To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, May 27, 2013

Phases in the journey of life...

It seems that, while carrying on with our day-to-day life, we pass through at least three distinct phases of life (there could be more, but maybe these three are easier to perceive).  The first phase is mostly concerned with the physical reality.  This seems to correspond with the early stages of working and family life.  Here, one focuses mostly on the material aspects of life: one relishes good food to satisfy the palate, one exercises to keep the body fit, one gets a job to 'bring home the bacon' and satisfy the physical indulgences, one marries for physical intimacy (in most cases), and so on.

In the next phase of life, we move a bit beyond the physical reality and crave emotional satisfaction.  The role at the workplace has to result in 'job satisfaction' and challenging content.  The marital relationship has to mature more towards emotional support rather than purely physical.  One starts looking for 'mind satisfaction' beyond bodily fitness.  And in the next stage, many among us move into the spiritual domain (or at least try to).  Looking at a job 'making a difference' in the larger context.  Looking to satisfy our curiosity on 'meaning of life'.  Wanting our spouses to support, or even join, our spiritual quest.  And so on.  

Maslow's famed hierarchy of needs, though devised mostly from a workplace perspective, seems to have a resonance with these phases of life.  The 'physiological' and 'safety' needs seem to be in the physical domain, 'love and belonging' and 'esteem' on the emotional plane, and 'self-actualization' points towards spiritual portends. 

There is also something to be said for the 'aashram' system devised in ancient times in India.  Moving beyond the education stage with celebacy (brahmacharya'), the 'grihasth aashram' (householder) stage seemed to correspond to the 'physical' reality.  The 'vaanprasth aashram' (pre-renunciation) stage may be seen to roughly correspond to the 'emotional' phase, while the 'sanyaas aashram' (renunciation) stage probably helped the 'spiritual' quest.

Important thing to note is, there seems to be no hard and fast rule as to the bodily age when someone may progress form one phase to another.  It may depend on a multitude of factors - conditions of life (especially at early stages), education, social conditioning, peer pressure, family & other responsibilities, et al.  And there is no issue as long as the concerned person is fully aware of and reconciled to these factors and their effect on the journey of life.  The problem seems to arise when, while one's 'inner being' is yearning to break free and move on to the next phase, one is constrained to latch on to an earlier phase.

This may happen due to both internal and external factors.  Internally, one may struggle to hold on to a set of beliefs or way of being which is contrary to one's deeper tendencies towards a next phase.  One may be so hooked to the physical indulgences as to refuse to let go of them even while the mind says otherwise.  One's ego may be so big as to preclude forming emotionally satisfying relationships, whether at work or at home.  Externally, to earn a livelihood and make ends meet, one may be forced to do mundane jobs, while the mind yearns for more job satisfaction.  Or the predominant behavioral patterns (for instance aggression, or unscrupulousness) in certain job roles or in certain industries may be contrary to the inner needs of contributing to a 'bigger picture'.  One may wish to foster more emotional relationships, but lack of maturity of the partner may be a constraining factor.  One may even want to renounce certain ways of living and move on to the spiritual plane (akin to 'vaanprasth' or 'sanyaas' stages of yore), but family and other economic responsibilities may not provide the leeway.  Could it be that many of the ills, of society as well as in individuals, are a result of this 'inner conflict' between what one yearns to do and what one is forced to do?  The essential selfishness, the sense of rootlessness, the cynicism and loss of moral values...

But then how is it that our fathers and grandfathers (mother and grandmothers as well) seemed to manage to transit more smoothly between the various phases of life?  One answer may lie in the level of 'connectedness'.  In earlier times, the adage 'no man is an island' was perhaps more true.  Everyone seemed to be part of a large family (even if not living together), of a community (with shared value systems), of a nation (bound by patriotism).  Even if a person was madly busy at the workplace, for instance, s/he would usually find some time and space to connect with the community, either on the religious plane (by visits to temples or 'satsang', for instance) or social (as harmless as 'gossip groups').  But it seems that in our relentless quest to make the 'best use of our time', we've just exiled any space to connect with others, on any plane.  So while we have the means to instantly connect to anyone across the globe, we don't feel it necessary to connect to the next person (at best we just 'do our duty' by sending him/her a text/instant message!).

One possible solution (and there may be countless others) to this conundrum, the resolution of this inner conflict, may lie in two concepts: 'vasudhaiv kutumbakam' (the world is one family) and 'solitary journey'.  These two may seem contradictory at first, since one concerns the self while the other concerns the world.  But with some thinking, one may realize that one could be at peace with the world only when one is at peace with himself/herself!  The path to self realization is essentially a solitary journey.  If one is lucky, one may find co-passengers on the path, or even a guide, but all the effort required to 'know oneself' has to be exerted by the individual oneself.  

And when one is reasonably 'at peace' with himself/herself, one may realize that 'we're all on the same boat' - self realization by its very nature expands the consciousness to include all within its fold...

Monday, May 06, 2013

Do business executives in general stand for more gender equality?

I recently attended a seminar organized by an industry body.  One of the topics of discussion included Ethics, and this was sought to be illustrated through dilemmas we frequently face in life.  In an innovative effort, the medium chosen was a 'live' case study, with a theatre group helping focused groups of participants consider different aspects of a supposed question of ethics, including by enacting 'freeze frames' of different aspects related to the issue.  

