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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

This Harmonious Discordance Called Life

To hurt or not to hurt...

About living in harmony, it has always been said that the very essence of this effort lies in the inherent goodness of the brotherhood of man. On the other hand, it has also been said that one can pursue one's own interests as long as no other person comes to harm, or is otherwise disadvantaged because of one's own pursuits. Here too the end result is harmony, save for the fact that it aims to rationalize and placate the human desire to possess more by adding a disclaiming tag about "other people".

Yet, for most of my life, I've continued to believe in these ideas. The innate goodness of man is an idea that's easy to accept, and therefore, it formed a large part of the way I saw the world as a child. However, at some point in this childhood, I realized that mankind as a species, isn't really good at all. At the end of the day, it is mere survival that kicks in and people will do what they have to get by from one day to the next. There's nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that being good or bad has taken on a sort of universal importance; therefore, instincts have to be rationalized as being positive or negative, acceptable or unacceptable. Obviously, this is something that I can say now, but it was something that I tried to model my own life after...before realizing how vain the entire attempt was.

But what about the second tenet? You know, the one about doing whatever we want to as long as we don't impinge on another person's rights to do what they want to? Well, what about it indeed. It seems to be what happens in the rest of nature as well, right? I mean, that's how territories and living spaces are established. For example, a pack of wolves will stick to a certain piece of land until the food runs out, there is an extremely unseasonal change in the weather, or they are chased out by another, more powerful pack of wolves or other animals. In this manner, and once the territory has been established beyond a reasonable doubt, a certain harmony falls into place, which if threatened, is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. And for those of you who would like to focus on a more solitary animal that adopts a similar way of life, well, look at the tiger, or the leopard...or the panda. But how far is it really true? I mean, what do we, as human beings, mean when we talk about "rights" and "the way things are supposed to be" as being basic requirements for a trouble-free life?

As long as we don't hurt another?*

And this question led me to a rediscovery of a passage from "Illusions", by Richard Bach. Chapter 13 of this book begins with the following quote: Your conscience is the measure of the honesty of your selfishness. Listen to it carefully. The conversation between the characters of Donald Shimoda and the narrator begin with the former stating, We are all free to do whatever we want to do. The narrator corrects Shimoda, or Don, as he calls him and adds the phrase as long as we don't hurt somebody else to the previous statement. This corrected statement resembles the second tenet that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

But Don then goes on to explain to the narrator, through the artful use of an example, that the hurting bit of it all is up to the individual. In other words, it is the individual who chooses to hurt or to be hurt. What? And this is exactly how the narrator responds to this revelation. Then, in an attempt to pull it all together, Don says the following bit:

The thing that puzzles you is an accepted saying that happens to be impossible. The phrase is hurt somebody else. We choose, ourselves, to be hurt or not to be hurt no matter what. Us who decides. Nobody else.

An imaginary cause...

For what it's worth, it seems like this idea is something that I guess I've always been in denial about. I mean, there are times when it seems like we do the inevitable, and the only way out of it is to shrug and give people the "it's too bad" look. But it doesn't have to be that way, does it? I mean, is there nothing in this world that will ensure that as we go through life we can do so without causing another person more pain? Or at least by not adding more suffering and hurt to an already pained existence? After all, is this not a reasonable assumption to make? And this has been the train of thought that has always kicked in whenever I've been faced with such a situation. I mean, the moment something goes wrong or happens in an unexpected manner at an unexpected time it seems to be an immediate cause for panic. And when I've come across people in the my-world-is-crumbling-all-around-me stage/phase of their lives, I've often tried to figure out what's going on. If not that, I've at least made the effort to offer a palpable explanation as to why things are the way they are, and many times I've gone so far as to try and provide an alternative, or at least to try and draw out desired alternatives from the people in question. That last bit was something I picked up from a brief stint as a peer counsellor in high school, and for whatever reason, it's an idea that appealed to me for its simplicity.

