August 7, 2009: My 13-year-old daughter had a nasty spat with a schoolmate today. Coming home in a bad mood with bite marks on her arm, she changed into her home clothes, and headed for her room, her computer, her personal space on the internet… her blog. Then my wife said something about the exams and told her not to waste her time, and got some kind of angry retort. Offended by the “attitude”, my wife switched off the computer, wiping out a few paragraphs of rant on the blog, and triggering an episode of tearful rage.
I heard the shouting match and intervened. All the manuals on parenting advise that at such times, parents must pull together in disciplining the kid. But there’s one problem: I identify more with my daughter and her concerns about privacy and freedom, than I do with my wife and her concerns about propriety and discipline.
And so my daughter and I had another one of those long, rambling father-daughter talks that we seem to have every six months or so.
Much of what I’m going to write in this post comes from this talk, which happened a couple of hours ago. Some of it — the background — is however a continuation of the thought processes that my friends are by now familiar with.
It’s about life… no, LIFE. Like IBM’s television ad says, “I don’t want to live my life like everybody else! Like everybody else!” These are my sentiments — the sentiments of people in midlife crisis, and, I believe, also the sentiments of adolescents. I would like to term all of us “mutants”. Those who are fans of the X-Men, as my daughter and I are, will hopefully connect with this analogy.
We live our lives in the grip of a system. It’s a system that’s geared to maximize the GDP by making us economically productive people on the one hand, and consumers of maximum goods and services on the other hand. No, it’s not a conspiracy; it’s merely a global phenomenon. It’s just another manifestation of the march of our civilization — the Great Global Consumers’ Civilization.
But the overall effect that it has on our lives is like that of a conspiracy: this civilization harnesses everything and everyone at both the production end and the consumption end. The operating theory is: if you reliably consume what I produce, and I reciprocate, then the world is a happier place. Between producing and consuming, we find that we live our lives like cattle in the tabelas, or like broiler chicken in their wire-coops, where our physical, mental and emotional growth-rate is maximized but our scope to do anything personally meaningful with our greatly developed personalities is minimized.
We live our lives with focus. We live in organized family units that are easy to manage at various levels. Husband-wife-children are one socio-economic unit, whose natural cohesiveness causes people to live orderly lives. The need for policing individuals is negligible, as families are self-policing, self-disciplining units. We do not live in socially disruptive, extravagant ways, like, for instance, the hippies, hitchhikers or Rajneeshites did.
We are careful not to squander our resources of money and time. This is carried to such great lengths that if a child has to be held back for a year for any reason, we term it as “losing a year”, as though it really matters whether he/she graduates one year earlier or later.
Our career changes receive the same careful consideration: Will a certain move “set us back” in our career? I sincerely believe that a career-move that does your heart good is worth a lifetime, long-term consequences be damned! But the people who surround us, and the families that we live in, have a way of moderating and watering down such radical thinking.
We live our lives in constant fear of being judged by others, and being found wanting. We let our concern for these people and their good opinion run our lives; I’ll say that about myself, and I believe that it’s true for all of us.
Iron Bars Do Not a Prison Make…
Drawing from my discussion with my daughter: Our cages are not the ones outside us, but the ones within. My daughter sobbed, “She (her mother) wants to control everything in my life: who my friends are, who I talk to, what I talk about… everything!” And I told her, “You are not really angry because of that, because mum is not with you all the time like a shadow. She’s not with you in school, not with you when you go out in the neighborhood. You’re angry because you have internalized her… and she’s inside you now, telling you whom to talk to, and what to say. Get your internal mother on your side, or make it lose its power to forbid you and censor your actions, and what Mum says will cease to deeply affect you.”
This applies to all of us. We have scripted ourselves into out roles as members of society, profession, family etc. The economic system does not govern us from outside. Nobody really forbids me from dropping out of my place in the socio-economic matrix. If I’m willing to let go of some money, some responsibilities, some assets and some comforts, nobody and nothing is stopping me from starting life anew, wherever and however I want.
Of course there is a price to be paid; surely I can’t grudge society that! I can’t demand to rebel and expect to be given a grand sendoff party too, can I?
But what REALLY holds me back… and what holds back those of us who are internally screaming, “I don’t want to live my life like EVERYbody else!”, is our internalized System… internalized society, internalized parents, spouses, children, bosses, neighbours, society etc. There are a whole lot of voices within our heads, keeping us on the straight and narrow path, and keeping us away from “the path less travelled by.”
To do something original with our lives, we need to deal with those voices first, and make our peace with them. You can’t shut them up by sheer force of will, because if you do that, it’s like setting up a dam that will fill up and burst, flooding every crevice of your sanity on some later date.
We need to logic it out with all of them. We need to work it out within ourselves. We need to REALLY understand that, all said and done, we own our liberty, and have voluntarily ceded it to various parties in our lives, in return for various things like love, approval, comforts, services, money, sexual rights, relationship demands etc. We have traded away our liberty in degrees, until we find that we have no liberty left to give.