The case study distributed was:

Rashid is an entrepreneur with a social conscience who sets greate value in being morally upright.  He and Anurag met while they were at college and have been friends ever since, having had a common passion for many things: wildlife, conservation, the environment.  Over a period of time, Anurag got married and started his own NGO.  Rashid was an integral part of the process.  Not only was he one of the largest funders - a position he retains - but due to his own goodwill and connections, he brought many more funders to Anurag's project.

Anurag's NGO works with the Bahelia-Pardhi tribe, historically stigmatised as a 'criminal tribe' in the colonial listing of 1871.  They are traditionally hunters and, more recently, poachers.  The NGO works towards rehabilitating them by creating alternate employement for both the men and women of the tribe - a significant challenge as hunting is what they primarily know.  It also runs a school for their children.  Rashid was proud and happy to be a part of this.

Vandana is Anurag's wife.  One day, Rashid received a call fromher; she sounded upset and explained that she was making this call because she wanted him to know that Anurag had been violent with her and had hit her.  He learnt that this wasn't the first time.  Needless to say, Rashid was upset and shaken by this.  He connected with Anurag who was indignantat the accusation.  When Rashid tried to speak to Vandana again, she was non-committal and vague.  After much debate and angst within himself, Rashid pulled funding from the NGO.

The first part consisted of play acting/'freeze frames' by groups of participants on different aspects of the situation.  The views and prejudices of many of the participants seemed to be visible even at this stage.  Some were seen to be in a contemplative mood (in a 'freeze frame') since, as they explained when prompted, the situation involved 'larger questions'.  Some others were seen to be advising the 'wife' either to "take a step back" and coolly analyze the situation, or (more directly) to look at a compromise.

The last part of the feature had two actors on stage fielding questions from the audience - a male actor playing Anurag (let's call him 'husband') and a woman actor playing Rashid (the 'friend').  The moderator asked the audience the opening question: Was the 'friend' right in pulling funding from the NGO?  'No' was the overwhelming majority response on a hand count.  And this was also reflected in the questions (more like thinly veiled accusations and imputations) put to the 'friend' and to the 'husband' by the group of business executives in the audience, which seemed overwhelmingly one-sided (about 4:1 majority) across age and gender divide.  Most of the 'questions' were directed at the 'friend'.  Some of the 'questions' were:

(a) Were you not acting in haste? (The 'friend' explained that he had worked for a month to establish the facts.)
(b) Were your conclusions not based on incomplete/unestablished facts? OR How could you believe only one side? (The 'friend' said that when he asked the 'husband', a long time buddy, point blank whether he had been violent with his wife, the 'husband' was non-committal and aggressive.)
(c) What right did you have to interfere in personal matters?
(d) [The 'rationalizing' thought] Were you not harming the larger purpose of the NGO by pulling funding on the basis of a personal issue of the NGO's CEO?

There were also suggestions, direct and oblique, for the two parties (the 'husband' and the 'friend') to sit together and resolve the issue (on the same lines as India and Pakistan were advised to do after 1947, as a member of the audience remarked!).  This suggestion the 'friend' was okay with (on a personal level, but standing by his decision to pull funding from the NGO), but which the 'husband' rejected outright (with a resolve to have no truck with the 'frined' in future), saying the 'friend' had ruined his life by harming his life's work.

Our much smaller group tried to argue that personal conduct could not be totally disjointed from the professional, especially when the NGO's work involved communities, and the 'husband' was also involved in 'counselling' community members sometimes.  One question we asked the 'husband' was, given that he had said that work was life and life was work for him (and turning this argument around), wouldn't his personal conduct and outlook on personal issues also affect his work with communities and his ability to deliver appropriate counselling and other services?  To this the hypocritical response from the 'husband' was that he had never held himself up as a role model.  Going on with the '1947 analogy' earlier, we also reminded the audience that in 1942, Gandhiji had suspended the Quit India Movement when a group of people at Chauri Chaura had indulged in violence against security forces - and, so, the ends do NOT justify the means.

Most amazing perhaps was the question from a woman colleague in the audience.  She asked the 'friend': Don't you think that your acting against the already frustrated 'husband' could lead to his indulging in more violence towards his wife?!

While the session ended with the moderator saying that questions of ethics were in general confusing, with no absolute rights and wrongs clearly demarcated, it made me somewhat sad about the social mores of a so-called 'distinguished' group of business-people.  This was especially so as the above session came after an earlier session where (a) an academic briefed the audience on a multi-disciplinary study on gender rights, one of the findings of which had been that the way women are treated in workplaces has an effect on how they are treated in society and households (and not only the other way round, as is conventionally believed); and (b) a briefing on the task force of the industry body on measures proposed to strengthen women's safety at the workplace.

To play the devil's advocate, I may've been acting as an 'armchair practitioner', while the larger group may've consisted of (at least some) people who've to take a stand on such issues on a day-to-day basis.  But does that condone the overall regressive mindset on display among such a group, who are supposed to be 'educated and enlightened' as compared to perhaps some other parts of society?

Such ambivalence may not bode well for women's safety, especially in the workplace, and as a wider portent, for gender equality whether in the work sphere or society in general.