To look back and pick at the past seems to me to be an obvious way of dodging the challenges of the moment. The questions that confront us are crucial and, indeed, complex. The web of thoughts, feelings, prejudices, instincts and idiosyncrasies that are embodied in each one of us, individually, as human beings, beg to be looked at, attended to and understood; if we don’t attempt this, sincerely, at every living moment, there will be little that distinguishes us from robots — programmed, patterned, non-discerning and flushed of all vitality.
I do not know much about Mother Teresa or the accolades and accusations that surround her. That she was canonised today made little difference to me. I am personally very wary of organised religion and the many claims that bandy about in its name. I am equally distant from the concept of charity — speaking for myself, ever since I was a child, when I confronted great poverty or hardship in a person, I used to think that placing a rupee note in his or her hand, or donating to some charity, would set things right. This was a way of soothing my evidently disturbed mind. I now realise that while doing this, I was deflecting from sincerely looking at poverty to understand it, from confronting its very source — i.e. the nasty society that perpetuates it and my role as a member of (and thereby a reason for) such a society.
Regardless of one’s views on Mother Teresa, there is a deeper trend that needs to be questioned: the incessant need for so many of us to measure the present against the past. When one speaks of genius, achievement or a great generosity of heart, one automatically thinks of famous people who have preceded us — The Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, Teresa, etc. In the same vein, when we point to all that’s pathetic about our present times, we complain about how we are failing to live up to the great standards of some era or eras that were of the past — some golden age, as it were.
But do we see the utter absurdity of this exercise? Phocion, Pythagoras, Adi Shankara, Christ, Socrates, The Buddha, were all great people but their genius was not of their era, but of their own beings. These were people who confronted themselves and their societies in the uniqueness of their moments; the result of their lives were the fragrance and fillip they gave to the cultural texture of their times.
While we celebrate or denounce the inventions, discoveries, systems, theories and all the marvellous things that were put together by people of the past, we forget that which sits on our lap at this very moment. “Society is a wave,” said Emerson, “The wave moves onward but the water of which it is composed does not.” The same stuff that gave effect to the muck and glory of the past is the stuff that sits before us, calling for us to meet it, model it and perfect it.
The other day I was out for a walk with a friend. We saw a long patch of hibiscus bushes lining a pathway. They were beautiful. The flowers never referred to previous flowers and neither did they compare themselves with better flowers. They were what they were. Whether in a leaf-bud, a fully bloomed flower or an artless root, their life acted wholly, integrally. In their nature they were content, and nature was content in them. They existed for the moment. They were alive.