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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

When Less is More, Nothing becomes Everything

It all begins with a shift in thinking. Don’t you just hate it when people start to talk about a powerful idea, but begin with an extremely generic and seemingly unimaginative introduction? If your answer is “Yes”, then you too have had the unfortunate experience of getting drivel with specks of brilliance, and having to sort out what was implied, from what was said, from what was meant, to what was trying to be communicated in the first place. Funny thing is, this situation too can be remedied by adopting a shift in thinking, and before you grab something to throw at me, hear me out. Wait, better go make it a cup of coffee or tea, or whatever your relaxing beverage of choice. We need to ease into this, just like me, who after decades of being told the same thing by well-meaning people all over the world has finally allowed the concept to permeate his dense skull. I would like to think so, anyway. Then, let me begin with why I was so apparently obstinate in the face of sound advice. What made me think that I was better off staying the way I was, allowing my brain to keep plugging away at life’s questions and conundrums in the same way that it always had, but hoping to get a different set of answers. 

I have been stubborn as hell, most of my life. To put it more mildly, to be accepted in something other than black-and-white as far as shades of existence go, I have always been firmly confident of knowing how much I know, and not caring about anything else. Some of the earliest lessons that I was taught, usually unpleasantly and in public, were about respecting another person’s feelings, and treating another human being as precisely that, another human being. Of course, the further along I go into this description, the more I sound like a junior psychopath, but really, the point I am trying to make is that I allowed myself to be convinced that I was the wrong one, particularly in the kinds of situations that had led to my lessons in acknowledging the existence of others. For example, I was very sure as a child that, the food my mother made, which after tasting if I happened to like it, was the only way there was to make that particular dish. All other shape, look, filling and flavor variations were just fraud, as far as my 7-yr old brain was concerned. I wouldn’t even look at what my host was offering me if it didn’t look remotely interesting, and was even more reluctant if an attempt to make a connection with some food that my mother had communicated to the host that I like to eat was met with a sight unrecognizable. To me, the turning down of an offer of food or beverage by the host was a normal gesture, in particular, if the person to whom the offer was made was pretty sure that he did not want any additional food or beverage, whether at the moment, or indefinitely for the rest of the evening. However, after every such refusal, I always returned home to much admonition by my mother, who always impressed upon me that refusing such offers as guests in the homes of gracious hosts was a poor show in the world of social protocol. In fact, so incessant became this sort of feedback, sometimes communicated to me through the physical medium of a beating, that until I reached my junior year of high school, I pretty much hated to visit anyone. Of course, being on holiday for a short while between semesters at boarding school, plus not wanting to annoy parents who you only saw a couple of months a year, my own sense of guilt as I played on it myself, with occasional assistance from my mother, saw me visit relatives, near and distant, and grin and bear the hospitality that I was apparently forced to accept.

However, something would not sit well with me through all of this. In fact, a strange sort of resentment seemed to be building up within me for not being able to make sense to the people I loved and cared for, explaining to them that they didn’t have to feed me every time they saw me. For me, it was as if not being able to make this decision to have a cup of tea with a mountain of snacks was stupendously obtuse, but it was what passed for hospitality, in our culture. The logic behind it, dare I call it that, did not sit well with me either, so, once I was in college, I decided I was old enough to decline errant cups of tea and the delectable accompaniments that rendered the consumer unable to leave her or his seat for the next hour at least. I just started saying, “No, thank you,” and it made my life phenomenally easier, for me. Of course, for my mother, there was still the shame she believed she would have to experience in my behaving in this fashion. I even tried to explain to her that no form of non-snacking revenge would ensue, where if they visited our home, just because I refused to snack on what was offered to me, they would decline all drinks and snacks at our place. This, to my mind, and in spite of all the absolute bullshit that passes for culture where I am from, has never happened. I have always been tempted to annoy people by bringing this up in conversation, but I have restrained myself, if nothing else, because otherwise my mother would have exploded into a ball of culture-defending frenzy, leaving poor old me battling for his life.

