Time and again we have all heard our elders talk of a bygone Golden Age. Amidst the epochs of confusion that buffet humankind in the form of sophisticated so-called literary guises, we have found some semblance of solace in the legends related of our ancestors’ pasts. These recurrent reminiscences of those who are perceived as being mentally feeble have somehow managed to cast a golden hue on the fringes of our present day, strangely causing us to long nostalgically for the past. A longing that sneaks up on people, time and again, and the desires for today are not totally disconnected from the yesterday of their forefathers. A desire for such a time continuum crosses their minds while they perform the most pedestrian of tasks, bit by bit removing a sense of fulfillment. And one day, without having actually confronted themselves, they wonder why today feels so hollow.
Today, those who have made it their business to identify and cure these feelings of emptiness and the consequent loneliness that is experienced by the human self have presented panoply of solutions, usually gift-wrapped in various intellectual discourses. People struggle with each discourse, hoping that maybe one will, after all, be their stamped pass through the golden gateways of enlightenment. Time unwraps each solution and lays its contents bare. History stands as a graveyard, giving testimony to the inadequacy of the philosophical critiques and theoretical discourses of modernity and post-modernity. The world is still in a state of chaos and, within this existentialist milieu, human beings still question their solitary existence.
It seems that history has selected a fistful of people who deem themselves destined to step into the arena of intellectual combat, jumping to the rescue of humankind. The common man finds themselves in a literary laboratory where they are left to experiment with the latest medicines that have been prescribed for their affliction. In a desperate attempt to break free from the onslaught of isms hurled at us by the age of modernity and post-modernity, the intellectuals of our age have come up with a new literary concoction. The era of isms has ended. It is now the age of paradoxes. There is an increasing trend of juxtaposing ironies in the guise of facts and universal truths. Language is the best-seller in the market for dressing-up contradictions with such frills; one is often left so dazzled by the linguistic niceties that they are unable to detect any lacuna in the logic presented. People develop unique dictionaries for each of these. The logic presented for this discrepancy in the repertoire of every person is simple: each person’s world is made up of their distinct life experiences, their memories of the past and their imagination of the future, as well as their comprehension of the now and their plans of action for grappling with the present. Thus, the language one employs and the peculiar meaning it entails is contingent upon one’s very own, individual privé monad. It is these self-concocted dictionaries, composed of their distinct vernacular along with their numerous subtleties, which form one’s individual mental architecture by which the affairs of one’s life are orchestrated.
This novel concept of individual dictionaries rotates round and round the dining tables of the most “progressive” of humankind. People prize themselves as being part of what is now being hailed as a grand intellectual revolution. This revolution, it is believed, gives one the ability to guard one’s pristine exclusivity. Inherent within this exclusiveness of the individual self from the “other” is the championing of the self, and a sense of security prevails, giving humankind the assurance that the esoteric nature of our pristine binaries of right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly make all that we do and say a private matter. And, some like to believe, within this privacy, within this unique sphere of personal space lays the epitome of freedom that humanity has ever been able to reach.
It is within this multiplicity of one’s private, peculiar lingua franca that they are able to ascribe meaning to their very existence. One’s conceptualization of the self and one’s ferocious defense of this newly-acquired perception of freedom are what form the basis of one’s interaction with those around them and the world that they live in. This sense of exclusivity leads to what Habermas has called a breakdown in “communicative action”-the absence of common relatable backgrounds to the extent that no one can any longer imagine being in another’s shoes. Without this mutual taking of perspective, the very precious element of human emotional intelligence that is known as “empathy” is automatically removed from many people’s dictionaries. Empathy is the same trait that makes a child burst into tears when another one cries in front of them, thinking that the pain is not the other’s but their own. This quality of being able to relate to, to actually understand and feel not only the other’s pain, but also their happiness, is what forms the main spring of the concept of rescue, a concept upon which entire literary laboratories have been established. If it were not for empathy, the demarcation between the self and the other would make it unimaginable for anyone to surmount those towering walls to rescue another; this would have been a thing of fairy tales and folklore. This is the point when an eagerly embracing the age of private dictionaries, with their golden masquerade of personal freedom, draws one actively into an intellectual maelstrom against the “other,” and against tolerance.
