By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Confronting Middle-Class Anxiety
I don’t know if it’s a general human problem, but I know it’s the case with me—I find finding fault in others or even imagining them into being when they might not even exist all so easy and ‘natural’. It’s such an awfully enticing temptation. It titillates my ego no end. It makes me feel all so good about myself and morally ‘superior’ even as I continue to choose to be blind to my own failings and foibles. And when I spot some good in other people I am excruciatingly slow to appreciate it, often even suspecting their motives or accusing them (in my mind, of course) of insincerity and deception, without any proof whatsoever. My training as a ‘critical’ social scientist (which is the job I performed for two long decades), ever on the look for ‘problems’ to study and protest about and even being paid for it, only reinforced that unfortunate tendency.
But we all change—every minute of our lives—and I can’t really explain why but in the last few months I’ve been forced to notice much good in people around me and, moreover, to admit and appreciate it. None of these folks are saints, nor are they self-styled ‘social activists’ or ‘social workers’. They are just ‘ordinary’ folks going about their lives. And, they aren’t making an effort to be good. They do good and exude goodness simply because that’s the way they are. They can’t help being that way.
Strolling down a busy street recently I met a young man soliciting funds from passersby. I chatted him up. ‘Million Moonbeams’ is what he called himself, a name he chose so as not to be identified with a particular caste or religion, though he was a recent convert to Buddhism. He was well-educated and spoke impeccable English. He had recently quit a well-paid job and was now helping children from poor families with their studies and was also taking up legal cases of atrocities on ‘low’ caste people. In order to meet his expenses and to keep his work going, he spent two days a week ‘begging’, earning just about enough to get by.
Million Moonbeams went talking on about the life he had chosen for himself even as my middle-class anxieties about ‘security’ and ‘saving up for the future’ prompted me to think he’d definitely made the wrong decision. But he soon put a firm rest to all my questions. No, he said, he didn’t at all need to spend the rest of his life working to support his family: their needs were just basic, and, in any case, his wife lived in her father’s home. They didn’t need much money for their child’s education, for they had planned (very sensibly, if you ask me) not to send their child to regular school but, instead, to educate her themselves, nurturing in her all the finer values that ‘modern’ schools are almost wholly unconcerned about.
But what if some emergency arose, I asked him, and he needed money? ‘If you live for others, without expecting any reward,’ Million Moonbeams answered without batting an eyelid, ‘you are bound to be helped when you need it, through some way or the other.’
That was fine, and probably true, too, I had to admit but my middle-class sensibilities egged me on. ‘What if you or your child or wife falls sick and has to be treated in hospital? It’s all very well to want to devote your life to the poor, but don’t you think you first need to build a decent bank balance so that you can meet your medical expenses if you have to? Hospital treatment is horribly expensive these days.’
Million Moonbeams gave out a loud laugh—he had probably been asked the same question I don’t know how many times before. ‘What’s the use of spending my whole life building up a fat bank balance so that I may have money for hospital treatment in case of an emergency that may never happen? Death has to come one day and no amount of money—even if you have a trillion dollars—will prevent it, even if you’re admitted to the most expensive hospital! Do you think I want to waste my life making a fortune only in order to try to prevent something that won’t and can’t ever be prevented?’
At that I fell silent. Tongue-tied, I looked deeply into his eyes, amazed at how this man seemed to have completely surrendered to the Ultimate—death, our final destiny—and thereby liberated himself from all the anxieties about ‘security’ that trouble us all through our lives. That was something that I had, till then, only read about in books but had never encountered myself.
Million Moonbeams invited me to join him in his ‘begging’ rounds. It would be amazing therapy for my ego, he said, and, of course, for my many middle-class fears and concerns about work, money and the future. I did as he said, not unhesitatingly though. What if someone I knew spotted me begging, my middle-class mind said to me. But I quickly brushed that issue aside and joined him, ‘begging’ tin in hand.
‘Begging’ that afternoon was an unforgettable experience. It took me a while to swallow my pride and extend my tin to passersby, and I made it a point to carefully explain to them that I was soliciting money not for myself but for a worthy cause. Most folks hurriedly rushed past me. I received a few angry glares and even some caustic comments. ‘You might well be a fraud,’ said someone but I did as Million Moonbeams had instructed me and simply smiled back. Yet, I did manage to collect almost a thousand rupees in just a few hours, from friendly folks, some of whom stopped by to talk with Million Moonbeams and me and find out more about the cause we were ‘begging’ for.
As that brief encounter with Million Moonbeams and the generous passersby whom I met that day taught me, goodness is everywhere and you don’t have to make a major effort to locate it. All you need to do is to be more aware and you’ll find it every day, in a whole bunch of people you’ll meet, even in those you’ve always loved to find fault with.