Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Countdown: Christmas Day

So the day came and went, or at least, it will do so in a few minutes time. And then, it will recede into memory and become another day shared with friends and family. Like always. Each year we go through the same cycle and each time we experience the same varied emotions: anticipation, excitement, relief, and finally, nostalgia.

Sometimes the unexpected can creep in, and disappointments can ruin an otherwise festive mood. But those are exceptions that we are not prepared for, and are not expected to do so anyway. None of us are ever prepared for the type of unusual that brings sadness or exasperation because it is not in our nature to include such possibilities.

Seven years ago, no one quite expected the tsunami to wreak havoc on any post-Christmas celebrations planned. It took everyone by surprise, brought untold tragedy to millions, and now has become something of a metaphor for large scale devastation. Whenever a tragedy becomes a metaphor, it is on its way to be forgotten. Everyone ends up remembering the scale of the horror, and end up focusing on the feelings evoked and the sensations experienced when they heard the news. The painful process and hard work involved in organising relief efforts and creating much needed awareness lasts as long as the tragedy remains in the news, and gets forgotten as soon as the next big tragedy captures everyone's attention.

And the cycle continues.

It is also the end of my Christmas countdown for this year, and it should be another year before I commence my next installment. A year is too far away unless you're talking about 2010 which came and went very fast. Or so I felt this year, and many of my friends felt the same way.

I was quite encouraged by the response, satisfied by the support, inspired to be more regular in my blogging. Christmas is a time when so many moods, thoughts, ideas, feelings come together that one has to sit down and work those thoughts out, examine them closely and try to make sense of them.

I'm not quite sure if I succeeded but the countdown was a small effort in that direction.

A Merry Christmas to all of you, and a blessed new year as well!!!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 1 Day to Go

I still remember that night very clearly as if it was only yesterday.

I was doing my college in Bombay and staying in a hostel that was attached to this college. The Christmas holidays had begun and I was looking at the possibility of another Christmas away from home. I was already a three year veteran in 'spending Christmas away from home' and it never felt good. It's not supposed to anyway. Christmas like most festivals are best celebrated with one's parents in one's house in one's hometown.

It was Christmas eve and I knew I had to do something.

While sipping tea with a hostel mate, I thought, why not go out of the city and visit my brother who was studying/ staying in a college town that was six hours from Bombay. At first I dismissed the idea as too fanciful but the more I thought of it the more it became appealing.

However, the only problem was that I didn't make a train reservation, which would make it hard for me to get a seat. I could get a direct bus but I hated (and still do) overnight bus journeys, and so the only option was to take the only available train at midnight. It was a slow train that will take more than 6 hours to reach the neighbouring city of Poona that ordinarily takes around 3 hours by a fast train. My plan was to take the train to Poona and then undertake a 2 hour bus journey that will take me to my brother's college town.

I bought the ticket on this slow train and boarded it with my limited luggage. As expected there was no seat available since almost all of the seats were taken and most people had to manage by sitting on the floor or in the aisle or wherever they found space to park themselves. I didn't choose my spot but found myself - quite accidentally - sitting outside the loo.

It was nauseating to say the least, and the claustrophobia one experienced was way too horrid beyond words. The train was jam packed and even where I was seated, I had to recline at an angle so as not to touch others and stay comfortable. And if this wasn't enough, a group of men entered the train and started singing some vulgar songs to amuse themselves.

It was probably my worst Christmas eve, and as I sat there I imagined what my parents might be doing, and what my church in Bahrain will be up to. And then it occured to me that, perhaps, far from being my worst Christmas eve, it was perhaps one of the most beautiful experiences ever. great things to come out of the course.

Yes, I was uncomfortable at having to spend my Christmas eve at such a horrible place, and I could only think of my family and friends who would be celebrating their Christmas in church or at their home. And then, as I sat there, a thought occured to me that, perhaps, I was getting a glimpse of the first Christmas.

Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus in an even worse place, and had cattle and oxen as room mates. It's not possible that Mary and Joseph must have enjoyed the idea of a delivery in a stable. They were both told by the angel that the Child was special, and so I'm sure, they must have expected a slightly better service.

As my train crawled slowly to Poona afer a tiresome all night journey, I had to run to catch a bus. After all, three hours is a lot better to reach my destination unlike the other train that leaves at mightnight or thereabouts.

I did reach my brother's hostel and had to dress up quickly and join him on his Christmas plans. It was one get-together after another that lasted the entire day and a little bit of the next night as well.

But I can't forget that Christmas eve because it gave me a glimpse of what Mary and Joseph may have gone through. And this alone, transformed the trip into an awesome experience.

Christmas Countdown: 2 Days to Go

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1: 50-53

For many people, Christmas like most other festivities is all about food, and in many ways it is. Most of our favourite Christmas memories revolve around the things we eat and drink in the company of people we love. It is these memories that stay with us for a long time, and provide a template for the way we choose our celebrations.

Every country and culture that celebrates Christmas has its own food tradition. Anywhere you go, there are bound to be sweets and savouries that define the season. For many people, a Christmas meal would be incomplete without a stuffed turkey or mommy's biryani. It is these little things that bring warmth to Christmas festivities, and bring with it all the cherished memories that bring a smile to our face.

While Christmas does revolve around food, we need to step back and look at another world that's out there. This world lurks quietly behind all the familiar landscapes that dot our cherished memories. It is necessary for us to remember that this world comprises the anonymous millions for whom Christmas Day will be another hungry day in the sun.

When I read these words of the Magnificat that Mary uttered, I couldn't help thinking that unlike some TV commentators who think of social concern as a great evil, the Bible on the other hand, disagrees with this viewpoint. In Mary's prophetic utterance, the plight of the hungry is not dismissed as inconsequential and equated with radical politics, but brings the assurance that 'they will be satisfied with good things' and - horror of horrors - the 'rich will be sent away empty.'

It's not that there is anything wrong with being rich, but apparently severe judgement is reserved for the self-centred, self-satisfying, arrogant and full of themselves 'rich'. Any justification for selfish behaviour will meet a sorry end since it will not meet with divine approval. The late Mother Theresa said it best when she described her work with the 'poorest of the poor' as something beautiful for God.

I felt it was necessary to look at some of the data collected from the United Nations World Food Programme. It gives us an overview of the current statistics on world hunger that we can use to understand the situation better. It provides a horrid picture of how miserable the things are at the moment.

925 million people do not have enough to eat - more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union;
(Source: FAO news release, 14 September 2010)

98 percent of the world's hungry live in developing countries;
(Source: FAO news release, 2010)

More than 70 percent of the world's 146 million underweight children under age five years live in just 10 countries, with more than 50 per cent located in South Asia alone;
(Source: Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, UNICEF, 2006)

10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths;
(Source: The State of the World's Children, UNICEF, 2007)

The cost of undernutrition to national economic development is estimated at US$20-30 billion per annum;
(Source: Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, UNICEF, 2006)

t is estimated that 684,000 child deaths worldwide could be prevented by increasing access to vitamin A and zinc
(Source: WFP Annual Report 2007)

Undernutrition contributes to 53 percent of the 9.7 million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries.
(Source: Under five deaths by cause, UNICEF, 2006)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 3 Days to Go

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:19

Christmas is all about memories.

It's what gives the season its festive significance: the company of family and friends gathered over a traditional Christmas meal, the unwrapping of presents, the singing of carols on a winters night, the sharing of sweets and goodies, the joy and laughter that punctuates the air, and the love and warmth that one experiences throughout the month.