Trying to help people with whatever seemed to be going wrong in their lives, I found that I often took it upon myself to figure out what it was that was causing all this disharmony. I know that my potentially dangerous curiosity has seen more than enough action in terms of awkward moments and prying questions...but that's how I make sense of things, and once people figured this out they didn't mind this...not much, anyway. And once I had all the facts, or whatever it was that I needed, then my mind went into hyper drive, and it became an exercise to arrive at a list of solutions/alternatives that would then be presented to the person. And this process continued to repeat itself. I guess I simply couldn't come to terms with the fact that bad things happened to people, so I was always willing to try and figure out what was going wrong with somebody else's life. And what about the things that happened in my life?...or the things that went wrong in my life, to be more precise. Well, there's always a perfectly good reason for why things are the way they are, so I don't devote much time to them once I get an inkling of an idea what the cause may be. And this became how I lived for a while.

A waste of time?

But through it all, and much to my current chagrin, I have come to realize that my aim was the betterment of the situation as a whole, was a purely mechanical exercise. It's like turning to the guy-who's-good-at-math to ask him how much 20 percent of Rs. 516 is so that you leave a reasonable tip at a restaurant. It's like turning to the girl-who-plays-several-musical-instruments to ask her if the song in the elevator is a rendition of Beethoven or Chopin...or if it's Kenny G, the King...of Elevator Music. That's the role I seemed to play in trying to satisfy my voracious appetite for other people's problems. In fact, come to think of it, a good friend of mine once told me that I tend to attract psycho people because I'm the only one who'll sit there and listen to what they have to say. He he he...come to think of it, I guess he's right. But making such a statement will only serve to label everyone else as psychotic, and being a member of this elite group I cannot do that to my fellow reprobates. However, the focus at this time was still about the cause for the pain, or hurt. It still seemed to be about the reason behind why things happened this way and how they made the people that they happened to feel bad, at best, and commit suicide, at worst. Why was this happening to people?

Moksha: the ultimate liberation...

Then, out of the blue, something happened to me. And although it took a while to figure out what was going on, and why, it found me in quite the same spot as I would usually find others. In other words, it was my turn to look around and find the world crumbling around me. That's when I went back to Illusions, and threw everything I had at making sense of what was happening. And sure, things were hell initially, and after that they continued to leave a bad taste in the mouth and all that...but I realized that I was nothing more than an actor of some failed, tragic, stage production who was being made to go through the same motions every night whether or not there was an audience to heckle or applaud. The same old thing would just keep happening if the actor didn't make his stand and say that he was unwilling to go through the same mumbo jumbo over and over again. Nope. If he didn't say anything and continued to hope for the one day when he'd be the star of this play, even though he knew that everything about the play was a failure, then he would be doomed to carry on playing this role and wondering if there was something else out there for him for the rest of his days...

And that's what I realized I was doing. It was a bit of a shock at first, of course. I mean, here I was trying to be as helpful as possible when it was needed of me. I tried to prop people back on crutches fashioned out of their own visions of a perfect future, so that they could take on their lives with a renewed vigor and vitality...to find their joie de vivre. I didn't care if no one was making the effort to do this for me because, as I mentioned earlier, I realized that I was in the habit of ignoring this intention when displayed by others towards me, and having figured out the origins of the issue I pursued it no further. But at this particular time, even this attitude of mine took on a strange new appearance. So, not only was I not willing to be helped if it was offered to me, but I was trying to help myself by helping others who seemed to be in need. What? That's right...I was trying to make up for my own issues by pursuing other people's headaches. How's that for a plan of action, eh?

