May 28, 2012

Sharing builds spiritual capital

Within the dynamic of our monetized economy, helpfulness has been defined as a doling out of money. When someone asks for help it’s almost always a request for money - to pay school fees or books, to pay for medicines and tests the doctor prescribed, a supplement to a medical check-up abroad, to buy a tin of milk for a newborn, the list goes on. While we may not speculate on how the money received may actually be used – for true giving is unconditional giving -- the issue here is the disappearance of our culture of helping each other in mutually interactive ways – that of reciprocity.

Maldivian society of the past was the example of such reciprocity. I help thatch your roof and you help me thatch mine or help beach my boat, or I care for you when you are sick, and you do so when I am sick or your daughter helps me with my baby when I have to go to fetch firewood, and I would share some of the firewood I gathered, with you too.  The collective bonding that grows from this mutuality of interaction snowballs into community good-will and social cohesion. 

Doling out money is easy to do and the giver feels the temporary glow of a good deed done or alternatively, the regret of giving something for nothing. Either way these were passive processes that didn’t engage the heart. There was no caring from within, but just a deed done as a social chore or expectation. In this kind of giving there is no real interaction and no spark of humanity. It just depicts a situation where one person gives and the other takes with no reciprocity. When we are engaged in reciprocity the event depicts a giving by both sides, and the reward of such interaction is the bonding that grows between the two givers.

What we witness today in Maldives is an insidious breakdown of a time-tested cultural value – quite unawares to our very selves, and it has profound relevance to our attempt to build and sustain a cohesive and caring society. While not specific to Maldives, the pervasiveness of a monetized economy globally has commoditized even the help we seek from our neighbor. So we buy it now because we have the money with which to do so, and we seem so averse to the sense of dependence or a feeling of obligation to another person in the asking for such help and reciprocity. But social interaction is what enlivens our spiritual spark and keeps us human, and an obstruction to it, for whatever reason, can only harm us as social beings. I know -- perhaps we just want to bask in the freedom that money brings us. But we must be aware also, that this distorted sense of independence and so called freedom has whittled away our humanity. And, in the ignorance of this social dynamic, we are blindly moving towards the precipice of social disintegration. We must take heed of this writing on the wall, and devise social programs that will reverse the trend. 

May 24, 2012

That feeling of envy

Envy is a very human feeling. I say human because it’s one of those negatives that is common to us terrestrial beings and about which we struggle throughout our lives to be rid of in order for us to be defined or categorized as good human beings. Bad and good is the duality we are created with. In the case of envy too there is an opposite feeling we could nurture called kindness or good will. The path to goodness is necessary for each one of us because it adds to the merit that is needed for the ultimate salvation. If we find that hard to accept as a goal, then being good is a rational end in itself for creating social harmony and peace. I'm sure few would dispute this although a pervasive peace may not be lucrative for some who may stand to gain from the process of social disruption and violence. But a time has to come when even those opportunists will in their heart of hearts seek the compassion of a caring society.

In understanding the psychology of envy, we may say that it stems from selfish desire, greed and repressed regret about the fortunes of another person. But there is also an element of perceived competitiveness too. We feel envy toward those who we feel are on par with us on the social ladder. We the ordinary don’t feel envy towards the Buffets, the Ambanis or the Tatas – well, they are way above our league! But we do towards our neighbor. Yes, our neighbors or our colleagues are good examples, (yet, all good advice exhorts us to love our neighbor). Given that social stratification has landed us into social blocks of economic standings, we tend reside in neighborhoods or work in jobs that agree with our perceived socio-economic status. And so when someone in our own category buys a new car or motor-cycle, lands a good job, wins the popular boy or girl, or even gets a new electronic gadget, that envy begins to well. Envy, if allowed to take root and grow, can touch the ignition point of violence and the breakdown of society. Hope for a harmonious society is built on curbing envy and not allowing such a tsunami of negative emotions to finally wash away good hopes for the future. We can learn to appreciate others’ good fortunes. And thus, the good that we do will come back to us as grace, and in the most unimaginable ways; we have been promised that.

