Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Just where do you think you are, sir?"

Being an outside observer now rather than a participant in daily activities that I would otherwise have been, I get a different take on what people do. In many cases, when I hear about people 'working hard' till late at night in the office, it just seems to be a confirmation of what Gandhi had said in Hind Swaraj, 'Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.' The world is too much with them. I was reading a book written in 1883, Conventional Lies of Our Civilization by Max Nordau. Its description of Western society at that time seems to be true of India today:
Each day witnesses the birth of some new, wonderful invention, destined to make the world pleasanter to live in, the adversities of life more endurable, and to increase the variety and intensity of the enjoyments possible to humanity. But yet, notwithstanding the growth and increase of all conditions to promote comfort, the human race is to-day more discontented, more irritated and more restless than ever before.
The light literature of England has long since ceased to be a faithful mirror of real life. When it is not describing with gusto, crimes and scandals of all kinds, murders, burglaries, seductions or testamentary frauds, it portrays a model society, in which the members of the nobility are all handsome, dignified, cultivated and wealthy; while the lower classes are honest God-fearing people, devoted to their superiors, the virtuous among them being graciously praised and rewarded by Sir This or Sir That, while the wicked are locked up by the police — in short, a society which is in all respects an absurd idealization of the dilapidated, tottering structure of society as it exists in England at the present day.
Many people I meet are richer than they were before my stroke but I am not sure if they are happier.  The levels of narcissism seems to have gone through the roof with people spending incredible amounts of time, effort and money to look good. In spite of riches they seem to have many issues to worry about – property disputes; couple separating within months after an extravagant, no-expenses spared wedding; highly educated son becoming a drunkard…After listening to all the sorry tales, I will end up feeling that I am not in such a bad state after all.

Private vehicles are regarded as status symbols rather than as a means of transport. Some people change models of cars and mobile phones every year depending on the talk of the town. They seem to be advertisement driven rather than utility driven. Teens will wear only expensive, branded items (which they will soon outgrow much to the delight of manufacturers) due to peer pressure. And as George Orwell says in his essay Pleasure spots, ‘Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness.’ I heard of a 14 year old boy who committed suicide because his parents refused to buy him a smart phone. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in.

People keep wanting a bigger TV with additional features they will rarely use. They will want computers with more RAM, more hard disk, higher speeds…all of which will be an over-kill for their normal use. And as you become more tantalized by these 'innovations' , you become more dependant on your job which thereby becomes the modern version of slavery. There is often an air of pretense and phoniness like one sees in the manufactured, made-to-order smiles of air-hostesses, hotel receptionists and TV presenters. Many successful people seem to acquire characteristics similar to one I had read in an article which had a quote from a novel in which a wife tells her husband who is a typical big shot executive:
‘…you are losing a kind of innocence which was always dear to me. I think you take the wrong kind of pride in what you are doing. You are learning how to push the little buttons which make people jump, and you are becoming cynical and skeptical about people. It is a kind of 'watchfulness' which I see in you. Your smile is the same and you seem to talk in the same way, and people like you as readily as ever, but you are on guard, even with me. I think you are becoming a political man, and once again I must sound childish to you as I say that I do not like the byproducts—the compromise, subterfuge and so help me, the 'use' of human beings. I am not accusing you of some enormous wickedness. But I think the kind of work you are doing now will change the essential texture of you, will harden you in ways I cannot clearly understand.’
There is a philosophical term called the paradox of hedonism according to which directly seeking pleasure makes pleasure difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maximize. The person starts framing all of his relationships in terms of his own pleasure and cannot care about anything or anyone else.  It is better for him to  genuinely care about things distinct from pleasure and then let pleasure be felt as a byproduct. But we are attracted to all sorts of trivialities thinking that they will give us pleasure as noted by Gandhi in his description of the Eiffel Tower - 'the tower was a good demonstration of the fact that we are all children attracted by trinkets'.

Psychologists have double plus ungood news.They have determined that people are more sensitive to losses than gains, privilege short-term over long-term and prefer certainty over uncertainty. So if changing the current style of living involves bearing shot-term costs that are certain in anticipation of uncertain long-tern gains, most of us will not consider the long-term alternative. So we will continue to struggle in the swamp even if we know that we are getting even more stuck. I know I have this weakness. It is not a pretty picture. Gandhi seems to have instinctively recognized this Faustian pact of the human mind.

In Oct 1945, he wrote to Nehru that may be India too will adopt the modes of modern Western civilization that he had criticized and ‘like the proverbial moth burn itself eventually in the flame round which it dances more and more furiously’. ‘The indefinite multiplication of wants’ which Gandhi said defined modernity soon begin to pall. (It is one of the paradoxes  of India that a man who was not materialistic finds his portrait on all rupee notes.) This tendency has a name - hedonic treadmill, which proposes that people return to their level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them, because we psychologically adapt to that new experience. Gandhi recolonized this tendency when he wrote in Hind Swaraj:
We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor.
A model of growth that requires an endless increase of consumption is probably doomed. As someone said, ‘If you think infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, you are either crazy or you are an economist.’ It all reminds me of a joke that is more than a joke that I had once read. A man found himself, after death, in heaven. His host showed him around the celestial premises and it soon became apparent that it was a place where the residents could have anything they wanted. The man kept wishing and getting whatever he wanted until he finally ran out of desires. Then he started getting bored and irritated and said flippantly that things might be more interesting in Hell. His host asked quietly, 'Just where do you think you are, sir?'

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