WIN THE BATTLE WITHIN
" I want my son,” a parent told me recently, “to be strong.”
“In what sense?” I asked.
“Physically strong. He should be able to stand up to anyone and not get intimidated. The world out there is brutal, you know?”
* * * * * * * * * *
I have spent my lifetime among the youth. As I recall the hundreds of young people I have nurtured educationally, it is not in physical strength that I found them wanting. It is in inner strength.
I wish we would nurture our young ones to be stronger inwardly so that they can stand, and not dither, when life puts them to the test. So, the question arises: “Is there something that parents can do about this? If there is, what’s it?”
But, first, let us fix the over-all context in which we address this question. Today suicide among young people are on the increase. We hear of the tens of thousands of farmers who committed suicide in the last five years. But more young people took their lives during this period, without excuses comparable to the desperation of our much-wronged farmers, who are driven systemically into extinction.
The name that comes uppermost in our minds when we think of the modern epidemic of suicide is Emile Durkheim. Two of his insights in Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897) have a direct bearing on our present theme.
--Noting that suicide rates are lower in Catholic communities vis-a-vis Protestant communities, and still lower in Jewish communities, he concludes that it is of advantage to the individual to belong to well-defined, orderly socio-religious units.
--Durkheim observes a positive correlation between suicide and a consumerist, indulgent way of life. Material progress needs to be complemented, therefore, with inner depth. Trees, for example, send their roots deeper as they grow higher and spread their branches broader.
There is special poignancy in contemplating this theme in the Indian context today. In the immediate future, existential pressures on our young people would increase. Our society is poised for unprecedented tension and disarray. Extreme levels of unemployment and, what’s worse, underemployment, is a sure eventuality. This could bring our children and grandchildren under aggravated strain. It is necessary that they grow in inner strength to cope with the struggles ahead.
Let me begin to look at what we can do in this regard by quoting Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher. “What struggles with itself,” he wrote, “becomes committed to itself”. This runs counter to the present outlook on parenting, which is shaped by the unwritten dogma that a life free of ‘struggles’ or hardships is what we should provide our children. Most parents harbour the tacit assumption that to love one’s children is to mollycoddle them.
Heraclitus’ insight is that our sense of self-worth is shaped by the struggles we undergo. Struggles are of two kinds. Struggles with external forces. They pertain to survival. Far more important are struggles with oneself. They pertain to stature. Struggles of this kind secure ‘self-mastery’. The alternative is to remain a slave to one’s whims, fancies, inclinations and impulses. It is a state in which individuals fail to develop a sense of self-worth. It is a state of weakness. The lowest nadir of helplessness is helplessness in relation to oneself, a state in which one is ‘lost’ to oneself.
Simple and commonplace experiences illustrate this. You as a student decide that with effect from the first of next month you will get up at 5 a.m and study. As the date approaches, the struggle intensifies. Should I? Why not begin two months later? Or, one month from the examinations? You lose the battle to yourself.
You hear a stirring story about someone who, in trying circumstances, stood by the truth and made a difference. You decide to do likewise. But you fail on the first occasion.
We take New Year resolutions, don’t we? Why do we fail to keep them year after year?
All of us want to be good and noble. No one is keen to be mean or despicable. Then, why are we not behaving accordingly?
Instances can be multiplied…
Each time I have lost in my struggle against myself, I have felt impoverished and weakened. Conversely, each time I have held my own in this grim battle, I have emerged strengthened and gladdened. As the French poet Rimbaud said, the spiritual battle is the grimmer than armed combat. By implication, therefore, victory in this battle is the most glorious. This victory is the secret of personal charisma.
Jesus said, “He who saves his life will lose it. He who loses it for my sake, will find it.” He prescribed ‘self-denial’ as the basic condition for leading a godly life. What is often overlooked is the connection between ‘self-denial’ and personal stature and authenticity. A human being has to lose himself to find his true self and worth. Put simply, you have to stop being what you are, to be better than what you are today. It is in this light that we can understand Heraclitus’ insight best. To be committed to oneself through self-struggle is to discover the true worth of oneself.
An impulsive act
Suicide takes the opposite route. It abandons the struggle. It resorts to the irrevocable statement on one’s worthlessness. A person crashes to this lowest ebb when he is able no longer to struggle with his predicament. Suicide is a precipitous giving up; too early, too impulsively, too recklessly.
Ever wondered how our fellow human beings live -- and heroically hold on to life -- in conditions of unimaginable deprivation and terror in war-torn regions? Why would they do so, if life were not the supreme good? But, paradoxically, the beauty of life is unveiled by struggles, not comfort. Like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon through a period of prolonged and painful struggle. Make this process shorter and easier; and instead of a beautiful butterfly you will get an ugly, wingless thing. It is when a match-stick is struck against a rough surface that it burns. Gentle strokes of the match-stick head on silky surfaces won’t do!
Nurture inner strength
So, this much is certain. The problem is not that there are struggles and suffering. Or, that things don’t work out the way we like. Often it turns out that we are better off for things not working out the way we wanted. But that will be so, only if we grow inwardly to be able to cope with the pressures that the inscrutability of life mounts on us. So, what is decisive is who we are. And whatever helps to temper and strengthen our mettle should be welcome. This needs to be a shaping concern in parenting.
Parenting stands in urgent need of a shift in emphasis. Its guiding purpose should be to nurture inner strength in children, rather than make them competition-savvy to ensure success in the rat race. Greatness comprehends success as well, except that it may be success of an order different from what is in vogue. I am reminded of a prayer by the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno-
“Lord, grant me not peace, but greatness.”
Parents should not trespass into the sanctuary of the struggles that their children have to wage against themselves. They need to desist the temptation to simplify everything for their children ‘out of love’. And, most of all, they ought to eschew indulging their children, especially if they can afford it.
Struggle against oneself
This ‘struggle against oneself’ is the secret of character-formation. Parents assume that it is the business of schools and colleges to build the character-strength of their children. How can this be, even if your child is fortunate enough to be in an institution that emphasizes character-building? If the school trains your child in keeping character-building as an aim and you, at home, take the child regularly and relentlessly in the opposite direction, how far can he go? Blessed is the student whose school and family are in sync with regard to guiding and fortifying him in the struggle against oneself.
Let’s allow our children to become committed to themselves, which is the very opposite of selfishness. Selfishness is not commitment to oneself. It is commitment to none. Not even to oneself; for a selfish person does not know who he really is. How can anyone be committed to what he knows not? To struggle with the self is to get to know oneself as one truly is. And that is profoundly beautiful and fulfilling!
(The writer is a former Principal of St.Stephen’s College, New Delhi.)