(And then if we find someone to whom we wish to give some of our liberty, we find that we have none to give… that we are very poor indeed! Our only way of remedying this situation is to steal from the other people in our lives, to the chagrin of these actual people in the outside world, and their internalized counterparts within our minds.)
Liberty is not easy. It is not cheap. We must resign ourselves to bleeding internally, and then prepare to bleed externally also. We must brace ourselves for pain, and then take steps to walk towards the source, into the source, of the pain.
But liberty is possible. We condition ourselves to believe that liberty is impossible, because “they” or “the world” will not let us be free. But that is not true. Liberty is painful, but possible.
What Does One Do with Liberty?
This is the question that we fear most. One of the worst fears in life is the fear of losing our context in this world. Because, for all of us, our context is the scaffolding of our sanity, our sense of who we are.
Who am I?
How do I introduce myself to someone I meet? I’m employee of, son of, husband of, father of … so-and-so. I live in such-and-such a neighborhood, own these many assets, command a bank balance of this magnitude. I have such-and-such qualifications, experience, skill-sets.
But take all of that away, and THEN who am I?
Maybe I can derive my sense of identity from my family. But bereft of what I am to them and what I do, would my family accept me? To what degree? In what way?
And if I’m not with my family, where will I go, what will I do? The question that would occur almost naturally to all of us if we are placed in this situation is: how to get back into harness? How to rehabilitate ourselves? Because, in the absence of our various harnesses, we find that we barely even exist. Something like a bee that has somehow strayed from the rest of its hive.
Our sanity threatens to implode unless we take some vestiges of our old identity with us. Something like, “Oh, but I’m still an artist; I’ll paint and earn money no matter where I go.” Or, “No matter where I go, what I do, I’ll stay in touch with my family, and keep sending them some money.” These promises may not be fulfilled, but the promise is what keeps the identity alive.
The problem of what to do with liberty is what keeps domestic animals domesticated, and caged animals caged. I’m a bit of an amateur zoologist… been one since my childhood, and I’ve handled and nurtured a wide variety of animals, birds, reptiles and fishes. What I’ve observed about all of them is that the law of inertia seems to apply throughout the animal kingdom: A free animal will strenuously resist all efforts to cage it, but an animal that has become acustomed to a cage will equally strenuously resist all efforts to set it free.
A lot of movies have been made around the theme of the bedlam that breaks loose when somebody unlocks all the cages of a zoo, animal detention centre etc. But, as anybody who has kept caged animals would attest, animals that have been caged for any length of time become used to their confinement, and wander very tentatively out of their cages, beating a quick retreat at the least cause for alarm. A parrot that has been caged for a week may continually beat its head against the cage and seem to pine for freedom. But open the cage door, and you’ll be surprised to find how many hours it takes before even coming out, and how many days it takes before actually flying away!
One of the sad truths about all of us is that we have forgotten to fly. Many of us may have even lost the desire to do so; but even those few among us who are blessed with a fiercely wild streak, who keep stoking the fires of liberty with the zeal of Parsi priests keeping alive their temple flame, would have to relearn how to fly. We may gaze at the open skies with greed and longing, but outside our present context, we would have to reinvent our entire personalities. That, my friend, gets tougher with age.
The Need for an Alternative Identity
Our current mythology is that we are, above all, super-consumers and super-achievers. That we are racing each other to see who gets to live in that 5BHK house at Breach Candy or Pali Hill, who gets to drive that Land Cruiser, vacation in Europe twice a year and send his or her children to Harvard. And I’m saying here that this mythology is not acceptable to me any longer. I’m saying here that this is not the dream that I’m pursuing, and this is not the dream that I would advise my daughter to chase.
So if this is not who I am, and this is not what I’m out to do, then the question arises, who the heck am I? And what the jolly heck do I want to do?
I don’t want to fall into any slots just yet. I don’t, for instance, want to say that I’m going to go start an orphanage somewhere in interior Maharashtra. I don’t want to say that I want to start an NGO to propagate civil rights, good governance or anything like that. There’s a lot that I believe in; my head is bursting at the seams with stuff that I believe in, but I can’t honestly say that I’m willing to give myself and my life to any of these things as a MISSION.
I love to travel, and travel cheap, close to the ground. I like to keep the company of men and women with bits of reddish paan stuck between their teeth, and the smell of sweat in their clothes. To me, chai, dahi-missal and omlettes at roadside joints are breakfast, lunch and dinner, and 8 hours of ghat-road driving is nasha. But I can’t honestly say that I’d like to drop out of my life to travel and see the world. Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Maybe some of the time, but probably not all of the time.
Mutants, Souls and Butterflies: Alternative Mythologies
As a crutch perhaps to someone seeking a new identity, as an alternative scaffolding for our identities — something that I told my daughter may be relevant. I told her, “Something is happening out here. We aren’t alone. People of all ages, seeking their liberty, are everywhere. I can sense it from what they write in their blogs — some of them wistful, some assertive, some edgy. People want a change. Not everybody, not even a majority, but a significant minority. On the worldwide web, one senses, like Professor Xavier in the X-Men series, that there are thousands of people like us, ‘mutants’, hidden amidst the normal people. They want their freedom from the rat-race, and the fierceness of their desire will be the exceptional power that sets them free.”