If we try hard enough, it's quite possible for us to recall in detail how we spent our Christmas-es through the past ten, twenty, whatever number of years. This is not only because Christmas Day occurs only once a year but more so because the celebrations are intrinsically linked to the memories we have of some of our deepest relationships.

For many people in the world today, however, these memories are not necessarily pleasant. It can be a cruel reminder of the days before the divorce, of days when one or both parents were together, of days when they had friends who loved and cared, of days when they had a job or a business or a sizeable income, of days when they were rarely alone.

For them, there's nothing merry or happy about Christmas but a sad reminder of how their life hasn't really matched their expectations. It's a depressing time since everywhere they go the festive decorations in shops, malls and restaurants are all about being together with loved ones. The very things they wish to avoid and want to forget.

Sometimes the kind of childhood we've had can have a huge bearing on our celebrations. If it was a happy childhood where we were the centre of our family's love and affection, then, we are most likely to want to replicate a little bit of that which we experienced a long time ago. It can also work the same way if our childhood memories are sad and bitter, making us want to make up for all that we feel we have lost.

However, Christmas is not only about the memories we've had, but it's also about the Christ Child who was born in a little town of Bethlehem a long time ago. He came to 'heal the broken hearted and bring freedom to the captives.' It is with these words that He began His work and preached His message of love. These words got the attention of people who were outside the religious establishment and gave them hope. It made them see their life a little bigger than what it was and made them dream big.

For Mary, the memories of that first Christmas remained etched forever in her mind, and it is said that she pondered them in her heart. As she stood at the cross watching Christ suffer, I wonder if she remembered all the events of that first christmas: the long trek to Bethlehem, the birth in a manger, the surprise visit by the shepherds and the wise men, and the words of the angel that she would be part of one of the biggest miracles.

Those memories must have given her hope that all was, probably, not lost when she saw Christ suffer on the cross. It's the memories that must have helped her and the memories that, perhaps, gave her strength. And maybe when she saw the resurrected Christ it was those memories that reminded her that her hope was not in vain.

Question is, what are our memories? And what are we doing with them?

Christmas Countdown: 4 Days to Go

Do unto others as you would have them do to you

Luke 6:31

We like to consider ourselves as a tolerant bunch of people.

It's something we believe in so strongly without even thinking that, perhaps, our actions may not exactly match the rhetoric. And yet, we persist in the assumption that tolerance is what guides our interactions with people outside our family, ethnic, social and cultural circles. We believe that by being tolerant the way we are, our actions are doing their bit to help civilisation be the force for good that it's supposed to be, that we are part of the solution and not the problem.

And yet, just a cursory glance over the last 20-30 years will reveal a completely different picture. We can't help but notice a remarkable increase in attitudes and viewpoints that are not just harshly intolerant of 'other' viewpoints or lifestyles, but have crossed the threshold of decent disagreement and turned violent.

This is odd because we are supposed to live in an enlightened age, that somehow we have reached intellectual superiority that differentiates us from other species, and that a combination of education, technology and culture has made us rise above and conquer our primal instincts. And yet, the beast within finds a way to assert itself and leave claw marks all over.

We find a way to make rash generalisations about people groups without even thinking that it is such an intellectually flimsy exercise. I don't wish to give any examples of these generalisations because it would be pointless doing so since every generation has come up with its own bogeymen. Besides, the point of this piece is not to provide a laundry list of generalisations or reiterate something that's common knowledge.

Hence, it makes one curious to see the feeble efforts that some people make in addressing the problems of intolerance. Political correctness is one of those actions being undertaken by those who believe centuries of misunderstandings can be resolved by using different words altogether. It's as if tolerance and open-mindedness is made possible by making a switch in one's vocabulary.

Now it's not as if I dislike political correctness because, in some ways, I do like what is being done in some areas. In some instances, it provides the simplest remedy to correct sexism and other assumptions based on gender. However, when the word Christmas is boycotted to avoid not hurting other minority groups, it is political correctness gone too far and gone absurd.

It is the mark of a civilised society that every people group and cultural entity must feel included in the community that they are part of. They must never feel excluded or threatened in any way because that would undermine the progressive nature of society that we all believe we live in.

But I'm not sure if removing Christ from Christmas and calling it Winterval or Happy Holidays or Festive Season will necessarily do the trick. Christmas is, after all, a celebration of Christ's birth in Bethlehem, and calling it something else would simply negate the 'reason for the season' as it were.

And being someone who lives in a Muslim country, I know for sure that not many people here are offended by "Christmas", and are in fact, amused by what the politically correct denizens are trying to do.

If the main issue is to allow minority groups to feel 'accepted' and develop a sense of belonging, then, one has to do lot more than just 'boycotting' the word Christmas. There has to be substantive work that involves communication, interaction, involvement and acceptance. It doesnt mean one has to sacrifice what one believes in or dump what one holds sacred just to be more accommodating, it just means allowing the other group the space to be what they are and to do what they must.

It also means making no racial assumptions and recognising other ethnic and cultural groups for what they are... as real people!

In the final analysis, being accommodative simply means giving space without losing one's convictions. And also involves doing something that Jesus recommended: Do unto others as you would have them do to you

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 5 Days to Go

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Luke 2:16-18

We are living in an information hungry world.

There is no dearth of outlets for accessing all types of information - the type we must know, the type we have to know, the type we needn't know, the type we can do without, the type that's really unnecessary, and the type that no one really bother.

At the click of a mouse or the touch of a remote, we can be assured of immediate enlightenment, and can just get up and kiss ignorance goodbye. Or at least, that's the promise.

At a certain level, we can agree with the Chinese blessing that we are living in interesting times, and there's no denying that we are.

The ancient Egyptians had the library in Alexandria which was supposed to be the storehouse of all the accumulated knowledge of the time. Today, we don't have to travel too far to read about things we know nothing about or have to search through libraries to gain knowledge about a subject. All we need is a search button, key in our query and get to read all that there is to know whether it be in the form of a text, video or audio.

Wikileaks has shown that even the once inaccessible is no longer taboo and can be available whenever we want. Of course, whether or not this information is really necessary for our consumption is another matter altogether. But the fact of the matter is, the information is there.

Never in the history of civilisation was so much information so easily available for the entire human race. This alone places us in a very peculiar position because we can no longer blame some elitist group for monopolising all the information channels and conspiring to leave the masses ignorant. This argument no longer applies since even the mighty Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made its course syllabus available to everyone.

The trouble with the abundance of information is that looking for wisdom and knowledge in all of this is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The question is, what are we really doing with the information we receive? Are we doing our bit to transform that information into knowledge? Are we becoming any wiser or staying perpetually ignorant?

TS Eliot expressed these ideas quite eloquently in The Rock where he pointed out

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The shepherds received the news about the Christ Child's birth, and they went ahead to see for themselves what had taken place in a manger. They saw, they believed and told others about it. They didn't just use the information for their consumption but went ahead a step further by telling others about it.

They applied it to their lives, gained knowledge about the Messiah's birth, and became wiser as a result. They could have kept the news to themselves because, after all, they were mere shepherds and not expected to be conversant in such matters.

As I said before, we are living in an information rich world. We have available at our finger tips everything that we need to know about most things. What are we doing about it?

Are we using this information to strengthen our knowledge about people groups, diverse cultures and other countries/ nationalities? Or are we using information to perpetuate stereotypes, reinforce our prejudices, and solidify our biases?

