Friday, 17 April 2015

Our Relationship with the World — An Alternative Viewpoint

We of the modern mechanistic civilization seek to define all things and phenomena as ‘it’, as against he or she. We objectify (as against personify) the world when we refer to it as ‘it’, and not he or she. By contrast, we personify our country as ‘she’, ‘Bharat Mata’ etc.

Some decades earlier, when people referred to India as Bharat Mata, they meant it literally. Those who participated in the freedom struggle were inspired by the feeling that they were risking their lives for an entity that mattered a lot more than ordinary mortals, and yet was intimately connected to them and their families. Today, we don’t think that way. We think of India as ‘it’. India is beautiful as long as the the GDP, forex reserves and Sensex look sexy, and as long as the world is cheering it lustily as the new, rising BRIC nation. We don’t love India the way we loved Bharat Mata.
I think objectifying impoverishes us. Objectifying is fine when you’re dealing with micro-realities as in “My moustache is too long, it needs trimming.” But when it refers to macro-reality ie. a real or virtual person, it becomes offensive. For instance, as statement like, “I love my wife’s butt and boobs. I love her hot bod; it’s a real turn-on.” No that’s the kind of compliment that objectifies the wife. On the other hand, “I love the way my wife looks; she’s a real turn-on,” is the kind of statement that acknowledges the person behind the ‘hot bod’.
Modern thinking is largely an extension of an educational framework originally created by Christian missionaries. In the original context of their work — tribal villages full of ‘pagans’ — personification was the bane of Christian missionaries, because pagans  personified everything! Sun god, moon god, earth god, rain god, river god, gods for farming implements… gods and spirits seemed to ooze out of every pore of their existence. Every god was propitiated, consulted, feared… If rains were a week late, some god needed to be propitiated. If a baby was on the way, another one needed to be worshipped. There was no way the christian philosophy could take root unless the missionaries carried out a major cleaning-up operation and sanitized the minds of whole villages.
They went about it very methodically, sterilizing young minds with the 3Rs (“Reading, ‘riting & ‘rithmetic). Science, which was in Europe the nemesis of the Church, elsewhere in the world became its willing handmaiden, given its natural inclination to sterilize and objectify in order to render its subject suitable for scientific study.
Take psychology, for instance. In order to arrive at statistical conclusions, it studies humans in large numbers and generalizes. So, irrespective of your distinct personality, you may be considered part of a sample group of 1000 individuals, and your observations are aggregated with the others in your group. If your case warrants individual study, you are considered as “female, early 50s, menopausal, slightly overweight, sedentary, non-smoker, sexually active (moderate)” or some such thing.. That’s objectification.
Zoology routinely objectifies animals of all species. If you are a pet owner, you would know that each animal has a distinctive personality. What distinguishes pet-owners and horse-trainers from zoologists and veterinarians is that the former consider their animals to be persons, whom you can only get to know, like or dislike, through the process of building an acquaintance. Zoologists and vets however believe that you can learn all that you really need to know through books, experiments, dissection, vivisection etc. In other words, you don’t need to know a dog, you only need to know about them.
As horse-trainers, pet-owners and vets know, their two approaches to knowing animals are complementary, not competitive. Each needs the other to survive.
However, when it comes to taking a larger view of the world, those who tend towardsknowing Reality rather than knowing about reality are more-or-less considered the lunatic fringe. One reason for this is that each person who cares to know the world through acquaintance as a personality, or through worshipping as a deity reports a different experience, and has divergent views from others like him.
Whereas people who know about, or learn objective data about the world from books etc. have more-or-less connvergent views. That is because they are assimilating only objective, indisputable facts, such as “that’s a black, shiny, tall, energetic dog” — something that is verifiable but not of great significance. On the other hand, there’s someone else who says, “That’s a friendly dog that understands your moods, and goes with it. He’s playful when I’m playful, he’s sad when I’m in a bad mood, and he’s hostile to people whom I dislike.” 

Now that’s a statement of great significance. It may not be as easily verifiable, and it may be contradicted by citing all sorts of exceptions “Remember when my brother-in-law visited last week? Not your favourite person, but our dog really ate out of his hand all the time!” says the wife. (A vet knows he has nothing to say when such an argument is in progress. Some vets are insightful enough to know that both may be 100% right.) These are far from facts. And yet, these are the sorts of fuzzy factoids that have the greatest significance in our lives. Our lives, thoughts, personalities, belief-systems and families are built up from this sort of pulpy stuff that no scientist would want to certify.
People have such arguments going on all the time, even inside their own heads. They acknowledge the contrariness and arbitrariness of the world, of Reality. They acknowledge that what holds true for others does not hold true for them. “I’m a natural magnet for bad luck in the stock-market. I buy and sell the same stocks as my friends, and at the same time. But they usually end up making money, and I often end up losing out,” is a complaint one often hears. Of course there are explanations for this sort of thing, but such explanations, unlike scientific explanations, are never conclusive.
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I had a good relationship with a fourth-hand Premier Padmini (Fiat). My wife however had a poor opinion of this particular car. True, it had some trouble starting up on cold mornings, and true, it developed technical snags on the road. My wife would feel anxious whenever we sat in it. “Will it start? Will it reliably get u to where we’re going?” she would ask.
My own feelings were always of trust and confidence. “Of course she’ll start… Just give here a few seconds to warm up,” I’d say, delicately turning the key in the starter. I knew exactly for how long to turn the key to elicit the best response. As for mechanical trouble, punctures etc, my view was that snags usually hit when I had plenty of time to fix it, and never when I badly needed the car to work. In other words, she never let me down… the dear old thing!
But that’s not saying that I was sentimental when it came to selling her four years letter. We bought our present car, a Tata Indica — and then sold the Padmini for solid, commonsensical reasons. Now my wife is sentimental about our Indica, which we bought from a showroom. As for me, I like this car and its feel — a whole new generation of technology, looks and performance — but I’m not sentimental about it. Or should I say, “her”? Maybe.
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In some  ways, this typifies our approach to life. During the four years that we had the Premier Padmini, I went through a somewhat lean patch in my core business, publishing, made worse by a side-business, car air-conditioning, which bled me steadily for a couple of years until it folded. My wife’s view of this period was one of anxiety and trepidation. Mine was that this could barely be see as a bad patch. “If this is what you call having problems, let all my problems be like this. I’d consider myself fortunate,” I would say rather heroically. However, looking back, I fell things were rally pretty lean back there. But then again, my lifeline never gave out when I needed it most. So I’m grateful!
Life, I submit, isn’t about who you are or what you know about the world, but about what sort of a relationship you are having with the world. The world of course includes everything and everyone outside your skin, and some of it may be inside your skin too!
What they definitely don’t teach you at school is that being a winner in life isn’t about winning vs. losing at everything you do. It’s about building good give-and-take relationships with the world outside your skin, and within.
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