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February 11, 2020 Tuesday 03:22:27 PM IST


3rd Eye

Life is about connectedness. Wisdom lies in connecting the scattered and the disparate into an integrated whole and adopting life strategies in relation to it. The growth of the individual is after all like and expanding ripple. As years go by, its radius of connectedness increases. Terms of reference enlarge. The human predicament becomes more and more complex without, at the same time, excluding the possibility of maintaining clarity of thought, choice and action; provided one grows accordingly.

Parenting takes place, traditionally, with reference to meeting the present needs of the child and to equipping her to be sufficient and self-reliant in the future. The larger context in which an individual has to live is mostly overlooked. Yet, the growing child needs a wholesome social and national context. Greek thinkers –especially Plato and Aristotle- were mindful of this. This awareness is particularly sharp in Aristotle. He sees ethics and politics as two sides of the same coin.

So, wise parenting needs to have a dual vision. The growing child needs to be nurtured and educated to be an individual healthy in body, mind and spirit. Even as the body is nourished, the mind and the soul too need to be. Values nourish the soul. Holistic parenting cannot ignore the task of nurturing the child in values. A good or virtuous human being alone can, according to Aristotle, lead a happy life. A happy human being is one who can make others too happy. Happiness cannot be a one-way traffic. But a good human being needs a good society. Being a good human being in a corrupt society is a weary and risky thing. Gandhi was killed by Godse for doing good; prompting George Bernard Shaw to remark, “It is too dangerous to do good.”  Jesus was crucified for being innocent.

The issue here is not one of peril alone. It is also a question of the extent of freedom available to a human being to express oneself truly and fully.  True freedom, according to Bertrand Russell, is the ability to express oneself authentically through the service that one renders to the society. It is freedom at work; or, in the larger context, the freedom to act according to ideals and values.

Consider the values of liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution. One may value them in principle. But how is one to exercise one’s freedom in a society where might is right and where rule of law is an illusion? If one is not free to choose, how does one act ethically? Or, to express oneself, to the best of one’s ability, to the benefit of the society? Likewise, in the case of equality. It is not enough that I believe in, or value, equality. It is necessary that I have a social framework in which equality is not despised, even if not valued as an ideal. If I, as a parent, hardwire my child in the value of equality and she has to live in a society in which equality is an anti-value, the enlightened parenting I undertake could aggravate her existential misery lifelong. Yet, there is no alternative to this; for inequality is an aberration and infecting my child’s outlook with it is parental perversity.

I point out the above to argue for an enlargement of the horizon of parenting. Given the way our country is drifting, it has become imperative that parenting be infused with a sense of social and national awareness and responsibility. Parenting for healthy personality today is incomplete without parenting for creating a healthy society. A sane society needs to be built from our homes.

While this is true and the need for it is becoming increasingly obvious and pressing, the sad reality is that the idea of ‘family’ itself is shrinking. Not long ago, the ambit of family was wider. It included, besides oneself, parents and siblings, grandparents and, in many cases, other relatives as well. Hospitality was a natural occurrence. Episodes of illness were managed mostly at home, with family bonds becoming stronger through caring for each other. Children did not grow up with the mentality of “I am the king/queen of all I survey”. Living together meant, without making a fanfare about it, a training to adjust oneself and to live with an ambience of diversity and differences. We were not obsessed with ‘rights’ then.

Those of us who have lived in joint families would recall that life was not particularly ‘peaceful’ then. I grew up in a joint family punctuated with domestic quarrels. I felt miserable about it then. Today I am not sure if that was an altogether gloomy disadvantage. Domestic quarrels denote a clash of otherness. But they also underline the need to live with otherness. Joint families were nurseries of flexibility and togetherness.  It is not my intent here to sing a panegyric to the dying institution of joint family. My limited point is that parenting needs, especially today, to address issues that weren’t so pressing even a few years ago.