If that be so, we run the risk of turning these interesting times into an absolute tragedy.

Christmas Countdown: 7 Days to Go

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners

Isaiah 61: 1

Loneliness appears to be a peculiarly modern phenomenon. In many ways, the very word seems to capture the spirit of the age we are in: inspiring songs, providing material for books and movies, and acting as a muse to countless artists.

It's not as if people never felt lonely in previous centuries, but it's just that the theme never really dominated the cultural landscape as much as it does today. Although one must admit that it was Shelley who said it better when he wrote, 'our sweetest songs are those that speak of our saddest thoughts.'

However, the nineteenth century when Shelley wrote those words was a different era altogether when the private and the personal were not placed under the microscope with the same unequivocal passion with which it's done today. Sadness and sad thoughts were meant for either quiet contemplation, and shared only with near and dear ones. Most importantly, the community (in all its various forms) acted as a great cushion against the pressures individuals may have faced through isolation.

Of course, there have been people who complained about the excesses of the community, of having to live under its dictates and suffering its consequences, expressed frustration of having to lose one's individuality under the strong identity that the community gave. And there are many such stories of the individual struggle against the community whether it was the nation state, organised religion, the head of the family, gender stereotypes and what have you.

However, it was only after the mid-twentieth century that we began to see a gradual but steady dismantling of the community's hold over people's lives. The cultural, political and economic forces that were unleashed around this time further strengthened this drift towards autonomy and independence.

Now this particular drift towards autonomy and independence has been a good thing especially in the political sphere, and more so, in allowing people to be less tethered to restrictive social norms and conventions. It has enabled people to be themselves, to be free to act on what they believe, and make decisions based on their convictions. At least, that's the broad idea but the reality is a different matter and can be taken up for another discussion.

But then, again, taken at its extreme, this drift has also given rise to a 'me-first' mentality that values the individual above everything else. As long as my needs, my desires, my feelings, my this, my that is taken care of, then that's all that matters. Me first, others later, much, much later.

Technology has further helped in speeding up this development, and the 'i' in the iPod, for instance, clearly shows who takes pride of place in this universe.

Now if we multiply this mentality many times over, then, we get an idea of the kind of mindset that defines the popular mood. It's the kind of mood that believes in the primacy of one's own need above all. It has also driven consumerism to be the powerful force that it is, and fueled the economic crisis into the devastating tragedy that it became for many people. Satisfaction of one's need NOW even if it means living on borrowed money and even if it involves inability to pay for it.

In such an environment, the individual remains adrift in the social sphere and John Donne's 'no man is an island' remains nothing more than an idea than a fact. Set adrift like a plank of wood on an ocean, individuals begin looking for connections that can bind them and lead them to the mainland. And if 'me-first' is a priority for the majority, then the search for the mainland remains an eternal quest.

It is basically a return to the primal need for community, to belong to a group, to be part of something that's larger than themselves. Urbanisation fueled large scale migration from the country side into cities where being a stranger and living anonymous lives became a norm and not an exception. Technology made physical contact with other individuals almost redundant and unnecessary.

As a result, loneliness became a natural outcome of this process, and began defining the mental and cultural landscape of the contemporary world in which we exist. The only way this trend can be reversed is when we put an end to putting ourselves first, and start looking at others for a change.

It is possible and may require a nudge or two, but the question is, will we do it? Or are we going to spoil it by asking, what's in it for me?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 8 Days to Go

"... the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Luke 2:15

The search for authenticity is a quest that will never really go out of fashion. There’s something magical about it. Bringing together the drama and excitement one associates with pirates out on a treasure hunt or knights on some mystical expedition, this pursuit becomes – for many – an adventure that takes them into their very soul.

Or at least that's what it's supposed to do.

We like the authentic for what it represents. We like the way it remind us of how things ought to be, and in the way it gently nudges us away from scrambling after things that are fake. What the authentic essentially does is to demonstrate the futility of the counterfeit, the lie that masquerades as truth, and the falsehood that acts as the pretender to the throne.

It is, perhaps, indicative of the times that we live in that the real has in many ways become a novelty. There are so many substitutes that seem so much like the real thing but is not. And yet, we get fascinated by the fake not only because its affordable but because it is available.

Its amazing how for many people the pursuit for the authentic becomes something less of a serious effort because there is no need for it. If the substitutes can do it, why go for the original? Or for that matter, if it's inconvenient to get hold of the real experience, why bother?

Hence, we have fake products that are sold for a lot less than what we would pay for the original. We use artificial ingredients to give the flavour of the original without having to taste the real thing. We go for the virtual tour and the virtual anything because it spares us the trouble of getting up from our feet.

However, all these things can be justified in some way or the other because health reasons and financial situations may sometimes force such adjustments in our life. The biggest danger lies when the fake becomes part of our identity, starts defining our existence, and makes it hard for us to recognise who or what we really are.

I've often wondered what the shepherds were thinking when they went to the manger in Bethlehem. They were told by choirs of angels that the promised Messiah was born that night and they went ahead to check for themselves. What were they thinking? Was this really the promised Messiah that they saw wrapped in swaddling cloth? Was this the real deal? Was this frail infant that they saw going to be the most authentic experience of the divine they would ever get to see on the dusty plains of Palestine?

And yet, despite the many questions that they may have had... they went ahead to find out for themselves if this message was truly authentic or another wild goose chase. The scriptures record they were pleased with what they saw and spread the news all around.

However, the great thing about the shepherds was that they took the time to explore and make the discovery for themselves. Question is, how many of us take the trouble to find out things for ourselves instead of being spoon-fed? How many of us take that first step and resist holding back? How many of us side step the authentic and remain satisfied with the fake?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 9 Days to Go

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancĂ©e, who was now obviously pregnant.

Luke 2: 1-5

It looks like I've already missed a day, and now I got some serious catching up to do. Oh well, c'est le vie!!!

In any case, I wish I'd written this post yesterday because of the fact that the United Nations have declared December 18 as the International Migrants Day. It would have been so apt considering the day and also on how relevant it would have been with the chosen topic.

It was in 1990 that the UN General Assembly officially adopted the international convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and members of their families. It is a day that provides intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to rally together to disseminate information on human rights and fundamental freedom of migrants, share experiences, and undertake action to ensure the protection of migrants.

The day is also seen as an opportunity to recognise the contributions made by migrants to both their host countries as well as to their home countries.

In many ways this is widely seen as a contemporary problem even though history is full of stories of migrations of all kinds. It's just that in recent years, the issue has become an urgent matter because of large scale human rights violations, stories of abuse and exploitation, and perhaps, a greater awareness of the problem as it exists and the need to limit it.

It's not as if migrants weren't treated unfairly in earlier centuries because that would be an unfair assumption. We are, perhaps, living in one of history's most 'well informed era', and that alone, perhaps, accounts for a greater awareness of the situation. And perhaps, much more than that, the need to address it in ways that would protect the rights of the vulnerable.

Migrants are viewed differently by various sections of both their host and home countries. Some view them as parasites that come in hordes to take away jobs and livelihood of the 'sons of the soil' while others view them as exploitation material since they are most likely to do any job that's available. There are few who view them in a positive light by recognising the potential to contribute positively to the good of the community.

If in earlier centuries, migration was an option that only the adventurous and the desperate would pursue, it is not so today. Globalisation has broadened employment opportunities, and extended the marketplace beyond the limits of one's geographical territory. There is a greater interaction between people of all nationalities and cultures, and has necessitated a greater mingling for work, residence and recreation.