Such positive emotions can then enliven our Maldivian society. Can Maldives be such society?  We all hope for it and we pray that Allah gives us such leaders, and role models who would bring this about.

May 21, 2012

Helpless in our house

Many of us are familiar with the debacles we have in running our households. Perhaps young people may not. Now more so than ever as many of us seem to be moving away from the traditional extended family arrangements to the comfort and convenience of our own cozy apartments. Our new found economic self-reliance has enabled us to find that secluded niche that makes us feel independent and enjoy modern conveniences of technology without anyone bothering us or judging us for what we do. We could also enjoy good food --in this day of rising food prices -- without the thought of sharing those morsels with anyone else and so have less of it.

The newly wedded couple goes to their new hideout with these rosy pictures in mind. The picture we see on our television sets of such couples delighting in this new independence add to the lure -- doing their walls with deco paints of various designs with playful abandon, decorating the space with the latest designer rugs, furniture, and wall hangings, and in the midst of all this a tender moment of closeness, all bring to us a picture of excitement and enticement. The draw is indeed alluring. But it is not soon after that they must discover the realities of independent living. Things get dirty, items breakdown, bills have to be paid, the garbage put out, the pot-plants watered, the groceries bought, the cooking gas ordered, the beds made, floors mopped, toilets cleaned. The list of toil goes on. With both going to office to keep this kind of a life financed, the pressures of the ensuing evenings rise and they decide to get a housekeeper.

Nowadays in Maldives, the housekeeper is no more that typified by our traditional and romantic past. The picture of the needy island lass or lad – often the offspring of an island friend -- getting their keep and basic education with the family in Male, and thus enduring along for a lifetime of loyalty and honesty, is now history.  Now, the option obviously has to be for a substandard local who will not stick with the job for long or a captive expatriate who may not be at all tuned to the culture of our nation, and only grudgingly available just for the foreign exchange he or she can dispatch to his or her home country. Their mind is not on the welfare of this host family but on hers back home, or if with no family back home, on the day-dreams of how her next Friday afternoon will be spent with her friends in the crowded parks, along dilapidated Male pavements, or in the confines of any other Friday-cramped open space in Male. The ensuing consternation and anxiety of our loving couple is not hard to imagine. When the first baby arrives, the picture gets even worse -- more responsibilities on an already reluctant helper and the incidences of increased grumblings and unannounced darts in an out of the house for personal errands as her familiarity with Male’s easy social and legal bindings dawns on her. For the couple, such situations of having to keep constant vigil on possible dishonesty or deceit with the resulting suspicions taunting the mind in an insecure household can be extremely frustrating and not altogether unrelated to the instability of existing loving bonds between two individuals; not too infrequently these and other pressures leading to many a parting. Soon, one things lead to another to a situation bordering on silent pain or even outbursts of violence. Many lives are led in this way away from the security of our extended family settings, without the realization of the deeper causes of these pressures of life, with only finger pointing and laying blame being the easiest, yet hardly the most rational outlet for releasing such mounting frustrations.

But on the other hand, just imagine if we had an honest and caring housekeeper? How everything would turn around. Of course we need to take care of the honest housekeeper with the needed emoluments and perks so that he/she will reciprocate gratefully for the benefits received. But of course we must also be aware that we cannot keep our housekeeper with us forever, so for longer term peace of mind, we must choose the right ones that have the right credentials. We can indeed, if we care for our household and our loving relationships strongly enough and are aware of the dire consequences to us when we choose foolishly.       

May 18, 2012

Being grateful

Anything we receive must be thanked for or received with gratefulness. Why is this? It’s because we are always privileged to receive. That means there is always someone else who is not getting while we are getting. This is true about anything we get; always, there is someone less fortunate who maybe more deserving and yet because of opportunities or circumstances, they are not privileged to have it. So, gratefulness is a show of humility that we express when we are in a privileged position of receiving what good measure life has to offer - whether a job, position, wealth or achievement, etc. When we look at each of these as achievements, we tend to, unawares to ourselves, attribute the credit of that achievement to ourselves when actually we -- the recipient -- are the end point of a long chain of people who have been involved and instrumental in making that achievement happen or make possible.

