I am sixty-four years old now. I think it is time that I stopped worrying about expressing my opinions and time I stopped fearing the anger aroused by such expression. I may not have many years left of my life and it seems very cowardly to hide my feelings behind a veneer of politeness and diplomacy. As they say, after the age of sixty death sits on the shoulder. I must tell it as it is before I go.
To me, a hardworking and loyal person is always above someone who may be intelligent but self-centered. After all, intelligence is not a concrete quality. Education, a good job or a large income – all these are incidental. A good person is one who does what is her duty and does not limit herself to it, who has a strong sense of identity but is not self-centered, and who respects other people instead of looking down upon them. No matter how intelligent or educated a person may be, no matter how much material success they may flaunt, what they are inside is more important even for their own selves. A person is born with a high IQ which is an inheritance, not an achievement. But how she lives her life is of her own making. What she does with her life is what she has to face at the end, not the number of books she has read, not her bank balance and not her position at work. Of course there are many who will never learn this, but some of us will learn when it is too late to go back and set things right.
I think the idea of self-worth is taken to such an extreme now that it is less a sense of self than a desperate and aggressive attempt to assert oneself at the cost of even spouse and children. Is it a case of establishing one’s own rights and denying the same to others? In which case it becomes utter selfishness, a ruthless assertion of self that does not recognize or acknowledge other people’s contributions to one’s life. Which is a patently false position to adopt and exploits the goodness of the people who are around them. No one is Athena to have been born fully formed. There are people behind them who worked hard and gave up a lot to help them reach their self-proclaimed heights.
At the end of the day, other people may come and go, people may walk out of your life, but you have to live with who you are. The fortunate ones will see themselves soon enough through the eyes of others and will be shocked. The less fortunate ones will always consider themselves to be superior to the whole world, but if ever the day comes when they are forced to take a good look at themselves, they may end up despising themselves. That day there will be no reviled “others’ , only “you” of whom you have been so proud.
(No, that is not true, because that happens only in books, where the characters either redeem themselves through remorse or get their comeuppance.)
In real life, the good and humble are generally oppressed and the proud and selfish people continue to get their own way. Perhaps this is because there are always good people who are willing to put up with them, even forgive them and cherish them. This is the way of the world and it is no use waiting for realization to dawn on them and impel them to mend their ways.
We are told, in various texts like the Gita, that no work or karma is lowly and doing their allotted karma or duty to the best of their ability is what is expected of anyone. If a scholar is learned, he is only doing what is expected of him, which is, to learn well. If a man of business is wealthy, he should be pleased that he has done his work to his own satisfaction. But neither of them has the right to look down upon a lowly laborer for not being educated or rich. The laborer is doing his allotted work faithfully and honestly, and it is not his fault that he is a laborer and not a scholar or a man of wealth. Birth is an accident and “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. Those who are inordinately proud of what they have achieved would do well to consider how their life would have been if they had been born to the lot of the laborer. Many are only too appreciative of a successful person but do not appreciate the hardships faced by the less successful and the less lucky. Success in a human setting must not be measured in terms of wealth or social acceptance. It must be seen against the background of a person’s life and how hard it must have been for him to have overcome the obstacles in his life.
It is easier for a doctor’s son to become a doctor . A peon’s son becoming a clerk is more difficult. A housemaid’s daughter finds it even more difficult to get a college degree and work in an office. She has the added hurdle of gender to overcome, while an IAS officer’s daughter has an easier life choosing when and whom to marry. Which of these people is more worthy of our admiration?
The measure of a good human being lies in our ability to love other people. It is only too easy to love and pity ourselves. We need a clear vision to see who we are and the true sign of maturity is the ability to step back ever so often and take an objective look at our thoughts and actions, and correct ourselves when wrong. This has nothing to do with age. I have seen mature twelve year olds and childish forty year olds.
I think of my grandmother who studied up to the fifth class, was married at thirteen as a second wife to my much older grandfather, and became a stepmother to a six-year-old and a mother of four children. She had nothing, all she knew was her home and kitchen. Nobody bought her gifts, nobody took her out, nobody showered any praise on her. But for more than sixty years she worked in her primitive kitchen for seventeen hours a day without complaining. She fed anyone who came home, she prayed religiously for her children and grandchildren but not for herself, she became concerned when anyone fell ill though nobody ever enquired about her health. She was the last person to eat in the household. She lived every day of her life doing what she believed in – doing her duty – without complaining. She saw no reason to complain and she wore a smile on her face always.
Now I see the modern / affluent Indian women who are so jealous of their space, of their individuality, of their rights which are anyway unchallenged, and their self-indulgence. They take up causes like gay rights and the rights of the girl-child, contribute to NGOs which work for plastic ban and saving the environment, and light candles for victims of brutality. I can appreciate all of it, but as they say, charity begins at home. Even a smile is calculated and manufactured only for the selected recipients. Why? Is it because they have no joy in them?
Between the two, who deserves more respect? My grandmother would be called a loser by the modern Indian woman but she stays in my heart and in the hearts of many others, years after her death. She died twenty-eight years ago. But anyone who ever met her remembers her with love and respect. When I think of her, she glows with the kindly smile on her face. She never wore an angry look, she did not know what it was to be selfish. She never lighted a candle for anyone because she was ignorant of the outside world.
Can any of us hope to receive as much love and respect? If not, we are not as wonderful as we have convinced ourselves we are.
Please, look around you, see the joy in life, smile. It is all too easy to believe you are a victim, to be miserable every minute. No, you are not a victim, there are many other people in this world who are the real victims, and who have every reason to be unhappy. But they are happier because they have so little in life that they make more effort to reach for even the little moments of joy and hold on to them.
Seize the joy.