The wise among India’s ancients held that life must be approached with a sense of perspective. Of balance. For dharma is in balance. This is most required when we are buffeted by calamities which threaten to drown us.
It has been a grim year for me. Many tragedies hit my personal life. One after the other. One may keep one’s chin up, but inside, anger and depression arose. Hatred for an unfair world. Rage against even the Divine. And i was drowning in that most hopeless of thoughts: ‘Why me? Why my family?’
But recently, some wisdom has dawned.
One needn’t deny the pain my family and i have undergone repeatedly over the last year to also realise that, on the whole, life has been good to us. If one’s life has been, broadly, like the eternal Ganga ji, flowing strongly forward, then a period of pain and drought does not seem to justify depression and rage.
Perspective. It’s just a word. But if it can help you see that life has also been kind to you, perhaps you can handle the harsh times better. As with individuals, so with societies. And to gain perspective on society, one must pay attention to facts, not opinions.
I recently read a brilliant book called Factfulness, written by the late Hans Rosling. One of the themes the great statistician outlines in his book is the ‘negativity instinct’: most people believe negative news, even if good news is also presented. The mainstream news and social media, perhaps instinctively, have cottoned on to this. They repeatedly relay negative news, because that’s what gets them viewership/readership, which translates into money for them.
But we must remember that, more news of suffering doesn’t mean there’s more suffering.
Some have called the present times the Age of Anger. Media (both mainstream and social) is constantly carping about how terrible these times are. It is as if humanity has never had it worse. Public conversation across the free world is filled with negativity. And all this at a time, when judged by dispassionate facts and numbers, humanity has never had it better.
For the first time in human history, the world has come close to wiping out hunger. The bigger problem now is not hunger, but malnutrition in the poorer parts, and obesity in the more affluent parts of the world. Some relentless Cassandras may see this as a small achievement. It’s not. It’s huge. Many middle-class people across the world today lead lifestyles that would not be accessible even to the royalty a mere 200 years ago.
India, our own lovely motherland, has made enormous strides since 1991, when we began to move away from our suicidal socialist economic policies. We have pulled 270 million people out of extreme poverty in a little over two decades. And present numbers and trends suggest that we will wipe out extreme poverty in another decade. Yes, inequality may have gone up (and hopefully, that will be addressed as we rediscover dharma and charity), but wiping out extreme poverty at this pace after 1991, is a very significant achievement. And frankly, credit should go to all our leaders and our people.
If you want to examine data on India, then we must do it on a per capita basis – divide the total data by our population. This is needed for a fair comparison. For example, India is the sixth largest economy in the world. But that does not mean that we are rich; for on a per capita basis, we are not even in the top 100. But there is good news too, if you are willing to drill down to details. Data on a per capita basis shows India is actually among the least violent countries in the world. On a per capita basis, sexual violence against women is actually relatively low in India, even compared to most countries in the West. On a per capita basis, the growth in incomes in India has been pretty good.
This is not to suggest that perfection has been attained. Having perspective also means that we should not be naive optimists who ignore real problems. For example, data clearly indicates that while sexual violence is relatively low in India, mass murder of the girl child through female foeticide is terribly high. Road deaths in India are almost at genocidal levels. Easily preventable diseases and conditions, like diarrhoea, cause deaths of lakhs of Indian children. Simple things like hygiene can help here.
Perspective. Be aware of the many problems we still need to tackle. Be aware of the long road we still have to traverse. But equally, take some time to celebrate the long road that we have travelled already. Do not ignore the fantastic achievements of our country, and the things that we should rightly celebrate, even as we worry about what still needs to be done.
Perspective. Don’t let suffering weigh you down. Instead, let life’s blessings give you the strength to manage the harsh problems that life inevitably throws at you.
A hard election year is coming up. Things will get ugly and competitive. Everyone will fight. Many will start believing that we are overwhelmed with problems. Do not deny those problems. For life will never be without problems. But do celebrate the good aspects too.
If you have perspective, you will realise that, on balance, it’s logical to be positive.