In everyday life, we in our politeness, show gratitude to our bosses, our colleagues, or our communities that have given us a privileged lease on our life. Often this feeling comes out of a belief that if not for that person or institution that gave it to us, we might not have received it. Even at the expense of not really believing this to be so, we often shower them with words of thanks and gratitude for giving us the opportunity -- more as an intellectual or socially desired engagement rather than an act of heart. Similarly, up the line, our bosses too are grateful to someone for placing them in the flow of life’s benefits. So in the ultimate analysis, there is no living being beyond the scope of gratitude. Yet there is a universal intelligence, and that Source is always instrumental in our achievement. There is thus no scope for pride that any given achievement can ever be totally attributable to the recipient’s independent will.

On the spiritual level this is very meaningful for the preservation of our environment. This God-given privilege of life, children and good health all come from a source that we must be grateful to. Because we don’t see the Giver is not reason enough to be ungrateful. What we do to our earth and its environs that precipitate the chaos we see is not the sign of grateful human beings.

This simple logic above must enable us to change our mindset towards humility and away from the ego’s push to say “I did whatever I did, all on my own”. Nothing is further from the truth. Every moment is the culmination of all the moments that have gone before it and thus, every action we take is a mix or accumulation of the wisdom of many before it. So how can we take personal credit? If we can change our mindset to this shift in realization, we will soon become more humble in our attitude. And contrary to the prevailing belief of the independent and competitive individual being the epitome of modern society, in actuality, the humble attitude is the basis of a caring and sharing society. Loving kindness is only possible in such communities.

May 17, 2012

Ideologies please – only that can hold our parties upright

During my recent visit home just this month, I was deeply saddened to witness another high profile party cross over that cannot but add fuel to the fire of inter-party haggling, and contribute to the growing cynicism about the usefulness of the party process in our local democracy.

To be fair to its constituencies in Maldives, our parties need ideology and not just strong personalities to be the face of these. This fact cannot be overemphasized. Lasting or sustaining movements of human endeavor is viable not because of the power of its founders but for its inherent ideals that underlie the movement that move our hearts and minds. Frail Florence Nightingale initiated a movement that had meaning to us about caring for the sick which continues to today as the nursing profession; MK Gandhi moved millions of hearts not through muscle but by mind to lay the foundation to today’s non-violent political movement; or our wonderful religion of Islam, not by physical or positional power of the Warner, but through the humility of his soul and immaculate example. In contrast, the use of positional power of physical force has never sustained a movement. History is rife with such episodes.

To nurture a humane society (which I believe each one of us dearly hopes for – if not overtly, even secretly) human beings must live by morals and values -- and this is found in ideologies; ideas and ideals that have meaning to our sense of humanity. Even the fact that we call ourselves societies, raise the categorical need for common ideals and common goals. A plethora of means to reach these ideals is justified as long as we maintain peace and harmony in our societies. No one would dispute this, but how often do we see our egos get in the way and “spoil the party”. Indeed, the salvage is found in ideology -- the principles by which we set our directions. People come and people go, but sensible ideologies often go on forever. Selecting ideologies that signal such timelessness in its essence will prove the best for sustaining our movements. I believe this type of engagement requires deep thinking and the deep conviction that such movements are to be established for the wellbeing of whole societies, not just individuals.

Unfortunately, in these times of material gain and overt leanings towards avarice and greed, these ideals become merely the secondary reasons or even the tertiary ones for a political party’s being rather than the primary one. Strong personalities driven agendas will most often be of this type; but its common knowledge that when the leader goes, the party also flounders. Just look at our parties in our country? Even in this short period in the political life of Maldives, how may parties have come and gone or have been transformed. A dress tailored with good fabric and strong yarn will not fray that soon. Something must be amiss with the foundation and the process. And there can be no doubt that this has to do with our lack of enunciated principles that our parities so sadly lack. It is these well detailed tenets that will provide the tangible hand-holds for those who follow in party allegiance to know if the ship they are on is indeed on track, or mired in the corals. When these ideals are deeply etched in our minds, we will then not be so easily sidelined by wayward pleadings of our ego to do the shameful things we see happening amidst our inter-party dynamics. Allusions to nefarious happenings in the political spheres of other countries should not be the excuse we utter in our response to warding off criticisms. We as Maldivians need to give the truth of democracy a chance and not snuff it in its infancy. Democracy should not be just a word on our lips, but an ideal in our minds --something that must move our hearts and souls towards being better human beings and a loving and caring society.