A key value that parents need to foster in children is respect for freedom, understanding what it is and how it is to be employed. Freedom is purposive. It is meant to help the individual fulfil the purpose of his existence. That fulfillment can happen only in society. It involves being with and working with others. Society is inevitably a domain of encountering otherness. The opposite of this is sameness, which is the outcome of homogenization. Feeling at home only in a context of sameness, or feeling ill-at-home in the face of differences, is infantile. It shows lack of maturity and development. The training to deal creatively with otherness needs to be a vital aspect of parenting today. Parents, out of good intentions, refuse to expose children to unfamiliar and unpredictable situations. From the lower middle class upwards,parents choose not to expose their children to situations where their ease is likely to be compromised. Sparing children of these hassles is assumed to be caring towards them.

Contemporary developments prove beyond any doubt that a society infected with the inability to welcome differences and live creatively with otherness degenerates into violence, intolerance and anarchy. It narrows the scope of individual freedom and fills the social space with anxiety about those who are different from oneself. All divisive and exclusionary agendas are forged in the furnace of hatred towards otherness.

All over the world respecting the distinct identity of religious minorities and to empower them through special provisions are deemed basic to the democratic culture. When the capacity to respect and cherish otherness as expressing the vitality and beauty of life departs, such provisions begin to be resented as anti-national. This undermines the health and dynamism of democracy. The anti-dote to this national malady is appropriate parenting complemented with education for enlightened citizenship in a democratic Republic.

We rarely ponder why Gandhiji is the Father of the Nation. Today when many are confused if Gandhi or Godse merits this distinction, it is imperative that we have clarity on this count. Respect for otherness is basic to Gandhi’s idea of truth and non-violence. Throughout the world, hate projects and agendas structured on intolerance towards ‘them’ –who are different from ‘us’- are characterized by falsehood and aggression. As Nelson Mandela realized, to leave a prison, without overcoming hatred towards those who ill-treated you is to carry the prison within you. It is never to be truly free. A positive attitude to those who are different from oneself is basic to living in freedom. The merchants of unfreedom, in contrast, are propagators of sameness. They have room only for those who are like themselves. It takes the spiritual robustness of a Gandhi to say that Hindus and Muslim are like the two eyes of India. It is no gain for one eye to blind the other. It is a good thing, and not a problem, that the right eye is not the left eye, and vice versa! Going by the logic of aggressive majoritarian communalism, the left eye offends by not being the right eye.

Allergy to differences has implications for parents too. As they age, they become increasingly different from their own children. Children are young and active. They are busy out there in the world, making it big and bright for themselves. They earn and are economically valuable. Parents are not. What is usually bracketed together as ‘generation gap’ is, at bottom, the inability to cherish differences. It has its early roots in parenting.

We should not be complacent about what being positive to otherness involves. It is not an easy or natural thing. It has to be, hence, cultivated. All values are of this kind. That is why the German ethicist Immanuel Kant said that the practice of values involves the ‘constriction of the self’. Or, as Jesus said, it involves walking the narrow path. But that alone is the path that leads to life. The broad highway of homogenization leads to death and destruction, as has been proved amply by Hitler’s Germany. More Germans, than Jews, perished. Hate is a double-edged sword. It cuts those who wield it. Jesus said, “Put down the sword; he who takes it shall perish by it.”

A purposive and concerted effort needs now to be made to enunciate a culture of tolerance, which includes re-examining, in honesty to God, our attitudes and assumptions. Home is the first and foremost school of life. The foundations for life are laid in it. Parents need to be made aware of the profound and long-lasting significance of what they do, or not do, by way of raising their children. Contextually proactive and culturally reformative parenting is a creative expression of meaningful patriotism. To fail to equip one’s children with the strength of engaging in creative freedom with otherness is to reduce the ambit of their freedom. Those who are unable to cope with differences tend to be confined in ever-narrowing circles of activities and engagements. The gulf widens for them between the theoretical availability of freedom and the actual enjoyment of it.

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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