It never made sense to me that in order to be polite, as a sort of acceptance mechanism that worked automatically, I should refrain from the word “No.” At one point in my life, it was a favorite of mine, and I used it without concern for wearing it out or running out of its supply. Liberal with my No’s, I was having a good time in my life growing up. However, this idea about making Yes part of the conversation of life kept rearing its head from time to time. I was told, for example, that when a Muslim observing the fast of the holy month of Ramadan offered you some food, you should always accept it. The first time this happened to me, I had just eaten a bag of chips, sitting in the airport with my parents, waiting for the call to board the plane. An elderly Muslim woman noticed me, I suppose, and she walked up to me and extended her hand, in which she was offering me a few biscuits from an open pack. Being seven years old, and full of barbecue-flavored chips, my first instinct was to shake my head in the unmistakable gesture of “No.” I knew that the biscuits would not be a welcome addition to the already crammed stomach. More fearfully, I began to rewind and playback all the times that I had been ill from eating strange combinations of food, and how annoyed, and devastated my mother would be if I, in public, were to end up tossing my salad, and she would have to deal with the cleaning up! However, none of this happened. I was forced to accept the biscuits and mutter the mandatory phrase of gratitude in return. However, strangely enough, I did not have to eat said biscuits. No, my mother held them in her hand until it was out turn to board our plane, and on hearing the announcement to do this, she quickly glanced around looking for this sweet old lady who had offered her son a snack out of sheer gratitude, and not spotting her anywhere nearby, proceeded to toss the cookies into the nearest trash receptacle. WHAT? How was she going to explain this to me, I wondered silently to myself. I mean, and now that I go over this scene in my head to be able to describe it to you, I find that my confusion is as strong as ever about this. So, it was better to let the person who had made the offer think, nay, believe that her gesture was accepted wholeheartedly, and that it didn’t matter what happened to this generous gift the moment she turned her back? How did this make sense at all? I mean, how did this look in the face of the daily news reports on how there were starving children in Africa who were dying due to malnutrition every day, and here were well-fed people, sitting in an airport, throwing away food because it played a strangely prop-like role in our world of comparative plenty.

I had always had, and still have questions about this sort of thing. I mean, on the one hand, let me briefly consider the act of the old woman making the gesture. As an adult, a “grown up” as I strangely refer to myself at the age of thirty-seven, I know that there are several, less-than-noble reasons why offers of this kind are made. To be a true happy-go-lucky idealist about it, she gave me biscuits because she genuinely wanted to, and it gave her pleasure to make this offer to a random little boy at the airport. I’m going to call this a sense of “noble charity”, where in the feel-good spirit that sometimes overwhelms us, we reach out and do something for someone in that same moment. No thinking, no considering the pros and cons, just acting, selflessly. Then, there is the possibility of “obliged charity”, which can happen in a couple of ways. One example I can think of involves thinking in terms of ‘quotas for fulfillment’ say, of some tenet, religious principle, or way of being that, if it could be and was being measured, the imaginary scorecard in your head would show you among the Top Five. This woman, perhaps, was being forced to be charitable because it was expected of good Muslims like her, especially during the Ramadan fast. This kind of thing is not unfamiliar to me because being raised Hindu, it was hard to miss the prayer-as-transaction relationship that most followers end up setting up with their deity of preference. It was almost like some form of “divine harassment”, as enacted through a quid pro quo dynamic, so to put it. Worst case scenario, and as you hear quite often in the bus stands and railway stations across India, never accept snacks from strangers, because there is a fairly good chance that these have been drugged, and after you consume even the smallest bite, you’ll regret waking up to being the proud owner of nothing, at least in the immediate sense of waking up being relieved of your belongings.  So yes, the act of “giving” can itself be tainted by a whole host of things. But then, what about the act of receiving? Does that not have the opportunity to be malicious as well? Surely, what transpired was pretty bad, I thought, but of course, there are a whole host of ways in which receiving could be turned into a life-threatening experience for the one accepting the present.