Confronted by such tempestuous times, when I look upon the glorious pasts of our ancestors in an attempt to find some point of reference that could aid in navigating, one string of events presents some relevant points to my argument. While growing up, my life, just as that of any other child who was growing up at the same time, was colored by numerous stories and legends. Over time, I managed to dust off images of flying horses and heroic men coming to the rescue of people who were being tortured by brutal potentates. But the more human memories have remained with me to this day. As a young child, I often saw my grandmother leave the house and walk over the next-door neighbors’ house with some delicious dish she had prepared. The visits had an almost ritualistic feel to them, since every single time some delectable dish was cooked and brought over to our house; I knew some of this would find its way to our house. On the occasions when I was allowed to accompany my grandmother on these visits, I would witness her place the dish on the table, and then either herself or the recipient would divulge some important piece of news, each launching off into a torrent of complaints and remarks about this, that and the other. On one such occasion, the meeting took a sudden unpleasant twist. I remember quite vividly that my grandmother severely rebuked one of our neighbors, a regular receiver of sweets and meals. The hot halawa lay on the table in front of her, sending off sweet enticing whiffs while both grownups were engaged in a heated verbal brawl. The point of contention was indecipherable to me, as grown-ups at that time had a way of skillfully employing a code language in front of children; perhaps this was part of an attempt to protect our innocence from being tarnished by the realities of adulthood. At the end of the quarrel, my grandmother apparently had the last word and made her way home with the hot dish of sweet-smelling food still sitting on the neighbor’s table. From that time onwards, there was a continuation of exchanges of harsh words over hot delicious meals or sweet mouth-watering delicacies. My young mind was at first befuddled and later exasperated by the on-going quarrel, the continuation of which was clearly contingent on the exchange of meals. I knew that all the trouble would effortlessly come to a halt if neither lady were to cross the fence that demarcated their house from the other. No ties of blood bound them and the cessation of any contact whatsoever would not have disrupted the routine of our lives. It was as simple as that.
What left my young mind baffled in the past was the persistence of my grandmother and our neighbor to maintain contact, despite the conflict; however, this makes sense to me now. People in the past had a more wholesome experience of life because it was framed within a sense of collectivity. Their dictionaries were not discrepant from others and they spoke a common language based on a certainty that their essence was unique to them not as individuals, but as an individual human race. It was their recognition of the unity of essence, shrouded within a multiplicity of existence, which enabled them to forge ties that were so tenacious. This notion of being united in essence, in their human proclivity to do good and believe in the Absolute Truth, was translated into their relationships and their persistent efforts to maintain relationships that had been forged willingly. The entire saga of my grandmother’s quarrels with the neighbor is intelligible to me now as a part of ongoing effort to remind her friend not to detract from this natural inclination towards goodness that was rooted within her very makeup as a human being. The whiffs of sweet-smelling treats were left as a message that her act of reprimanding her friend did not spring from a desire to claim a higher moral ground based on her own personalized set of rights or wrongs, but rather from an active concern for the community that she perceived herself to be a part of. The fact that the neighbor welcomed her at the door each time before the drama took place relates the moral pattern of people at that time, or at least within the confines of such interactions. It reflects a broad moral consensus of the entire neighborhood; they were actively involved in saving not just the one who was being wronged, but also the one who was doing wrong. Each person comprehended the fact that the underlying reason for the argument between the two found its source in the legacy of mutual concern, handed down to them from their elders. An active sense of empathy, of the fear that the wrong that was being committed today could be committed by them tomorrow, the fear that if it was not ended it would form a part of the legacy of their children, existed among these neighbors.
Today, people find a false sense of security in the notion of privacy and personal space. A sense of relief is felt that no busybody from the neighboring apartment will come knocking on the door, with the sense that the gift of a sole meal or a plate of sweets grants them the moral right to correct one’s wrongs or to criticize acts. One finds themselves comfortably ensconced in this preservation of private space and thus fails to recognize that the so-called privacy that is so aggressively guarded is actually shrinking with every passing day. In the past, at least one was able to walk down a street without having some person or another trying to sell them expensive means to look socially acceptable. But the case today is the total opposite of this. The alienation that is a direct cause of protecting what we now term “personal space” has curtailed our freedom to guard our natural proclivity towards goodness which connects us with humanity. The percolating sense of otherness and spreading intolerance are just two sides of the same coin.
The decisive factor in the above discussion is that no time is in and of itself golden. It is the people who are living at that time who cast it in varying hues, hues by which the future generations will remember them. Only if people could burst their own bubble which divides them from the other and embrace the unified proclivity towards Good and Absolute that is part of their human makeup, will they be able to live up to the moral responsibility that they have, not only towards themselves and their contemporaries, but also towards their future progeny. In this hour of need what we need is not another so-called glamorized intellectual revolution, but rather a grand intellectual revival of the human estimation of one’s own self. In my opinion, expensive intellectual laboratories and large think-tanks can help, but a revolutionary revivalism of that which can help us find a positive continuity with the past and a beneficial connection to the future could play a small start. The muddy hand of a child is enough to hold up a mirror to each and every one of us, shattering any claims of uniqueness or separateness. This brief muddy treasure will remind us of what we are made of and of what we mean to one another. Within this humbling realization, I believe, flickers a great hope.
Raaza Jamshed Butt has an MA degree in international relations from the International Islamic University, Malaysia.