it and can’t be anything that is thoughtful in nature. Consequently people have little or no time or inclination to think about their lives, where they are taking them, what may be other options available to them and so on. People just want to forget their lives, their cares, their worries and get themselves lost in a world of make-believe. We live in a cycle of continuous transactional pressure with interludes of deliberately induced forgetfulness.
What are the intellectual conceptual tools we need to get out of this morass that we find ourselves in?
I believe that in such a situation there are two very important cognitive tools that are essential to acquire, if one wants to escape the negative stress the environment produces and if one wants to make sense of what is going on.
And they are:
- Put the present in perspective and see a pathway ahead
- Conceptualise a strategy and a roadmap to implement it
Perspective is the single most important tool that I believe we need to equip ourselves with, today. Perspective is the ability to hold two pictures simultaneously in your mind: Where you are now and where you want to be.
Imagine yourself lost in a desert. A land characterised by similarity, constancy, lack of significant topography. A flat plain, stretching away on all sides as far as you can see. In such a situation the most common thing that happens to people who keep walking searching for the right path is that without realising it, they walk in circles and obviously never reach anywhere. The only way to get out of such a potentially lethal situation is to find a high place, a rocky outcrop, a lone tree, a hillock; climb on top of it and then try to see where the way out lies. This is my description of perspective: to be able to hold two pictures in the mind simultaneously. If you think about this, it is impossible to give anyone directions to reach anywhere unless you know where they are at that point in time. All directions can only be given with reference to a starting point. So to be able to define where we are and to have clarity about where we want to be, is critical in all situations in life.
Perspective helps us to make sense of what is happening in the context of history; both our own personal history as well as a broader history of our social group, community, country and world. It helps to develop hypothesis about possible outcomes of current trends and practices. It helps us to prepare mentally as well as materially for possible outcomes. It helps us to take advantage of windows of opportunity. It helps us to prepare for possible dangers, some of which may well be very serious. Mankind gave up its reliance on raw instinct when it found perspective. Today we are dangerously in a situation where we have already lost our instinct and have no time or tools to see our lives in perspective. We are lost but don’t even realise it.
Perspective comes from studying history. Not for the stories of kings. But to ask ourselves what we can learn from it for ourselves today. Sadly history that is taught in our schools is not taught with this objective at all. We concentrate on events, with little or no focus on what led to the event or what we can learn from it that we can apply today. This must change. We need to study history for its lessons. Then we need to define ourselves as we are today in the context of what we read. For example in Indian history we have a period roughly from 1300 to 1900 where we were ruled by various invaders who were small in number but who by successfully exploiting our internal conflicts managed to get some of us to work against ourselves. That gave them the ruling authority and they were the kings. Divide and rule was the golden principle. We learnt it but didn’t learn how to defend ourselves against it.
Proof? Since 1947 we in India have been independent but because we don’t seem to have learnt the lessons of history, we are still being exploited in precisely the same ways, by vested interests within ourselves acting as agents for outsiders. And we continue to pay the price. Surely 600 years is time enough to learn, isn’t it? Or it should be.
The second cognitive tool that we need is to be able to conceptualise solutions. This is a little more complex as it needs two related processes:
1. Recollecting data from the past
2. Conceptualise the way forward
Recollecting data from the past
Facing facts is never easy. As they say, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.’ This stage – facing of facts – is the foundation of the whole exercise of making sense of our own past. A method I teach is to draw a story board of your life in pictures. Start from your earliest childhood memory and work along to the present. Draw all that you can remember. Both the happy and the sad stories. Try not to write any words. Draw only pictures. This accesses your right brain spatial recognition process and enables you to see patterns in your drawing.
Once you have completed the drawing then ask yourself, ‘What is the pattern that I am seeing in this? What is the lesson for me today?’ While doing this, try to identify the thresholds in your life from the drawing. What were the critical incidents where you took decisions that changed the course of your life? Especially what were the decisions that you took which went against conventional wisdom and accepted practice of the time? How did these work out for you? What were the lessons you learnt? Feel free now to make notes as you go from picture to picture. What you are writing is not a description of the picture but the lesson you learnt at each stage in your life.
The key in this entire exercise is frankness. Brutal frankness with yourself. Be not an exporter of blame. Embrace responsibility. This is the most difficult part for many of us. We have learnt to take comfort in blaming others, circumstances, society, country or in the absence of anything, God and fate. To switch from this to accepting that we are the architects of our own destinies is not easy. But that is the essence of Islam – to make the effort and trust in Allah. That is the meaning of Tawakkul. Allah feeds the bird but not in the nest. So be brutally frank with yourself for it’s your own life.
There is no alternative to owning responsibility. If we don’t accept the responsibility for what went wrong, the power to repair it is not given to us. The beauty of accepting responsibility for our lives is that it puts the power to change destiny also in our hands. If I made it, I can remake it. And that is an enormously empowering thought. Think of all the other possibilities that may have existed at the time and what other options you had. Try to think of what might have been the result if you had chosen a route different from the one you chose. The idea of all this analysis is not to send you into a state of depression but to enhance your sense of achievement when you realise that the risks you took panned out for you and you struck gold. Sense of achievement is directly proportional to the magnitude of difficulty surmounted. And remember it is difficulty in the specific circumstances of your own life. Nobody else needs to be impressed with it. You don’t need to be dependent on anyone else’s approval. You know how difficult it was for you and that is enough.
Conceptualise the way forward
The value of history is in its lessons. To work with them one must convert them into action plans. At this stage it may be useful also to take some external advice from someone who can add his or her own perspective to your plans. The roadmap you create must mention the resources you need for each stage, the key people whose help you will need, your plan to get this help and resources and the time by which each stage is expected to be completed. The more rigorous you are with these details, the more beneficial will be your roadmap. Measurement is absolutely essential.
Without measurement nothing can be mapped or assessed. Timelines are what differentiate an intention from a mere wish. A timeline demonstrates that you are serious about what you intend to do. Timelines are critical.
Once you have done the analysis of your own life history and put your life in perspective, then you ask yourself, “What now? What are the opportunities available to me today? What are the opportunities that are likely to become available in the near or mid-term future? What do I need to do in order to prepare myself to take advantage of the opportunities?”