By Rafia Zakaria
24 May 2017
THE naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”. Modified to fit the contours of an increasingly urban, increasingly crowded and ever louder Pakistan, the sentence would read, “The mass of men [and women] live lives of desperation”. There is no quiet to be found anywhere in the bulk of Pakistan.
To add to the tragedy, there are few in the country that mourn this death of inner silence or concern themselves with the question of what it represents. No one, it seems, is much irked by the constant interruptions of technology or the barrage of anxieties that everyone unloads on everyone else or even the compulsive interactions with anyone and everyone to ensure that there is never ever a moment peopled only by the self.
In this urban Pakistan, where everyone has a phone in their hand and a word on their lips, there is also no distinction between loneliness and solitude. The lonely, everyone believes, are those who are alone, who cannot or do not surround themselves with gaggles of family members, friends, acquaintances and, in the case of the wealthy, random hangers-on.
It is a stupid, if dearly beloved, misconception. Loneliness, of course, has nothing at all to do with solitude. There are plenty of lonely people in crowds, in homes full of mothers and fathers and children. Loneliness is not a physical condition, it is a mental one, and many millions in the country are afflicted and alone, sitting through meals and meetings and weddings and lunches. Loneliness is not chosen and it cannot be treated by the constant presence of other people.
Solitude is different; it is chosen and it is conscious. It points to the truth that getting beyond the pettiness of daily life, its irksome and soul-searing demands, requires a retreat into the self and often into silence. All that the constant traffic of life imposes must, even if for a few seconds, be pushed aside. The focus must thus be turned inward, to a reckoning with the self, a conversation about what is truly necessary and what is in large part generated by the greed for consumption or the desire to be envied, watched and admired.
It is hard to find Pakistanis who are interested in solitude. Those who are one of this tiny number find themselves in a desert of misunderstanding. With solitude or even the desire for solitude mistaken for loneliness, those who prefer a meditative or contemplative life are, by the logic of the compulsively collective, deemed social pariahs. Others deem them lonely and hence sad and ultimately pitiable. The life of the mind, the desire to be still or to free oneself from the gluttony of constant consumption, is anathema to most, and even a threat to some. Those who forgo what everyone else gobbles up are always imagined as standing in judgement and consistently annihilated.
A society of gluttons addicted to constant contact requires everyone to affirm that none are in fact diseased, and those who do not participate must be castigated and ostracised. When these social mechanics are wed to urban realities, to the absence of places where the natural world can still be encountered and where the encumbrances of a degraded environment are not too loathsome, the result is entire cities and towns where solitude has for the most part become extinct.
An elegy for solitude is particularly relevant in the approaching month of fasting. Most, or at least many, will spend the month refraining from food and drink from dawn until dusk. Privation will define their waking and their sleeping. Thirst and hunger will be acutely felt. And yet few will consider the connection of this chosen deprivation as the basis to examine one’s life, to engage in the encounter with the self and its failings, the sort of contemplation that is the subject and object of solitude.
Fasting as a physical act will be performed for 29 or 30 days, but fasting as a spiritual act, an inward reckoning, will likely not happen. In its place will be a pretentious and public piety. Many meals will be served at mosques in the name of the wealthy and many others laid on tables at catered iftar parties. The physical requirements of faith will be followed; the ethics of consumption as is the norm, entirely forgotten.
It is a spiritual catastrophe. Solitude and its pursuit are central to Islamic history; the very origins of faith are inextricably tied to the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) search for truth in the silent deserts of Arabia. And yet while most other aspects are duly discussed in the Ramazan transmissions of every television channel and the religious columns of every newspaper, this core truth is often left out.
In a society where appearances mean everything, only those aspects of faith that can be advertised and reproduced get attention. Solitude, and the spiritual awareness and the meditative mien it demands, is not one of them. In a Pakistan where public morality rules, the private realm is not the site for self-improvement; it is the site for secrets, for dirty truths and guarded desperation.
Much has changed in religious practice in the past decades. Ramazan has become Ramadan and what was a month of spiritual awakening has become a month of special television transmissions and gargantuan iftar buffets. The small moments of withdrawing from the world, of aiming for a deeper and more meaningful spirituality, are also gone. There are some, undoubtedly, who will still search for solitude and pursue that elusive withdrawal into the self. All the others who surround themselves with the giggles and gluttony of the world will fast and then laugh at all at their pursuit for an ever-elusive solitude.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.