Self-reflection often yields images of ourselves that we dislike deeply... MINI KRISHNAN interrogates the values that we pass on to our children.

Do you think we are not all sewn together?

I watch….as you appear and disappear and become me

Susan Griffin

In a Senegalese novel, two gorillas find themselves in front of a mirror in the middle of nowhere. Filled with loathing and alarm they attack what they think they see, and injure themselves fatally. (Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Dip,2008) The message is clear : what we believe to be hatred of the other is in fact self-hatred and a fear of what we do not understand. We have to be able to tolerate our images in the mirror, and if we cannot bear glimpses of ourselves in the other, we yield to controlling forces that keep us divided and endlessly suspicious of anyone who is even slightly different from ourselves. In the century we just left behind, using language-sanctions like “in the name of the country/race/the true faith/ideology” etc we killed 200 million fellow humans believing them to be less acceptable than animals.

Understanding through writing

Grace Paley, teacher, short-story writer and activist for peace, calls these same illusory powers, “the disconnectors”, reminding us that in fact we are all connected to one another by sunlight and necessity. “The forces of gravity and love have the same effect on all of mankind everywhere” She strongly promoted the orientation of children, who “…by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I've never understood why it has taken so much time to get it started.” Vedanta has a word for it – bedha-buddhi — and warns us about the illusion of believing that we are different, superior, alienated.

One does not have to be particularly enlightened or highly educated to know that this is true: common sense is enough but we suffer a massive and collective amnesia the moment we step outside our reflective selves. All day and all night, news-floods reach us from different parts of the world, all carrying the same depressing truth – indifference to the other's needs, failure to understand other peoples' fears, and, despite all the marvels and technology of communication, an absence of the language of dissent and dialogue. Deep resentments and its blatant expressions are on the rise not just in societies that are poor, illiterate, and therefore desperate for survival, not just in places that do not have even a memory of peace, but in lands of plenty.

At the family and individual level, things are not very different as sensational broadcasts constantly tell us. If anyone gets in your way, a can of kerosene is an inexpensive solution. If you are rich, hired killers are only a phone-call away. Teachers, parents, friends, employers, in-laws may all be dispatched if their dissent turns inconvenient. Young girls who refuse to be wooed are either humiliated or mutilitated. Either way they are scarred for life. Even a Vice-Chancellor or a CEO is not safe from people who believe that their sense of injury should find expression in the death of the object of their outrage.

I write hoping to be read by a percentage of those in this country who can read because most Indians cannot read and will never buy a book or take part in a discussion about books or ideas in this language or indeed any language. How shall we orient the children in our care so that they will not grow up to be like the gorillas in Dip's novel? Shall we tell them that unwillingness to share the planet's wealth lies hidden in all the many cruelties we live with so easily? It is easy to introduce them to the opposite belief because the intense competition in classrooms makes sharing look like a joke.

Shared values

The ideal of sharing and inclusiveness has never been more vital than it is today because if the warnings about global warming are correct and we do not see the world as our family, we are doomed. When we know this to be true, we have to think very carefully about what values we pass on to our children. Nature has hard-wired aggression into us to help us survive and popular culture today is soft-wiring ruthlessness and cutting us loose from every bit of traditional wisdom that says that if our species is to endure, it can only be on the hope of a shared progress. If we guide children to share they will know not only the joy of giving but the silent and unseen network of positivity it sets off. If we teach them to hoard everything for themselves they will not only think it is perfectly in order to feast when their neighbour is starving but will also learn to look upon another's pain unmoved.

Surely it is not too late.

Let me close with a true story about a seven-year old with the hope that he is not exceptional. Consoling his sobbing friend who had failed a test the boy said, “Don't cry…don't cry... I'll tell Miss to give you some of my marks.” In the mirror of life this youngster saw someone he had to comfort, and not attack or ignore. What can we do to keep the rest of his generation as thoughtful and as generous?

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