October Column for AZIndiaTimes:
We live in an age of relentless consumption- of goods, experiences, ideas. We are a singularly selfish generation because we are obsessed with ‘improving’ ourselves and relentlessly attribute a price to every activity we do in the hope of getting the maximum out of it. Idea Consumerism and Epiphany Addiction are practically diseases. Of all the people I know, those my age and from a similar background are the most calculative and transactional. In some ways, we were brought up to be in such a way. We were repeatedly told that everyone is in a race and the only way we could be successful, whatever it meant, was to look after ourselves and keep running as fast as we could at the cost of anything else. Like the writer Tanikella Bharani wonderfully put it, “Earlier, a mother would tell her kid to share his lunch with others in the class. Mothers now teach their kids to gobble the expensive chocolate quietly in private”.
I’ve been thinking about why so many of us are unhappy, discontent, perpetually angry despite having the most material comforts ever. We can watch any movie, order food, buy anything, plan foreign vacations at the click of a button. And yet we suffer from a hazy listlessness, need more and more provocative content to hold our attention and have no enthusiasm to use the things we worked so hard to buy. This is our mal du siecle. I can’t claim to have cracked the solution for this malady but a prognosis is that we don’t do enough.
Living is a verb. To be alive is to thrash madly around a fiercely burning star in the corner of the gigantic universe while precariously stuck to a blue rotating ball. If anything, the last thing living should be is boring. In his satiric masterpiece Du Levande, Roy Andersson creates a world, not unlike our own, where people sleepwalk through life. They are not dead but might as well have been. Nothing really perturbs them. Even emotions like anger and despair fall within a certain bandwidth. Yet they are not Yogis or Sufis. Nothing affects them because they are too full of themselves to really notice anything else. It was while watching the film that it hit me for the first time what solipsism meant.
To be alive is to have a reflexive relationship with the objective world where your actions are constantly tweaked and modified in accordance with reactions until a state of temporary equilibrium is reached. Additionally, to be human is to be able to empathize with another being. It is said that humans in the higher levels of consciousness can have a relationship with every molecule in the universe. Lesser mortals like us should at least commune with other humans and animals.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -Robert A. Heinlein
The primary reason for our psychological issues, then, is because we are stuck for too long in our claustrophobic heads. We don’t do enough to be in a healthy relationship with the physical world. We must be the first generation of people who are incapable of doing anything else expect our bloody jobs. We are the least self-sufficient, most dependent humans not out of personal choice but because of the nature of economic systems which prefer to assign a role to us; To turn us into a minor cog in the wheel.
The World Wide Web has helped us see how the modern world is a beehive. We are expected to do our part for the whole and not worry about anything else because the powers that be deemed so. That is why our children are forced to narrow their interests and are told to become proficient in one thing; What is colloquially called Skilled Labour. It is a demeaning, and tragic, way to live a life.
We're not talking artists, George, we're talking freethinkers. -Dead Poets Society
We are wilfully walking to our 1984. If only we could look up from our smartphones, look around and come to our senses. Every man worth his salt should quiver with life, not amble like a zombie. And for that, we need to create things we are proud of.
Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. -Henry Van Dyke