And on top of that, we also have economic, political and ideological migrants who choose to leave (or flee, in some cases) to other countries because what they believe or stand for places them at a greater risk. Leaving the comfort of their home, hence, becomes a necessity.

Joseph and Mary were migrants of a different sort. They had to go to Bethlehem for the census and it appears that they had to stay there for a lot longer duration. And then, when they had to flee to Egypt because of the threat to the baby Jesus' life, their stay in Egypt placed them under the same category as countless refugees who do the very same thing in equally horrid situations.

Now the Christmas story is also about another migration, and that of Christ's decision to come and live on earth as a man. In both cases, it was a journey that had to be undertaken even though there was considerable inconvenience on the way.

It is easy to categorise the Christmas story as another example of migration, and as discussed above, it certainly is. I remember John Hubers, the pastor of my church in Bahrain once preached on Christ as the ultimate expatriate, and the message certainly shed light on the 'otherness' that He may have experienced on earth.

However, any discussion on migrants and comparisons to the Christmas story would be meaningless unless it teaches us to be more sensitive to the 'others' who come to work and live in our communities. Xenophobia is not the exclusive privilege of only a few ethnic communities but - if news reports are to be believed - affects almost all people groups around the world.

There are always 'reasons' given to complain about people coming in, turning respectable streets into slums, transforming entire neighbourhoods into a dump. It is easy to complain but the challenge lies in showing empathy, being understanding, and doing work that would help and not hinder integration.

It would, perhaps, be one of the best Christmas gifts we can give to the community, and one that can actually bring about a positive transformation. But for that to happen, we need to get out of the shackles of 'what's in it for me' and experience the freedom of 'what's in it for everyone.'

Christmas Countdown: 10 Days to Go

"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him...."

John 1: 10, 11

Alienation is an uncomfortable experience.

Its impact cannot be easily measured and neither can one quantify the depth of pain one can go through upon feeling alienated. It affects people at the most fundamental level, and that is, make them feel less belonged, unwanted and invisible.

Gregarious beings that we are, alienation becomes a denial of what characterises us as individuals and as a species. Sociologists have long described us as social animals, and it is this very essence of being social animals that gets tarnished as a result of being alienated from others.

In other words, it disproves what John Donne said in his poem that 'no man is an island' because through alienation we become nothing more than archipelagoes floating in a friendless ocean.

Maybe that's a bit too harsh but when one looks at alienation as a wider phenomenon, one can understand why it is also one of the most defining features of contemporary life.

Today there is a greater technological convergence that has made long distance communication easier, cultural interaction made more feasible, and great distances bridged through faster airline connections. However, despite such progress, loneliness, isolation and alienation haven't disappeared altogether but have increased considerably.

Intolerance of the 'other' (whoever or whatever that may be) has pushed people to seek and embrace homogenity. The worldwide web and satellite tv haven't exactly made people learn more about other cultures despite all the information easily available. It has, instead, made people tune in to information and entertainment channels that they are in agreement with. While easier airline connections may have increased the tourism industry, one look at some of the travel brochures will indicate that the itineraries are planned to ensure that the tourists enjoy the 'familiar' in the 'food and accommodation' arrangements.

This is just one aspect of the issue that I'm talking about, and perhaps, one that has given a rational twist or even justification to the existence of archipelagoes. After all, people are more comfortable in the company of individuals with whom they share some sort of cultural and intellectual affinity. Hence, they should never be faulted if they choose to isolate those who are different because they'll have nothing to talk about, nothing to contribute, nothing to strengthen relationships.

Hence, the alienation that they go through should be accepted not only as 'normal' but as something that's good for them. Or so the reasoning goes while insisting that it's nothing personal. It's natural, we're told, and asked to accept the conditions as they are.

When one looks at the Christmas story in this context, one gets a better understanding of why Christ was ultimately 'despised and rejected' by people He called His own. God in flesh was alienated by people He created and made to suffer the agony of the cross. And in that singular moment, He was able to identify with millions of people who are alienated by others on account of factors they have no control over.

The Christmas story is essentially that of reconciliation between God and humanity, the perfect making a connection with the imperfect, the righteous with the unrighteous.

The question is, what does this teach us about our responsibilities? What should our response be to the 'others' in our midst? Will we choose to continue alienating 'others' who are different? Or will we forget about our 'selves' for a moment and actively reach out to those who have been made to feel isolated and lonely in the world we live in?

Our response and our action will determine whether or not it will be a merry christmas for them or just another lonely day in December.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 11 Days to Go

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

You can't go wrong with a peace pledge. It's everyone's favourite cause even though the exact specifics of what that peace involves is often not made very clear. Inter-governmental bodies, however, are quite sure that - at the very least - it must involve cessation of armed hostilities. And one must agree that it's a reasonable enough condition for peace, and one that fully and rightly deserves the attention of all the diplomatic corps put together.

And then, there are those for whom peace is not only a song and a poetry but it is their muse -- inspiring, challenging, nudging them. It does have a nice ring to it. 'Give peace a chance' does make sense whichever way you look at it, and for protesters with flowers in their head it can be - and very often is -- their calling.

However, having a desire is one thing and seeing concrete results is another beast altogether. Humanity as a race or a species (whichever way you may want to see it) hasn't had much of a success in achieving peace. It has remained an elusive dream almost like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Countless committees have been formed, myriad summit meetings have been held, thousands of emergency sessions have been organised but nothing of substance has been achieved.

The 'war to end all wars' (1914 - 1918)that took place nearly a hundred years ago provoked governments to action and tentative steps were taken to put humanity's bloody past behind once and for all. Casualties in the range of 15,000,000 and some say the loss of an entire generation in western Europe became reason enough to want to do something.

However, the League of Nations became a toothless tiger and whatever efforts were made were not sincere enough and soon in a matter of two decades, the Second World War with its 63,000,000 deaths became another reminder of how incorrigible we as humans really were.

Further statistics on this page provides additional body count of deaths through wars in the post-war era. Fact of the matter is, the numbers do speak a different story than what the chants for peace would like to hear.

While there has been tremendous progress in the post-war era to look at conflict resolution in creative and non-violent ways but the real battlefield -- the heart -- hasn't been sufficiently addressed. This is because peace is as much of a moral and spiritual issue as much as it is a matter for governments to be concerned about. And for most parts, these issues cannot be tackled merely by signatures on a document or a rubber-stamp on a declaration.

What needs to be done is to rise above the shackles of self interest and desire for self gratification, and move into determined paths to calm the raging storm within. As much as we like to do so, the hurdle, most often, is what this journey will ultimately unravel. Self discoveries have a way of doing that because mirrors, for most part, provide a stark reflection of what we really are than we want to be.

St. Paul talked about hamartia being one of the primary obstacles in our quest to achieve the fullness of life that we were created to enjoy as well as to experience lasting inner peace. Hamartia is a Greek word that can be understood on two levels. One, that deals with the tragic flaw in a heroic character that ultimately leads to his/her downfall, and two, that of an archer missing the mark and losing the laurels as a result.

It would be no exaggeration to say that we were created for great things, that we as a species were bestowed with intellectual greatness that brings with it tremendous responsibilities. What we have done - as history would attest - is squander it all away and scarred the world we are living in. Hamartia has taken over and messed up our ability to achieve that fullness we desire and bring that peace we seek.

