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What Is This World Coming To?
As is my habit when the heat comes in India, I return to the West. If you have not been there you should know that going to India is like going to Mars. After you leave Europe you enter a kind of no-man’s land and when you deplane on the tarmac in Chennai you are effectively on another planet. No, Indians are not extraterrestrials. They are people, just like us, going about the business of life. But they go about it differently, to say the least. Some of their ways are much better than ours and some of our ways are much better than theirs. Their idea of dharma is good and ours is not so good. Our ideas about waste are good and their idea, which is no idea, is bad. And so it goes with many things.
Their idea about dharma is good in the sense that people have certain duties and they play the roles associated with those duties in a non-attached way. They don’t take things personally. It is not kosher to insult people in public. People are so sensitive to others’ feelings that they will give wrong directions so as not to disappoint. In general, you won’t find shopkeepers bending over backwards to kiss your ego’s royal butt and they will never expect thanks – or say “thank you” – because it is assumed that you are just doing your duty as a customer and the salesperson is just doing his duty as a salesperson – and what’s the big deal? I like it. I don’t go to a hardware store to have my ego stroked. I want a roll of duct tape or a screwdriver. I do not need to be told to have nice day. The day can be what it wants.
Indians do not insult each other in public but when they are insulted by foreigners, they never react. They just think we are barbarians, an opinion it is difficult to refute if you watch foreigners in Tiruvannamalai, who are mostly tourists masquerading as spiritual seekers. I was in an internet shop one day when the power went down for about five minutes. There was an offensive, malodorous, hirsute, young Western hippie-type with a Mooji “silent retreat” badge tacked to his wrinkled T-shirt sitting at one of the computers. After he had finished his emails he went to the desk to pay. The bill was thirty rupees, about 40 cents. He asked for a twenty-rupee discount for the five minutes even though he had used his whole hour. The boy at the desk could not even understand the nature of the request because it was so petty. When he finally did understand, he said no because his boss who was outside sipping chai would have taken it out of his wages, which I suppose were about fifty rupees a day for ten hours of boring work. Whereupon the hippie, who had given Mooji several hundred dollars to sit in silence for a week, heaped all manner of abuse on the boy who took it without comment. The hippie then contemptuously threw down twenty rupees and headed for door. It so happened that my computer station was next to the door. I jumped up, blocked his way, dressed him down and told him to hand over the ten rupees to the boy – which he wisely did. The boy looked at me gratefully. Indians take their licks and get on with life. And they do not hold a grudge which is a sign, in my humble opinion, of a mature society.
In a mature society people do not feel the need to express their “true” feelings and make statements to complete strangers about who they are “inside.” In our culture people are incredibly insecure and rarely entertain a positive opinion of themselves, or if they do it is only a compensation for a feeling of smallness and inadequacy. They tend to seek validation, behaving and dressing in way that invites attention. “Hey, look at me, I have purple and pink hair sticking up in cool pointy rows. See these amazing tattoos! Ain’t I swell?” How desperately we want to be loved. Maybe our problem is that family life is almost non-existent these days. If no one at home understands you, you can wander out on the street turn any Tom, Dick or Harry into a surrogate mother-father-brother-sister.
In any case, a companion and I recently returned from Spain via EasyJet. We deplaned at midnight on the tarmac and entered a large bus that was already packed with passengers eager to get home and hit the hay. It was a cold night, about zero centigrade. For some reason the doors did not close and the bus did not move. Five minutes passed, then ten. The passengers, who were mostly English, were as docile as lambs. After about fifteen minutes I decided to find out what was going on and get the show on the road. I grumbled to my companion who took up the cudgel and elbowed her way through the crowd. She found the driver standing on the tarmac outside the bus and asked why we were not moving. The driver said he was waiting for the police. When queried as to the reason he replied that a passenger had called him a tosser. In case you, my dear readers, are not English, a tosser – dare I use the word on a “spiritual” website? – is a person who masturbates. The poor man was so emotionally distraught that he was unable to do his “small duty” – as they say in India – and, in the name of justice, left sixty or seventy people standing in the freezing cold in the dead of night!
I love the English but, sad to say, the swashbuckling, seafaring, world-dominating nation of yore seems to have become a nation of apologetic crybabies. The “nanny state” is here to stay. It will ensure that no citizen is without redress when insulted by another, perhaps incarcerated or heavily fined to teach the scofflaw manners. After putting up with an endless stream of “sorry”s and “excuse me”s, I forbade my companion, whom I love dearly, from ever using those words in my presence. In any case, this statement somehow awoke the sleeping giant within these once proud people and the lion started to roar. Which is to say that the crowd began to heartily abuse the driver, who, fearing much worse than a minor insult, got back in his seat and hastily drove us to the terminal. On the way I felt the need to weigh in on this issue and said loudly to my companion, “What is the problem? Someone only called him a tosser.”
Somehow my attempt to make light of the situation irritated a matronly type, who seemed to sympathize with the driver and icily told me that it was against the law to call someone a tosser. I said I thought they had free speech in England. The woman looked to her husband for support but when he turned his head away she understood she was on her own and, sizing me up, decided wisely to let the conversation die.
I suppose the story itself makes my point but, really, what is this world coming to? A public servant, a bus driver at that, someone in contact with the public eight hours a day, is offended and incapable of doing his duty because someone calls him a naughty name? One would expect such a reaction from a first grader, but from a forty-something male?
In the Bhagavad Gita one can understand Arjuna’s dilemma when he refuses to do his duty because he is asked to kill his guru and many men he loves and respects. When he sits down in his chariot and casts his weapon aside Krishna gives him a number of good reasons why abandoning his duty is not the way to go, one of which is that it has deleterious social consequences. The incident on the bus was nothing compared to the conflict that brought Arjuna, who was a man of great character, to his knees but if millions of insecure self-centered people refuse to do their duty many times a day because their tender egos have been bruised by petty insults, what kind of a society will you end up with?
Every day in the American national press one finds articles expressing anxiety about our loss of power, wealth and influence in the world. And, with a few exceptions, our decline is usually attributed to material factors brought on by the unscrupulous, copyright-infringing, totalitarian Chinese. But I believe sixty years of unparalleled prosperity has brought about a steep moral decline that has hollowed us out from within. Chalk it up to materialist values. There are no real challenges these days, nothing to concentrate our minds and get us all pulling together.
We are a fat, fearful, self-indulgent nation of siblings who have turned luxuries into necessities. Our skins are so thin that for fear of causing offense a garbage collector must be called a sanitary engineer, a sex change a “gender reassignment” and a crippled person “differently abled.” When will it end? To survive, individuals need to appreciate their indebtedness to each other and make a contribution, irrespective of the inevitable pinpricks that life brings. And this is only going to come about when they take responsibility for their own minds and stop blaming others for their unhappiness – both the man who insulted the bus driver and the driver himself, for example – who live in a society that has so lost its focus on what is truly important that it can waste its precious time pandering to irrational sensitivities.
If the values that have brought about his sorry state of affairs are not investigated, societies that have such a great potential for good will continue to die the death of a thousand cuts, fade away to obscurity – to the detriment of all and sundry.