So, I was now faced with a realization that seemed to be happening on several levels all at once. I had discovered that I was caught in the throes of a conundrum that repeatedly presented itself in my life. And I had discovered that I kept playing my life like a stuck record because it brought a sense of temporary relief...like a Dart or Crocin when a headache comes on. And as if two instances of life-altering revelations in about as many months wasn't enough, I discovered that people who'd been coming to me for help weren't trying to be helped. That's not a bad thing if you're looking at it from the point of view of they didn't need it in the first place. Not at all. However, the guise of a life less normal as a means of engaging me in serious conversation, much of which I now discovered was meaningless, was, well...it wasn't necessary at all. And I had let myself be roped in for this masquearde more times than I care to count...or admit. To use an altered idiom, "If at first you don't figure it out, please do so as soon as possible!"

The truth revisited...

We choose, ourselves, to be hurt or not to be hurt no matter what. Us who decides. Nobody else. Reading this now it's like Gospel truth for me. And to think I was looking all over for things to do so that I could be more comfortable in my own skin and fabricate a valid excuse for my existence. Ha ha ha. Man, what a waste of time it is to finally find out that you'd been wasting your time by carrying out your fervent, but futile, attempts to not waste time in the first place. Ouch! And what of the harmony that I spoke of at the beginning of this? Well, regardless of whether human beings are inherently good or bad isn't really the question. And neither is comparing left over vegetables on a child's plate to the food aid a person in Somalia is or isn't getting. It isn't even about following a set of guidelines that will govern your natural existence. It's about knowing who we are and what we're willing to put up with. Well, let's start with that, especially for those less abstractness-inclined or those who are otherwise irreligious. But a deeper meaning exists, I feel.

And that is, you have to know that none of this makes any difference to your existence. Sure, you've heard this from about 50 million Buddhist monks and other assorted members of the Hare Krishna gang. But you don't quite realize it until it begins to take on some kind of meaning in your life. Nope, because until then it's all "hot air" and words to you. But really think about it...I mean, REALLY!

For any complaint that you come up with in your life, you can find a couple of causes at the very least: one main cause, and at least one subsidiary cause. But don't stop there, because the further you explore these causes from as many different angles as possible, the more likely you are to realize that it isn't worth it. Want an easy way to do this? Make a list of the ten biggest problems in your life at the moment. Then, picture someone who looks like you and is roughly the same build as you, except for the fact that unlike you and your civilized upbringing, this person was raised by wolves...or elephants or whatever. How many things on that list would even begin to matter to this person? Why not? And the rest is up to you...to figure out, that is.

"And that's all I have to say about that."**

So, how does any of this answer my initial attempts to reconcile the to-harm-or-not-to-harm question? Well, what I set out to do was to arrive at some kind of conclusion, and no, it's not the fact that nothing is ever worth it. That's just a hint of pessimism in an otherwise labored systhesis. The conclusion that I now find myself making is that there is and isn't a harmonious way to live. What do I mean? I mean that the very concept of harmony and disharmony, like the idea of "being worth it" is an illusion. These are ideas that have been drilled into our heads without adequate explanation to the extent where the mere mention of them starts us up as if we were battery-operated. All the issues you think you have with your life are not worth their weight in salt if you really think about them. So, you didn't have a pleasant chilhood, loving parents, or three meals a day for the first 20 years of your life. If you're still around, then it doesn't matter. There are people who've made it further with less, and kudos to them for doing it. There are people who've given up before the race really ever started having been endowed with riches others could only dream of...and kudos to them for trying, or saying that they did. It's like that long list of things a person can make with shrimp, as listed by Bubba in Forrest Gump. If you see the shrimp as a metaphor for life, then you'll see that the various methods of preparing them are metaphors for the kinds of lives we lead. In the end, it all amounts to the same thing, right? So, stop thinking that all life will end when you die...because it won't. And leave harmony and disharmony to the band master...or to their respective pages in the dictionary.

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* Ideas in this section are taken from Illusions, by Richard Bach.
Source: Bach R. (1992). Illusions: The adventures of a reluctant messiah. London: The Random House Group Ltd.

** This line is from the 1994 motion picture Forrest Gump, which stars Tom Hanks.
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