In this tumultuous world, the birth of the Prince of Peace in an obscure little town of Bethlehem, and His words of love shine like a flickering candle in a raging tempest. However, His command to deny ourselves and take up our crosses each day to become the vessels of love and righteousness can be a bit inconvenient for most of us.

We like our transformations to be painless, scar free and without any setbacks to our comfort zone. But peace comes with our price, and like all noble things worth fighting for, it demands 'our life and our all'.

Question is, do we think it's worth it?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 12 Days to Go.

I don't know if I'll succeed this year but I'm going to try anyway.

Last year, and I think, even the year before, I started this "christmas countdown' series that was loosely inspired by that silly Christmas song: the twelve days of Christmas. I felt the urge to highlight contemporary issues that are somehow related to the Christmas story, and what better way than to tie it all in a countdown, of sorts.

I was reviewing the series I wrote last year, and realised that I was late by a day in starting the series last year. Looks like I'm doing the same again this year. Some things really don't change, do they? Anyway, better late than never at all as the wise men would say.

Christmas is really a strange combination of events. On the one hand there is the spiritual dimension that is celebrated across churches all around the world - that of God becoming flesh and coming to earth as a baby, but there is also the commercial and economic dimension one cannot ignore. This is the season that retailers, mall owners, restaurants, tv networks, entertainment gurus are all waiting for.

'tis the season of giving, we are told, and retailers are only too glad to assist us in the giving provided our our purchasing power and credit card limits match our generosity. And if there are any limits, then, businesses are only too glad and ready to provide solutions in the form of easy installments.

Most Christians that I know are uncomfortable with this excessive commercialisation of this sacred event. If you've read my blog last year and the year before, you would have noticed that I myself wasn't too enthusiastic about it either. Now it's not that I've had a change of heart since then, but I wonder if there is possibly a common ground somewhere even though God and mammon are polar opposites.

It would be a stretch, I know, to bring together the extremes of consumerism (that finds its peak during this season) with the piety and solemnity one associates with the birth of the Christ Child in a lowly manger in an obscure little town of Bethlehem.

The original Christmas story is the exact antithesis of everything that's being done in the name of Christmas in recent years. Poverty, depravity, abandonment, homelessness, rejection, oppression as well as celebration of meekness have been an intrinsic part of the gospel narrative. One simply can't get away from this aspect of the Christmas story because it not only gives us a better understanding of Christ's work on earth but helps us understand the meaning of His sacrifice.

Now words like sacrifice are not the first thing that come to our mind this season. This is the time we like to indulge in the best of food, the best of 'drinks', the best in fashion, the best in entertainment... it's a time to satisfy our desires with the best that the world has to offer, and create memories of the good times that will, hopefully, last forever.

However, the cross and the sufferings at Calvary cannot be wished away no matter how hard we try. Christ's journey on earth may have begun in Bethlehem but it's purpose was death on the cross and the eventual resurrection. So there was a bit of a tragic element even though the 'meek and mild' Christ Child was to rise again from the dead.

Now the question is, how can these spiritual elements find their common ground in what has essentially become a hedonistic fiesta?

I may not have all the right answers that could satisfy everyone because it will really be difficult and some would say, quite unnecessary. The twain can rarely meet because the focus behind both are different.

'Tis the season of giving, after all. And I think, perhaps, one way to honour Christ would be to emulate the way He gave of himself, and to be more 'giving' even during our moments of indulgence. Instead of turning this into a 'me and mine' feast, we could perhaps look beyond our limited circle and consider for a moment those groups that are lacking in the things we take for granted.

We could, of course, make the retailers happy as well by making purchases that could be turned into investments in other people's lives and in making them happy.

In other words, we can use this time to look for needs that we can meet, happiness that we can bring, joy that we can share, love that we can spread to all those around.

In doing this, we might just bridge the two Christmas-es together, and perhaps, make a small difference in the lives of people who might be waiting for a miracle.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Little baby doll

There was something really dry about her. The wavy strands of her uncombed hair tucked carelessly in her scarf looked like dry twigs reaching hungrily for the sky. Her face like a parched mud wall looked somewhat forlorn as her eyes began to scan the floor of the massive food court where she sat all by herself like a forsaken island.

It wasn’t as if she was alone. She definitely had company or so it would seem to anyone casting a curious glance towards her. She was certainly surrounded by people all around her. There was laughter, there was cheering, there was movement of hands waving, and also, the delightful sight of children boisterously running around in between tables and chairs.

She watched all this activity with the indifference of one merely tolerated. She sat aloof from the rest of the group not because she wanted to but because she felt it was the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s best not to impose oneself, she thought to herself, even though words people use may give the impression that one is longed for and wanted every moment of the day.

She had learned long ago not to get fooled by impressions. People may joke with you and laugh with you or even hug and kiss you but that does not necessarily imply intimacy of any kind. It could just be a formality to mask the inability to say anything substantial or to hide that sense of not wanting to get too close and simply satisfying oneself with mere appearances.

She wished she had known all this when she had first come to the house to live and work nearly two or three years ago. It would have certainly saved her from many disappointments in those first few months. She smiled at the memory of those days when she was so naive that she would believe anything anyone would say. And they did. It was like a joke for everyone but she learned her lesson well and soon withdrew into herself. It wasn’t as if the teasing stopped but only that she became harder within and stopped caring what people said.

Her mistress got up and gave her a packet of French fries because – as she told everyone at the table – the fries were way too fattening and she didn’t want to run the risk of losing her figure. After all, some sacrifices had to be made to keep husband dear on the leash. All the women at the table laughed wholeheartedly at this joke while the men simply sniggered and tried to change the subject.

She took the packet and thanked her mistress as she always did and was expected to do. She took a small bite and couldn’t help wondering why something fattening was bad for her mistress but was supposed to be OK for her. Whoever gave them this ridiculous idea that girls in her position were not keen on looking good and had serious reservations about eating anything available?

It was not just politeness and fear of losing her job that made her not refuse the fries but it was hunger. She was watching them eat all sorts of delicious food and it was making her hungry. Everyone seemed so absorbed in their conversations and enjoying each others company that it didn't seem to matter to them that, perhaps, here was someone sitting in a corner who might actually appreciate good food.

But then, again, it would be hard to blame them since her presence there was merely accidental. Her job was to keep the children in check and ensure that the baby in the pram didn't cry. The children were somewhat out of control since they were in the mall but the baby was her primary responsibility. And these days, the baby was so unpredictable and would wake up and cry at anytime. This was one of the reasons why her mistress wanted her to come along since it would enable her to give attention to her friends and not get distracted by the baby.

It wasn't as if she didn't like her job. She was always fond of babies and little children ever since she was young. Being the oldest sister of three mischievious brothers gave her considerable head start. She smiled when she remembered the old days: getting hugs and kisses from her dad and uncle, the surprise sweets from her aunts, the bike rides with her older cousins, and the great difficulty with which they taught her how to ride a bike reminded her of a time when she was treated like a youngster that she always was.

"No matter what happens and no matter how big you become in life," her oldest cousin once told her during a family gathering, "you will always be our little baby doll."

A single tear drop fell on a single potato stick and she hurriedly wiped her eyes with her arms. She was glad no one noticed but even if anyone did she was sure no one would have bothered. She was just a hired helper and not someone special that her family was absolutely sure she was.

Her mistress' husband once told her that she was special and it made her smile. He told her that it made her look good and for a moment she felt a sense of belonging to this new household. She thanked him as clumsily as she could and hoped he would notice how grateful she was for this compliment.