The fact that they are intrinsically disruptive, looking to set off a chain-reaction in society, makes them dangerous. That makes them vulnerable — which is why they stay hidden and suppressed. But the power of the www is on their side, helping them reach out to others like them, and build strength and confidence. Helping them consolidate and test their own thoughts. Helping them poise before they spring.
Mutants. Misfits who have retained their wildness, their burning desire for liberty. People who refuse to quietly adapt and fit in. People who fight back, strenuously or stealthily, when society tries to cut six inches off their soul to make them fit onto the undersized cots that life has assigned them.
And then I told her, who are YOU? Biology makes you my daughter, but who are you? You’ve been here, not just for 13 years, but for half of eternity. You may not remember that, but I sensed it when I held you in my arms for the first few years of your life. Your soul is that of a Royal. Your soul may be older, larger, grander than mine. I hear a deep echo, roaring like a waterfall, when I LOOK at you. You are royalty; remember that and act like royalty. Be royal; don’t be petty. Don’t entertain petty squabbles, don’t feel hurt by petty words and petty actions. Not mine, not your mother’s not anybody elses!
“We know each other as father and daughter, and that is my privilege. But you have to remember that you are much bigger than all of this. And you will remember, clearly, when your time comes.
“Your soul has the scale of an ocean, and quarrels are like the bubbles that an ocean wave forms when it lands against a stone. An ocean does not complain about a few bubbles. An ocean simply IS, and the bubbles have no existence beyond a fleeting moment. How can you let youself be driven to rage by what somebody said, or even did? Forgive, forget and disregard as an ocean disregards a few stray bubbles. Act like a royal who has stubbed her toe on a stone… with dignity, and without anger and self-pity.”
(BTW, do I sincerely hold this to this true? In my daughter’s case, yes, I believe this is the truth. I clearly sensed an awe-inspiring depth and calmness about her in her babyhood, which I did not sense with my son. I believe that she is an ancient, massive soul, relative to the rest of us — relative to me, in any case.)
“You,” I said, “are like the caterpillar of the Monarch butterfly. These bright-green creatures crawl only a few inches every day, and seem barely capable of even going between two of the milkweed plants that they feed on. And then they slow down, turn into pupa and hang almost motionless under a leaf for several days. Who would think that this creature will very soon become capable of flying several thousand kilometers, across continents, across seas, borne by high-altitude winds?
“Many won’t fly that much. Predators or a passing truck will kill them before they have flown a few hundred yards. But then, there will be some who will fly unimaginable distances before they die. Believe. Believe that you will be one among them. You won’t be alone. Believe. Pray, and the universe will hear. There are many like us, unseen but everywhere, praying, screaming at their Maker, ‘You Bastard, release me! Release me NOW!’ He will hear; scream until He hears, and responds.
“Release yourself from your internal prison. Plot your escape, work at it like the Count of Monte Christo did in the dungeon of Bastille… constantly searching for weak stones in the wall and floor, and tunnelling everyday with everything that he had… spoons, fingernails, anything. And, if you keep digging as Monte Christo did, you may find the old man, your mentor, in a neighbouring cell to assist you in your escape….”
Postscript: Does this sound like a rant? Too much of a rant for a barely-teenager? Well, I don’t know about that, because this was spoken mostly in a gentle whisper, in response to her tears, rants, questions and arguments that kept coming till the very end of an hour-long conversation.
A lot more went into that conversation, which I haven’t written about here:
Mundane stuff such as how to encode sensitive diary entries to safeguard them from prying eyes. How to save and backup your blog to avoid being wiped out. How to write a good, illogical password that resists cracking by logical processes. How to safeguard ones privacy.
Stuff about the double-edged nature of mother-daughter relationships, best elaborated in Nancy Friday’s introspective book, My Mother, My Self. The love-hate conflicts that are inherent in such a super-close relationship.
Stuff about the Oedipus and Electra complex, and the complex that arises from the fear of such complexes in either spouses or children.
Stuff about my dreams and memories and theories about reincarnation.
Interesting stuff that one normally doesn’t talk about. The stuff of our lives.
At the end of this talk, we came out of the tiny room that we had closeted ourselves in, and she was feeling normal, cheerful and… yes… free. Her equilibrium was restored. Isn’t that the best we can do for one another?
Was I laying my trip on her? Was I, prematurely or gratuitously, sharing my grand obsession with liberty? Was it improper? Was this bad parenting?
Is that much closeness a kind of mental incest?
Is it wrong to introduce non-conformism to a young mind that has barely learned to conform in the first place? A mind that is showing the first outbursts of teenage rebellion?
Am I corrupting a young mind? Am I distorting her life with my influence?
I don’t know. I believe not. I sincerely believe there are two crazy adolescent people in our household, and not just one; and I believe that she needs to know that.
And I believe that we can sincerely do no better than share with our children our deepest knowledge, values and convictions, no matter how wrong and improper they may seem from a societal viewpoint.