What if we made a conscious effort to stay in that state of mind, to retain that level of alertness, of being present in the moment, to remain offended by what we saw? Would that force us to be more proactive?
It happens each time we step off that airplane. It happens, each time, on the way home. If you have been away for a long time, it’s even worse. But it’s inevitable: no matter how much you love your country, how happy you are to be home, everything looks dirty and broken. And let’s not fool ourselves: it is.
From the roads to the smog to the shabby, unfinished construction, all that we see offends the eye. But then something happens. After a few days, something shifts, something clicks back into the place it has been in for decades. And all of a sudden, all that was offensive is now acceptable.
Have you ever thought about this shift of consciousness? Have you ever wondered why the graffiti that was once vulgar is now invisible, the grey flaking cement walls a pure white and the pot-holes filled with sewage water an inconspicuous detail? Are we reacclimatising ourselves with our culture? Or are we simply lowering our standards?
“There are adjustments one must make if one comes here from America”, writes Mohsin Hamid in his book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. “A different way of observing is required…I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter…I was struck by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceilings and dry bubbles of paint flaking off…our furniture appeared dated and in urgent need of upholstery and repair…But as I reacclimatised…it occurred to me that the house had not changed in my absence. I had changed. I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner.”
As Hamid’s protagonist struggles to readapt to life here in Pakistan, he touches upon a critical question — is it better to have the “eyes of a foreigner” or the eyes of a local? For while the foreigner continues to question, the local switches off his critical faculties, desensitising himself against what would otherwise be a barrage of assaults on his sensibility.
Maybe it is a survival mechanism. But after a few days, even the burn victims who thrust their mutilated body parts in your face at traffic lights stop upsetting you. You start looking for signs of paint, of make up, around the wounds; you get irritated with their dishonesty. In just a few days, you have hardened your heart. In just a few days, you have found reasons not to care.
But what if we didn’t? What if we made a conscious effort to stay in that state of mind, to retain that level of alertness, of being present in the moment, to remain offended by what we saw? What if we held onto what Hamid calls the “eyes of a foreigner”? Would that force us to be more proactive? Or are we destined to shuffle between the extremes of horror and apathy?
Mystics have long described the ideal state of being as one which is lived in full awareness. A Sufi, or Islamic mystic, is often described as the “son of the moment”. Even today, a large part of the training for Sufis teaches them to be present in the moment, not scattered in the past or the future. So if our aim in life is to be present to reality, then the dulling and desensitising of our senses, which we seem to have adopted as a survival mechanism, is the least desirable condition.
And yet it is convenient. For if we stop noticing, we stop feeling. If we stop how we feel, we override our guilt. And if we override our guilt, we are not obliged to change reality. Yes, this attitude is convenient. But it cripples our actions, helps turn a blind eye to reality and causes alienation.
I am reminded here of a scene from one of my favourite movies, Good Morning Vietnam. Based on the career of a disc jockey for an American military radio station in Saigon, this film shows the indifference of the American soldiers to the suffering of the Vietnamese. In this particular scene, Louis Armstrong’s song, What a Wonderful World, is blared across American radios in Vietnam as innocent civilians are gunned down. It has been more than twenty years since I saw this film. And yet this scene remains engrained in my mind as a scathing reminder of man’s ability to separate himself from reality.
Last week, however, I saw something on the streets of Lahore that made me cringe. In a large Land Cruiser, a group of teenagers were cruising down the streets of Lahore, windows open, blasting “Mojaan hi mojaan”, while the back seat functioned as an impromptu disco.
I looked at the garbage piled up on the side of the street, the beggar without any legs lying on the sidewalk and a nearby bus, wreathed in diesel exhaust and scarred with broken windows. Traffic police stood in the scorching heat with blue masks protecting them from the fumes swirling around Kalma Chowk. The teenagers in the Land Cruiser may not have had guns but they were no less removed from their surroundings than the soldiers in Vietnam.
Maybe too much reality is harmful for us as individuals. But as a society, too much unreality is certainly not good for us.
Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist and a representative of Sufi Order International. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Times, 2/9/2008