But then he touched her in a way only a man should but mustn't. He had crept in her room late at night and said he wanted to see her smile. She knew something was wrong and it wasn't just because of the strong smell but in the way he looked at her. She tried to smile but couldn't and began to cry. He pushed her against the wall and forced himself on her while his hands grabbed every piece of her flesh. She wanted to scream but no voice came out of her mouth just silent gasps while her body shivered with fright.

After he had finished, he warned her not to tell anyone about this and that if she ever opened her mouth he would kill her. She believed him. She felt helpless and unclean, and wondered if somehow she was responsible for making him do this with her. It had to be me and no one else, she thought to herself, after all, why would a man like him want to touch someone like her?

Tears began to flow from her eyes again as she looked at everyone else in the table enjoying themselves. She took another bite of her french fries and thought of her family far away. She knew what they'd be doing that evening and it made her want to cry even more. They would be celebrating her 15th birthday and wishing she was there with them.

The baby in the pram made some noise and when she turned to look, the baby began to giggle excitedly upon seeing her face. It made her smile and she wanted to give the baby a big kiss. However, just as she tried to pick the baby up she felt a strong urge to throw up and wanted to run to the nearest restroom.

She turned her face away but it was too late.

The floor was a mess and as she looked around and saw what she did, she lost all her balance, collapsed to the ground, and began to sob uncontrollably.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fact Bahrain

Talk about surprises. And pleasant ones at that.

I picked up the August issue of Fact Bahrain, a local magazine that focuses on fashion, art, culture and technology, and while leafing through the pages I saw something strangely familiar in the technology section.

"Bahrain's Top Bloggers" provided a list of eight bloggers from Bahrain who, according to the editors, 'are an outspoken bunch, voicing their opinions on anything from politics to music.' It was indeed quite encouraging to notice that this blog was included in that list, and quite humbling to see it included amongst the other stalwarts in Bahrain's blogging community. Thank you very much for the honour.

One thing for sure, it means that I have to be far more regular with my updates, and keep this space alive and kicking.

Anyway, here are the other blogs that are in the Fact list. I would encourage you to visit these sites, and leave behind your comments. Us bloggers do love that a lot : )

Mahmood's Den

Cool Red's Rant

Ohh! Crapp

Hasan Hujairi

White Girl... Arab world

Quiet Reflections & Deafening Observations

A Matter of Perspective

Perspectives are supposed to make sense.

They add nuance to every argument, offer another dimension to a discussion, and present a level of diversity that enable one to arrive at an opinion that's more broad based and comprehensive. One can’t really dispute with the merits of this statement because, after all, who can argue against it? Common sense suggests it to be true, and experience tells us that it’s quite possibly the most rational approach one can ever take.

Having said all this, sometimes I wonder if we are giving it too much importance than is really necessary.

While on the one hand, it's great to bring in some perspective whenever opinions are being shared, discussed and debated because it can prevent obstinate loud mouths from monopolising any discussion. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel that this emperor may not have any clothes at all. Sometimes it may just happen that the need to hold a perspective might actually camouflage an inability to either take a stand or might just suggest lack of passion or conviction in a viewpoint.

Maybe I'm being too harsh here, and maybe a bit irrational in arguing against what is essentially the most sensible thing to do. I don't mind conceding that perhaps I may have got it wrong, and managed to miss the possibility of a sensible point somewhere. However, I have to confess that no matter how hard I try and no matter how logical it may all seem I just can't help being tad sceptical about the whole thing.

Having a perspective sounds like a fine idea, but frankly, what's the use of bringing in a perspective when one is confronted with some uncomfortable facts that demand a response? Why do we think that it’s absolutely necessary not to be or even appear to be judgemental just because it might make us appear intolerant? What’s the big deal behind the need to appear balanced when taking a side is equivalent to making a moral choice?

I know it's a tricky terrain one has to navigate in, and it gets even more complicated because the answers don't come in formulas or in easily digestible sound bites. We discover that a well thought out response to the above queries is possible only if we bring in a variety of perspectives. And in a sense, we go back to square one. If perspectives aren't supposed to make sense, then, why on earth do we need them to make a point? It invalidates the entire argument so to speak.

The real issue, if you ask me, is the notion that we need to be moderate at all times if we want to preserve some sort of sanity and equilibrium. There is this assumption that we must look at life in a more balanced perspective, that we need to avoid being rigid about anything, that somehow this approach will lead to a more convivial atmosphere. And this is the problem: not the convivial atmosphere bit but the assumption that it is possible only through being moderate.

Now I don't want to dump the baby with the bath water, and junk the need for perspectives or moderation (for that matter) altogether. It's just that - of late - I'm beginning to get a bit wary about the whole thing, and can't seem to agree that holding a variety of perspectives is the way to go. It might work in certain circumstances such as, when one is processing an idea, arriving at some conclusion or finalising an opinion.

But to regard 'being moderate' as wise or having variety of perspectives as sensible does not sit well with me. At least, not any longer with the same fervour it once gripped me.

Actually, it's a bit odd that I would say all this because there was a time when I was an unabashed moderate and proud centrist in my political and economic views. It just seemed to be the normal thing to do especially when confronted with the orthodoxy of right or left extremism. There were advantages in taking a more balanced approach because of the more obvious reasons like being able to see the other point of view, to understand where the other side is coming from, and to negotiate a common ground for reaching an agreement.

The trouble with the business of negotiating a common ground is that one should first and foremost accept the reality of the grounds that need to be negotiated. If one is unable to do so, then, it might seem like an endless exercise that will lead to absolutely nowhere.

In an ideal world this approach works just fine. In an ideal world, intelligent discourse is appreciated for what it is: the ability to rationally and objectively examine opposing viewpoints, respect the right of individuals to hold opinions contrary to ours, and allow the freedom of free and unfettered exchange of ideas.

However, we aren't living in some idyllic paradise, but in a world whose contours are marred by some pretty ugly realities: exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, social and economic injustice, senseless deprivation of the essentials, conflicts for power and domination, rape, mutilation, murder, poverty and a litany of other gruesome facts that make singing 'what a wonderful world' a bit strange.

I know I'm dangerously close to sounding tad pessimistic but let me assure you - despite what I've written above - I'm not.

My contention is that we can't remain neutral when faced with these ugly realities of life. We need to have the courage and conviction to call a spade a spade and not get wishy washy about it. Sitting on a fence involves not taking a side, and sometimes the side we choose determines where we stand morally and spiritually. In such cases, having a perspective doesn't help because in many cases it is far too late to do so. Let me give you some examples to explain what I mean:

More than 700,000 to 4 million women and children are trafficked around the world for pruposes of forced prostitution , labour and other forms of exploitation every year. Trafficking is estimated to be a $7 billion annual business.

A young girl’s nose is slashed by the Taliban because she doesn’t subscribe to their idea of a morally upright individual. And in another instance, a seven year old boy is hanged by the same Taliban group for being a spy.

There are roughly more than 1.02 billion hungry people in the world today. Majority of them are in Asia and Pacific (642 million) and sub-Saharan African (265 million) countries but the so-called developed countries are not immune to this scourge and has an estimated 15 million hungry people.

According to the most recent Unesco Institute for Statistics data, there are an estimated 774 million illiterate adults in the world, about 64% of whom are women.