Now, what does all of this giving-receiving have to do with the less-is-more and the nothing-is-everything ideas I titled this post with? Well, everything, funnily enough. You see, what didn’t make sense to me about having to be party to forceful acceptance of any kind and friendly gesture, particularly in kind, and in the form of food, was that the whole sequence had to be played out from start to finish, regardless of the fact that you had just entertained a hundred guests and had no more food or drink to offer, or whether this was the fiftieth house you were visiting and had no more room in your stomach, or throat, to accommodate another polite snack/beverage offer. Looking at it from my point of view, it was extremely wasteful to keep pulling snacks out of containers and offering them to guests who always politely refused at first, before eating what they wanted to and leaving the rest untouched. The untouched food, thanks to the high humidity levels in the state of Kerala, would turn even the crispest potato chip in the floppiest, most stale piece of used-to-be-part-of-dishrag in a matter of minutes. This meant that offers of snacks gone unaccepted were practically loss, unless some hardened member of the family decided to not waste them by passing this food through her or his digestive system. However, really, it is wasteful, I think. In addition, while it is most courteous to remember to offer someone a drink when they come to your house, even to offer them some food if you think they have not eaten and look like they could use a bite, even then, I think it is always prudent to ask before proceeding. Now, some of you will read this and immediately go, “But how strange it will be to ask everyone all the time if they would like something eat or drink.” Some of you might take it a bit further and argue that such would be a form of idiocy, so much so that proceeding down this path we should just have refrigerated displays with food and drinks on offer at our homes and let guests take what they want to. Yes, I agree that this would be ridiculous, rather wholesomely so, I might add. However, what if society and its need for politeness first focused on need as a physical acknowledgement of phenomenon such as scarcity and unequal distribution of resources? What if our whole basis for forming societies came from sharing for mutual benefit, not just of human beings, I would like to add? How would our world be if we stopped making our everyday, lives about what we owned and how much of it we had, and allowed our lives to be able to be expressions of individuality, as supported by others who were freely and naturally doing the same?
If this is starting to sound a little too much like a Utopia from a far off time, or place, or even just a purely fictional state of being that we will never achieve, think again. Human tribes live naturally free, in varying degrees of course, and their physical possessions are generally necessities, with a few trinkets for religious observances to honor natural occurrences. They have no need for common mediums of exchange. Their offspring have no need to go to school because every single day they are in the midst of all the activity that the adults undertake to ensure survival of the tribe as a whole. There is not a whole lot of wondering what your parents do when they “go to work”, and then growing up to discover the sheer monotony of the civilized existence. It is a commonly accepted fact that these people have, in essence, nothing…but in reality, they have everything. This is the point I have labored to work towards, starting out with tea and snacks rituals from my own Malayalee hell, and eventually getting to it. There is a lot to be said for having nothing, and those who have nothing have everything. The trick, I believe, is to focus on ownership. If you believe you own something, say a piece of land, a home, a vehicle, fancy clothes, whatever, then in reality, it owns you. You do not think about it, but all the activities that you will naturally take up to protect your possession end up making you the possession. Let us say for the piece of land that you own, which as the owner, you have to protect by fencing it off, then you have to maintain it, then you probably have to pay tax on it, and if you want to build something on it, you need the money to do so. The one thing you really cannot do is leave it there forever, in the belief that it will be there when you show up the next time. Living in a society of owners, as the saying goes, “a fool and his money (read possessions) are soon parted.” Now, this is not necessarily, because the owner of said piece of land is a fool. No, it speaks to the behavior that one cannot adopt as an owner, to believe your piece of owning to be left idle and untouched for all eternity. 