May 1, 2012

If we want parties, let’s be serious about them

In Maldives, our inter-party dynamics is like a game of jumping ship. Very appropriate because we know a lot about boats and ships and how seaworthy they can be – both in its structure and its ability to weather the onslaught of storms. Changing political party allegiance seems illogically easy and also unquestioningly acceptable in our local democracy. Given the party being an entity that shares a common ideology or belief, it’s hard to understand how such beliefs change like the weather. Indeed it must be the weather of another kind and the nature of strong winds that must be impelling these moves and migrations.

In the scheme of governance, what is often believed is that parties emerged in the governance of democratic nations to give voice to a constituency that otherwise would not have had the clout of voice. Often this is seen in sectarian communities that have the type of diverse views of social, religious, economic, environmental or similar beliefs that make for such needs. A party gives the constituency the assurance that their views be counted in the scheme of electing those who would govern them. Thus, such beliefs often cement the fabric of the party together and keep alive a basic philosophy that will direct the party to the goal they want to reach.

In the democracy we practice in Maldives, we see parties, but don’t see any such philosophy guiding them, and so it appears that there is really no binding force that keeps the party together, thus raising the question whether there indeed is any need for parties in our context of governance. We seem to feel that because parties are prevalent in other larger and more sectarian communities of the world, we in Maldives too must have parties, as if the party was an absolutely necessary ingredient for implementing a democracy. The essence of democracy is governance in consultation with the people, and the tools we use for consultation to bridge the diversities among sectarian communities has been the party mechanism. However, some thinkers even question the validity of the party in its present decadent form as a sound mechanism to elect their leaders even in those countries. But in Maldives, with the homogeneity of religion, language, and culture, it appears that the party has become more of a disruptive force than a harmonizing one. And surely, in a divided society there can only be conflict. Division without a purpose is perhaps criminal. Our religion of Islam certainly advocates social equity and brotherhood, with strict calling for not dividing up society.

Given this inherent harmony, why we are dividing our society, bringing regretful chaos in our small population, which can otherwise live a good and satisfying life if our resources were shared equitably, and many of us would relinquish our selfish ways, is hard to fathom. Accepted, divide and rule was fashionable in days gone by, but when democracy dawns, this is like society shooting itself in the foot.

The party member jumping ship we see is the manifestation of a lack of a guiding party philosophy, and greed or personal gain being the reasons for party allegiance. Why there are no discernible party philosophies is because Maldivian society actually has no attributes of significant diversity to flag about. Would it be wrong to say then, that the only reason for the existence of our parties in Maldives is the ego-calling of powerful individuals who aspire to the top post of the country, and it is those rallying round these personalities for the benefits they can capture, that make the party so seem so necessary. And it is also the equally powerful emotions that accompany these allegiances that make the case of our parties in Maldives so internecine?

Even after 4 years of multi-party democracy, no party still has a guiding philosophy that its constituency can latch onto. How viable can the allegiance to this type of a party be? That it is not, is amply demonstrated by the blatant inter-party crossovers we observe and the equally blatant attitude of indulgence by those receiving these deserters with little question to their integrity. And many of these are supposed to be our legislators; how ashamed can we be as a nation – to put our trust in those who are untrustworthy? In fact, this blatancy is what demonstrates the fallacy of the governance we practice. Our nation is our home. Why would we allow our home be destroyed by such hypocrisy and deviousness that our beloved Islam so disapproves of. Our shameful party dynamics cannot be condoned in the name of democracy. The people of Maldives deserve better.