I could continue with more statistics but that's not the point here. The singing of statistics can go on endlessly and we'll still have more songs to sing. The thing is, what is our response when we come across these numbers, read these stories, get to grip with the facts? Do we applaud when we hear stories like these where the poor aren't given a lifeline even when commanded to do so?

In cases like these, having a perspective doesn't help but a conviction is necessary: do we accept a miserable situation to linger because it exists? Or do we have the guts to declare something is evil and speak out against it? The choice is ours to make.

What have you chosen?

Saturday, July 03, 2010

A little after three in the afternoon

He crossed the road at the traffic light slowly and cautiously till he stopped at the divider and caught his breath. It was uncomfortably hot as afternoons in July usually are, and the metallic rod that held the traffic lights was hot and proved too painful for his palms to hold for support for too long. He removed his hands very quickly and began rubbing his palms on the tip of his calf as if doing so might soothe him. It did but only for a short while and he took out a soiled handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from the back of his neck and his face.

The traffic on the other lane wasn't moving and so he decided to take his chance to dash across quickly to the other side. However, the moment he took a few steps, the light turned green and the cars began to move. He turned back quickly and almost stumbled before getting back again and returning to the divider. Some of the cars honked at him angrily, and one or two drivers even rolled down their windows to hurl abuse at him. One even showed him the finger and threatened to get him arrested or worse.

He didn't seem to have the time to care what they were saying. He just seemed relieved that he was able to reach safely to the divider without getting hit by any of the cars. He was so used to getting slighted that he couldn't even remember when was the last time he was genuinely offended by someone's obnoxious behaviour. It was a luxury he couldn't afford since all that mattered to him was to save his skin and not his pride.

He grinned at the thought of pride, and wondered if he ever had the time or the inclination to ever develop a sense of pride in the things he did and the person he was. The acidity began to bother him and he spat on the divider's concrete slab leaving a yellowish translucent saliva stain that bothered one of the drivers who didn't like the sight of a man spitting. The driver honked and he flashed another embarrassed smile as thoughts of pride disappeared once again.

The traffic didn't seem to stop and he could see the drivers on the other side were getting increasingly impatient. Unlike the drivers, he didn't seem to mind this delay at all. The longer he stood at the divider, the longer he would get to enjoy standing out in the open and not having anyone else invade his space. He hated crowds and hated being in crowded places and that's why he chose to walk to his labour accommodation instead of taking the company transport.

It took him almost forty-five minutes to reach the cramped quarters where he and 200 other workers stayed. The company transport would take him just fifteen minutes but there was always the inconvenience of being shoved in an open pick-up or packed in a van with forty or fifty that could be squeezed into the vehicle. The management reasoned that it was more cost-effective to pack the workers in a vehicle instead of making multiple trips just because some of the workers thought it was uncomfortable and unsafe.

He didn't want to argue with his managers or get into a long discussion on how this was against government rules because at the end of the day he didn't want to lose his job. He wanted to save as much money as possible, return home to his family and to the farm that he lost and now wanted to recover with his meagre savings.

There was also this delicate matter of his daughter's wedding, which was likely to drain some more of his savings since the boy's family insisted on a dowry and it was a matter of honour that he gave more than what they asked. And he wanted his son to study, be an engineer like one of his managers, and make enough money so he won't have to struggle in a foreign country to make ends meet. But recently he had learnt that his son was spending more time with his friends than with his books and was concerned about the consequences.

The walk helped him to clear his thoughts and also reminisce about the days when he had the farm and the family. There was something about wide open spaces that brought back memories he didn't want to let go or even forget even though at times it seemed totally futile. The walk did tend to get tiring and exhausting especially during the summer months but he didn't seem to mind. He enjoyed looking at the cars and the people inside with their happy and prosperous lives: all of them seemed so involved in what they were doing, so focused about where they wanted to go, and so fulfilled in their lives.

He imagined that even the people in the cars might have regrets of their own and wondered if he would ever get the chance to learn what those regrets were. Will they want to talk with him? Or would they find him repulsive because he didn't dress or smell like them?

The light turned amber as the few cars that were there began to slow and stopped when it turned red. He took small steps to cross to the other side and this time he wanted to make absolutely sure that he didn't stumble. It was a matter of a few yards and a quick dash and he would be safe on the other side.

He heard a faint sound that grew louder and louder, and at the very moment he turned he saw the sportscar was getting closer and not willing to stop. He knew the car had to stop because of the signal but the driver was waving at him to move aside. He just stood there in a state of panic before the car hit him, stopped and seeing what had happened drove away as fast as it could.

The next day, the newspapers said it was a 'hit-and-run' accident, and his managers told the police that he repeatedly ignored their advice to take company transport and so they were not to be blamed for the accident. The police later found out that he was not on the company's visa and so their lawyers found a way to avoid the company having to pay any compensation.

When his body reached his village, it came with few of his meagre belongings that his room-mates managed to pack and some money that they and some charitable organisation managed to collect and send along with the coffin. The total amount wasn't enough to recover the farm nor help in meeting the expenses for his daughter's wedding.

His wife stared into vacant space unsure about the future as she looked at her son and wondered if he would do what he must or choose to wander aimlessly as he had begun doing.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What's In Your Backpack?

The launch of the iPad reminded me of something a friend commented over lunch a week or so ago. We had gone in a large group to the food court in the massive Bahrain City Centre, and she remembered a line from the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air” that ‘spoke’ to her – “what’s in your backpack?”

It basically led to an interesting discussion on all that we pack into our lives, the things that consume and weigh us down, and also what actually populates that huge backpack we like to label: ‘our personal and professional life’.

I made a rather flippant remark on the need to, perhaps, increase the size of our backpack, and soon realised this flippancy itself has its roots in most modern discourse on adjusting to life in the fast lane. Sometimes it is felt that the best way to deal with some of the core issues that one can’t handle is to change the packaging, give a new label to the problem or get technology to increase legroom.

In other words, to cite an example, it would be rare to find anyone question the rationale behind the really fast lifestyle that we all lead but you’ll find numerous technological and other solutions to optimise that very same lifestyle, make it productive, and squeeze the profit quotient into every micro-millisecond of that hurried lifestyle. The core issue, as always, is conveniently brushed under the carpet and only the externals are adjusted on the assumption that those are the only things that matter.

Exactly like what the iPad does: makes information consumption an enjoyable experience but does not check whether all that information has resulted in knowledge acquisition or simply fallen by the wayside. Of course, that is not the purpose of the iPad or other technologies we use and it would be pointless to expect that.

However, the core issue remains unchanged. The race to find meaning and significance in every activity that we pursue becomes, as a result, a mad rush for something truly profound – a need to determine that our life is not really a waste of time but that there’s a greater purpose in what we do.

However, as we try to explore this thought further, we find out that it’s not as easy as one would imagine it to be because doing so requires questioning the very things we do. Taken to its logical conclusion, this thought process can even alter our perceptions, force a paradigm shift in our thinking, and compel us to undergo a “metanoia” (new mind) experience.

If we look at our life through the prism of the big picture, and allow eternity to be the yardstick for our actions, then, it’s quite likely that we’ll discover that some of the emergencies of today will no longer appear urgent in the eternal scheme of things. They lose their importance because their value decreases. Their value decreases because we realise they don’t last forever, and hence, do not require to be taken seriously.

And yet - despite all this - we pursue them because we can’t imagine our life to be any different without them. Our backpack, we believe, has to be stuffed with them. In fact, so stuffed that there shouldn’t be any breathing space available. Heavier the better because it’d help us to brag better or so we think.

