All too often, one hears the view that all the good people are gone and we are left with an irreparable intellectual and moral deficit. The headlines seem to bear this out: what appears to be an epidemic of violence—sexual, structural and political; corruption; and pervasive posturing, both in public and in our personal lives. Oliver Goldsmith, writing about the advent of the industrial society, seems to be writing about us.
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.”
True confession: I cannot write about moral decline; I just do not understand the topic well enough. What seems far more tangible is to think about the qualities or values we need (and needed) to learn as children that would enable us to cope with life’s challenges and complexities, and to become good human beings. I offer you my list in no particular order; different moments may call for different combinations.
Compassion is the starting point of most of the world’s faiths, and for a good reason. Every teacher and text points out that the experience of pain is universal, and yet we suppress compassion in our interactions. Even as we live with hurt, our first instinct seems to be to snap and judge. Sometimes it seems like the smart response to a situation. Sometimes it seems to be the realistic response to something we see. But yesterday, someone reading about the Delhi rapists thought for a minute about their mother. What must she feel? In the middle of all the expert opinion swirling around me, that is the thought that I learnt most from. From compassion, flow empathy and acceptance without judgment.
In an age of physically daring pastimes, we seem to have less courage to be ourselves, to be true to ourselves in a given moment. The crush of peer pressure is no longer an adolescent reality, but something that governs all aspects of our lives. The context may vary, but the pressure to conform is uniform and overwhelming. This is the way we (are supposed to) dress to work. This is what we (are supposed to) think about a movie. This is what we (are supposed to) say about food. The ‘done’ thing is grossly overdone. The ultimate extreme sport is to stand ankle-deep in the rapids of peer pressure, to feel the water try to lift you off your feet and to stand your ground.
Without courage, life is a performance. Some kinds of pretension may even be desirable, such as pretending to like something someone has offered you with love or pretending you did not notice that someone’s wig has fallen off in the middle of a theatre production. Lying, giving and taking bribes, cheating people, stealing, being deceitful—not doing these are an aspect of integrity crucial to our interactions with other people. However, the kind of critical and transparent introspection that Gandhiji undertook sets a higher bar in my view. Can we be completely honest with ourselves? That takes clarity and courage. I envy this kind of integrity and prize it well beyond morality—whatever that is.
Life is not fair, but we could learn to be. A sense of justice and fair play is about equal portions for everyone at the table. A sense of justice is about giving everyone an opportunity to learn and a fair chance to grow at their pace. A sense of fair play is to listen to what others have to say. It is the instinct not to discriminate or favour and to compensate for injustice. I do not know if perfect fairness or perfect justice is possible. In a hierarchical world structured to differentiate, is there any way to be fair that does not place someone at a disadvantage for some time? But the choice seems clear to me: I can either wait for that debate to play out or I can try and be fair everyday in my own way at my own little level.
To give is to live. This is the lesson I have learnt from four generations in my family, each person giving in their way, some more publicly than others. To give what you can without keeping accounts; to give in response to someone’s felt need and not your own assessment of what they deserve; to give what you can in the moment and not wait for a perfectly suitable time; to give in money and materials, in time and effort and in love and support; to give without judgment—this is what family stories valorised. I witnessed great generosity of spirit—to disregard slights, to overlook differences of perspective and lifestyle, to turn the other cheek, to accept. To be as generous as mythical Harishchandra or Karna, as my elders, remains an aspiration for me. How can I not list generosity here?
Like Rome, nothing worth building gets done in a day. In the university of my life, I have long suspected that I am undeclared “Patience” major. To learn to work very hard and wait a really long time to do the things I love, to do work with a painfully long gestation period, to wait for payment and to defer and strategise gratification—these are the themes of my adult life. Learning to be patient is learning to value process and means over outcome, to value doing things right. Patience is acceptance and tolerance of people and situations you don’t understand completely for any reason—cultural difference or temperamental difference or any other kind of difference.
Reading Indian mythology, one comes across the idea of ‘control over the senses.’ In most stories, the senses in question are physical but it must mean more. To control anger, for instance, must be such a powerful achievement. To control anger does not mean not to feel anger about injustice, but to take that anger and put it to good work. To control anger means recognising that some expressions of anger amount to abuse. This must be true of every human thought, emotion and action—being self-aware must harness one’s energy in wonderful ways. That quality of restraint, that self-discipline, I hope to glimpse just once in this lifetime.
I really don’t know about morality or moral decline. Most of us are doing the best we can and have no time to dwell on how we measure up to people in our real and mythical pasts. It probably does not matter. We are all works in progress.
Ultimately, I can only speak for myself. The truth is, like most people, I am too busy getting through the day and getting things on my task list (like this column) done. I hope I can do these things well, without hurting anyone, without getting angry or stressed or sick, frugally, honestly. I don’t know if I possess any of the qualities I list in any measure; I cannot worry about that. If I can take each minute, each day as they come, that has to be good enough. To try my best in this moment--that is all there is; that is already a great deal.
(Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and the founder of Prajnya (prajnya.in). The Education for Peace team at Prajnya dreams about bringing conversations about these values, which are also peace values, into the classroom and other spaces. )