On the other hand, if you owned nothing, you really would have a lot less to worry about. Now, I know we are all inclined to think, “Well, if I didn’t own clothes, or have some food in the fridge, and I didn’t have a roof over my head, well, how would I survive from one day to the next? I am going to say, probably better than you are at the moment. This so called “survival” that we think we are capable of is too dependent on a whole host of things and other people surviving as well. If you think you will be able to wake up and “survive” if everyone else on the planet had disappeared, think again. The average city-dwelling individual is no more equipped to “survive” in the event of mass human extinction, than she or he would be capable of surviving a riot, or some serious military conflict in the region. If she or he was able to fight, she or he would be recruited and thus taken care of. If incapable, then, she or he would just join the group of liabilities-slash-potential-targets. For those of you imagining some Rambo-like survival of the individual, just remember that around the time that the movie came out, there were about half as many human beings as there are on the planet today. That means, secluded spots that will offer you the bounteous, plentiful harvest of nature are currently fewer and further between, not to mention being extremely cautiously guarded as such. If I had to take my chances, with the current lot of people in the world, and in my life at the moment, I would just put myself out of any future misery that was poised to be superiorly miserable going forward.
Our world has too much, way too much, but we continue to see it as too little because that is the perspective that is needed to help with our progress and development. If you have something now, you are made to want its bigger, better, more improved version when it is introduced in the market. We have to buy to keep the cycle going, and for the money to change hands enough times to be able to support everyone. However, we do not pay attention to the misery that this cycle supports. Much like musical chairs, our individual quests for plenty and more mean that there are those who have been left out. Trouble is, no matter how well we participate, if we do not manage to reach the top of the pyramid, then our chances of being forced out of this little ill-fitting apparatus become significantly higher all at once. There are no guarantees in life in general, but the problem with the argument that civilization makes for itself is, that in spite of the purpose behind its creation being the survival of human beings through subjugation of the planet Earth, it still cannot guarantee eternal life, or a long life, or even life itself. Our wanton denial of the fact that our world is a poor replica of the larger ecosystem of “nature” causes us serious distress, and so we fill the void with stuff we can buy, and make the pursuit of wealth the purpose of our existence. We are taught to chase more, to the point of “everything”…but while this is an extant impossibility, I believe that even before this, it is a useless necessity. We do not need to own, or take over, or simply have whatever we lay our eyes on to have our name on it. That is not the point of this existence. Our lives are fleeting, and our passing fancies for trinkets and toys is even more so. We are beginning to see the changes associated with “stuff” and its accumulation, and people around the world are sharing their resources, their knowledge, their time and their energy to create a new world. Maybe this world has a purpose better than the model we were living so far. Maybe it has no purpose at all, not anything easily tangible and definable as a particular form or way of existing. Maybe it is simply the ability to live, as is, with what we have around us, nothing and no more. Then, when we see what we can do with the little we have been given, certainly giving a better account of our cranial capacities than we have for the last ten thousand years, maybe we will realize that we are truly more capable than we have allowed ourselves to be. Perhaps, at the end of this journey of realization, we will understand the reality of how, when we are born, we come into this world with nothing, and when we die, no matter the nature of the final ceremony that our community members will grace our passing with, we leave with nothing. Yet, because of the life we have lived, we would have lived it as if we had everything, and most importantly, all of the things that matter to us to create a good life.

I no longer accept gifts I do not wish to entertain, and whenever someone asks me if I want something on their return from their latest visit, I always request them to not get me anything. I have tried to make a life of living without accumulating junk, and while the accumulating part is working itself out now, I have much work to do in the “transforming accumulated junk” area, which is my next step and area of focus. It has been a hard life, rejecting the obvious and seeking out the more esoteric knowledge that is avoided like the plague in the “mainstream” everything. However, at the end of all of this, I have to say that given the chance to come back and change something, I wouldn’t alter a single aspect of the way my life has been up until this point, warts and all, so to speak. My existence hasn’t been perfect, but it has been mine, and while I continue to exist, I can claim the time that I have been given as my own, if I really wanted to, except I wouldn’t know exactly how much of it I have, or have left. In addition, not knowing is also all right. Less is more, and in the world of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, the less of the useless kind you have gumming up your cognitive abilities, the better. Maybe the greatest joke in my attempting to make this point has been that I have taken more than 3,800 words in which to do it. Maybe in my next life, they will destroy all writing implements so that people who meander on paper will not be able to do so, and then the audience, when fed up, can just get up and relocate to more silent areas of the world…instead of having to read through it all, whether voluntarily or by accident. ;)
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