These things could be anything at all – from work related issues to personal goals or just about anything that adds meaning to our life. I wish I could provide details but I feel that will only obscure an appreciation of the bigger picture. An extra focus on details runs the danger of inviting a tangent in the discussion.

But then, it so happens that something unexpected takes place.

Our backpack soon gets heavier and heavier, and we realise that we like it and want it that way. Ambling through life under the weight of a heavy backpack suggests that we are leading a busy and purposeful life. And in an image conscious society we are in, appearances are not only important but also necessary. They enhance the image we want to convey, and leave us hungry for greater enhancements.

Satisfaction becomes elusive as our entire being taps into feeding that restless appetite to acquire more, want more, yearn more. Soon we want nothing less than making more space in our backpack for all those things we desperately want to accumulate.

The trouble is, in all this excitement, the words of Christ can prove to be a bit uncomfortable: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?

These words are a complete anti-thesis to the way we are programmed to live because the priorities they espouse aren't something we want to pursue. The immediate is what we cherish because it fits perfectly well within our world view. Our hands can easily glide along its smooth circumference and clasp it close to our comfort zones. Now it’s not that we dislike the long-term completely, but it’s just that waiting for the outcome can take a real long time. Besides, our backpack can only accommodate the compactness of the immediate, and so choosing it becomes a no-brainer really.

The real battle, therefore, if one has to put it that way, shifts to the choices we make about what inputs we want: what takes priority in our life? What do we want to burden ourselves with? What excites us? What makes us want to dance? What do we do that we don’t mind if it weighs us down? What – in the final analysis – is in our backpack?

Relationships weigh us down. Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character in the movie was very clear about not including relationships in his backpack. It was a choice he made, and had to live with the consequences of this and other choices his character made.

Relationships can be demanding, inconvenient, challenging. They are not meant to be easy because people - and we ourselves - are complicated beings. However, that is exactly what makes relationships so vital for our growth and maturity, and consequently, a must-have for our backpack. They make us learn where we fit in the wider context, that we belong to a community, and that even we have a part to play in making a difference to the world at large.

As is to be expected, towards the end of the film, Bingham realises the error of his ways and makes amends. Maybe not a complete turnaround, but close enough for him to build bridges and begin re-connecting with those who mattered in his world. A little late in life for him but a beginning has to be made. Better late than never.

Obviously this once again raises some pertinent questions about choices. Why do we often exclude that which is necessary? Why do we embrace the trivial and forsake the vital? Why do we avoid the narrow road? Why are we so comfortable in postponing metanoia?

What have we removed from our backpack?

If we are honest, we'll know the answer to this question, but most of us have turned evasiveness into such a fine art that it usually takes a crisis for us to articulate the truth. And till then, we can journey from airport to airport looking for experiences, moments, insights that we can stuff into our backpack and assume that we have cracked the code when, in fact, we are still far away from home.

Far, far away.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Myth of Happiness

I wonder if happiness is really all that it's cut out to be.

I know everyone wants to be happy. It's not rocket science, after all, to figure out why the idea of happiness sounds incredibly appealing and necessary. We like what it offers, the sensation it gives and the pleasure it brings.

It's as if happiness holds the key to everything we aspire and cherish. No wonder, everyone works hard for a little bit of happiness in their lives. There are some who even regard the pursuit of happiness as a legitimate and constitutionally mandated goal. The idea that happiness goes hand in hand with the good life appears to be undisputed and unchallenged, and for many, it's just what the doctor ordered.

But is it the real thing? I mean, is it really what we need in life? Does it hold meaning and significance to all that we do, all that we are, and all that we want to be?

The more I think about it, I am increasingly compelled to say, no.

It's not that I don't like being happy or that I am against happiness per se, but it's just that I feel having happiness as our sole focus in life can be dangerously misleading. It offers so much and yet when it comes to the crunch it fails to deliver. It comes across as something truly desirable but on closer observation one realises it cannot, by itself, satisfy our inner most urge to find meaning and purpose to our life and to our existence.

Happiness is morally and ethically neutral. It is the result of a certain emotional and intellectual process. It is a by-product of our efforts to create a certain state of affairs and a consequence of favourable courses of action that we sometimes undertake. Mother Theresa may have found happiness in caring for the poorest of the poor but, by the same token, a serial killer's idea of happiness might involve a few badly disfigured corpses.

But do you get the picture?

Happiness alone cannot be our ultimate goal because it would be plain impossible to do so. The focus has to be on the process, the motivations and the emotional drivers that create a feeling of happiness in our hearts. Christ has said somewhere, 'out of the abundance of a man's heart, the mouth speaks'. Assuming one's mouth is the gateway for articulating all that the heart wants to express, including, perhaps, happiness, then, it's reasonable to assume that the spotlight has to be aimed at the nature of that abundance in a person's heart.

So the real battleground is the heart or, in other words, that place in our consciousness, which we like to regard as the nerve centre of all our motivations. It is there where we get a peek into our self and to all that it desires. In other words, what motivates us to be happy says a lot about who or what we are. It holds a mirror to our soul and reveals our self for what it is. We may like what we see or we may not like to accept it, but that which makes us happy gives a clue as to where the inner compass is pointed at.

However, we live in an incredibly superficial culture where externals are of greater significance than issues that grip the soul. Let's face it. We are entertainment driven, satiated by sensations, tickled by things that give us pleasure, and challenged by sound bites. In such an environment, happiness matters a lot because the emphasis is more on the sensation that it gives than on the forces that act as motivators.

Happiness for happiness sake, thus, becomes the new mantra, and determines the direction we want our desires to take. Or at least to make it THE desire. The trouble with this focus is not that it holds the possibility of leaving millions of people with a perma-glee look on their faces – what a horrid thought – but that it generally and invariably leaves millions of people less interested in soul searching, and ending up as pleasure minded robots who have lost the ability to think, to rationalise, to argue, and to really and truly, understand themselves.

Of course, this is just the worst case scenario. And, maybe I'm being way too harsh than required, and, perhaps, some would say, there is no need to go so deep and analytical about happiness. But I beg to differ. We can't take something as important as happiness very lightly, and dismiss it as inconsequential. Anything that gives a peek into a person's motivations has to be taken seriously. It's a barometer for more important things and holds the possibility of unravelling the mysteries of the human heart.

Or, at least, that's what I think it's supposed to do.

Having said all this, let me clarify that I do believe that being happy is a state that we all need to be in because the alternative is not very promising. We must aim to be cheerful at all times since a smile and a sense of humour can work wonders in steering us away from being dull and lifeless.

Am I contradicting myself? Not really. While the importance of happiness cannot be underestimated, nevertheless, the underlying motivations must always be on the forefront because they hold the power of transforming a neutral emotional state into one that is full of meaning and purpose. It makes us go beyond clamouring for happiness for happiness sake and instead prompting us to look under the skin of that which gladdens our heart.

Ask yourself then, what makes you truly happy? Is your happiness prompted by things that are temporal or by things that are eternal? Does looking after the interests of others inspire happiness, or are you happy taking care of yourself? Are you happy living as an island, or is your happiness found in recognising yourself as part of the mainland? What are those things that drive you to pursue happiness?

These are questions that only you can answer truthfully to yourself. Question is, are you satisfied by your response? Are you happy with what makes you happy?

Your answer will determine whether or not happiness is all that it's cut out to be.