I have never had a problem with insomnia, but over the last month or so, sleep – “sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, and chief nourisher in life’s feast” – seems to have forsaken me. I find myself anxious and awake till the wee hours of the morning, thinking about the violence that is spreading across India.
I find myself thinking about the brutality with which Tabrez Ansari from Jharkhand was dispatched from this life. I also find myself thinking about Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, young Junaid, and all the Muslims who have been forced to say “Jai Shri Ram” but beaten mercilessly anyway.
I think about all the rallies I have attended over the past five years, and all the placards I have held up asking for peace and non-violence, wondering what good they have done. My thoughts then turn to the conversations I have tried to have with those who have lustily cheered the birth of ‘New India’ and their utter immunity to facts and figures underscoring all the various ways our country is in trouble.
I find myself thinking a lot about Sudha Bharadwaj and wonder how she is feeling, having given her life to India’s marginalised and landing in prison for her pains. And then, after I have exhausted myself completely and I finally start drifting off to sleep, the smirking faces of those in power appear in my mind’s eye and say to me, “Kyaa ukhaad loge?” — “what difference will it make?”
What, indeed, does one do in these dark times?
A few days ago, after a particularly difficult and sleepless night, I ducked into a MacDonald’s outside a Metro station to get a coffee on my way to work, and as I stepped out, almost collided into a shoeshine boy standing at the entrance. He asked if he could polish my shoes, a cheerful grin on his face. I was about to give him a few rupees and move on, when he put a grimy hand on my arm and said, “Bhookh lagi hai (I am hungry).”
Something about that gesture stopped me in my tracks.
“How many of you here?” I asked him.
“Three,” he said, pointing out to two other disheveled boys standing a short distance away.
“Call them,” I told him, went back into the store and bought them three McAloo burgers, or whatever it is they are called. It was a small thing, but for some reason, the sight of three shoeshine boys sitting under a tree happily wolfing down aloo tikki burgers brought me a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in weeks. And as I walked away with a slightly lighter heart, it dawned on me:
I can’t do everything
But I can do something.
And what I can do
I hadn’t solved anything in the larger scheme of things, of course. For all practical purposes, I had just given them a snack. They would feel hungry and thirsty again soon, but my feelings of hopelessness had dissipated just a bit. I wasn’t entirely helpless. I had agency.
The young couple canoodling on a nearby bench stopped for a couple of minutes to observe us. I wondered what they were thinking. Who knows what anyone nowadays is thinking?
I then started thinking about all that I can do instead of all the things I can’t change. At a time when an ugly, hateful, triumphal majoritarianism is thumping its chest, what can I, an ordinary citizen, do? I made a small mental list.
I can live my deepest values more.
Here’s a simple way of figuring out what your deepest values are. Make a list of the human behaviours that bother you the most. Your own values will be the exact opposite of those. For example, if lying bothers you the most then your deepest value is probably honesty, and if discrimination bothers you the most, then your deepest value is probably inclusion.
If thoughtlessness bothers you the most, your deepest value is most likely consideration for others and if sloppy work bothers you the most, then your deepest value is probably diligence. And so forth.
And while it might seem like an epidemic of hate and violence is breaking out across India, there is nothing in the world stopping me from living my own core values of care and courtesy to the fullest.
I can talk about what I believe in.
This is because I still live in a democracy, diminished though it might be. I can still teach young people the value of empathy and inclusion, and tell them about the scientific underpinnings of human connection and belonging.
I can refer to the lessons of history while teaching them about the dangers of ostracising and demonising those from other communities. I can tell them about the latest research in neuroscience that shows how becoming a kind and helpful person can actually improve your cognitive functioning. I can also continue to speak out against mob lynching and its causes.
I can use my talents – however many or few – in the service of creating the kind of society I want.
I probably won’t be able to change a whole lot, but I can certainly change something. Even if I can make a lasting difference in one life, hey, it’s better than sitting around and moping. While I wish, for example, that the government of the day would create a ministry or at least a task force to provide for millions of children who beg at traffic lights, there is nothing preventing me from helping them whichever way I can.
I can keep a healthy distance from the violence and toxicity of social media.
Instead, I can do more of the things that keep me strong, like yoga, walking, reading more of my favourite genres of books, whatever it is that makes me feel alive.
In short, I can get up every morning and start the whole process of hoping and living all over again.
I am reminded of a quote often attributed to Martin Luther King, but which was originally uttered by the Abolitionist minister Theodore Parker in the 1800s:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Eric Holder Jr., the first African American to hold the position of US Attorney General during the presidency of Barack Obama, however, qualified that quote a bit.
“The arc bends toward justice,” he said, “but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
Perhaps if I do what I can to pull that arc in the right direction every day, then maybe the exertion involved will ensure that I sleep a bit better at night as well. And maybe, just maybe, the damn thing will, indeed, one day bend towards justice.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.