Thursday, July 7, 2011

Being Human

The following is an essay I wrote as an assignment for a course on Writing that I am pursuing as a part of the Young India Fellowship. The essay builds on to the ideas explored in "On Compassion" (Barbara Ascher) and "The Death of the Moth" (Virginia Woolf). Read along even if you haven't read these essays.

“The centrifuge might make funny sounds during the procedure. Are you afraid, Mr. Tulsian?” asked the medical technician.

Was I afraid, I thought. “Funny sounds”. Ofcourse, if you put it that way I will be afraid. It was the first time I was going through this procedure and the machine did look quite complex. Placing all my trust in the technician’s abilities and knowledge, I asked him, “You will be around the entire time, right?” My tone was more suggestive than questioning. He got the idea. A critical old man needed platelets from an A+ donor. I didn’t know this person. I didn’t even know the person’s name before I had stepped into the hospital. It was a regular Saturday morning and I was gulping down my coffee with slices of buttered brown bread when I came to know of the requirement. I immediately volunteered and set out for the hospital.

It was when I was standing in the tube on my way that Barbara Ascher’s essay “On Compassion” crossed my mind. Ascher raises the question as to whether human beings are driven solely by humanitarian instincts when they perform acts of altruism. What ulterior and selfish motive, for instance, did I have that made me volunteer to go alone to a hospital, ninety minutes away on a hot Saturday afternoon to donate blood to a patient I knew nothing about, I wondered. An ad campaign to encourage blood donations that was on air recently came back to my recollection.

"Donate blood, it feels good."

What is it exactly that makes us feel good? Acts of altruism are supposed to be innate and compulsive, totally selfless. No, if we derive a feeling of goodness, the deed cannot be altruistic. I think it is the notion of capability – the idea that we can be of help to someone in need is what acts out here. We wouldn’t go out of the way to help someone if it did not satisfy our ego. It makes us feel superior - this notion of exceeding capability. In Ascher’s essay, the description of the ragged man’s reaction to the dollar note suggests that the man wasn’t there to beg for alms. The woman’s compassion for him was misplaced. It stemmed from, besides fear, her sense of superiority over the man by virtue of a better socio-economic condition.

Come to think of it, every self-proclaimed ‘humanitarian’ deed has an undercurrent of this feeling of assumed superiority. “Raw humanity offends our sensibilities,” (48) as Ascher says. The notion of playing God pleases our senses. The same concept of superiority plays out in the essay “The Death of the Moth”. The author Virginia Woolf does not ascribe much significance to a common yellow underwing moth in the beginning. She waves it off her consciousness just like we choose to ignore the presence of ragged, homeless people in our lives. But the struggle of the moth in the face of death makes Woolf conscious of the Life Force within the moth. Though insignificant in the physical world, the moth fought in the face of death in just the same way as a wounded soldier on the battlefield would. As Woolf puts it, “He was little or nothing but life.” (449)

Every being holds onto, and holds on dearly to, an invisible unifying golden thread of Life, till Death intervenes and snatches this thread away. Death does not differentiate between the externalities of the life force. It is an “oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.” (450)

I wonder if deep down this is how it is, all the external differences that we attribute to different beings are just unnecessary complications. The inherent substance, which is the life force, is one and the same, only the packaging is different. The forces of Life and Death transcend all these superficial variations. What, then, is this superiority, if not wishful thinking? In all our naivety, we have ordered humans over animals, men over women, white over black, rich over poor and capable over needy. Is anyone really a victim more than the other? Is any form of pity justifiable?

The sound of a beeping alarm interrupted my thoughts. I found myself lying on the bed next to the centrifuge. The source of the alarm was a fluctuation in blood pressure in the machine. Later, I came to know that this was the ‘funny sound’ I was supposed to be afraid of. I was a little amused.

The blood platelet donation process took a lot of time but was without many complications. I met the patient’s caregiver after the whole process. She thanked me, and insisted on reimbursing me for my food and travel. Although I told her that the amount was insignificant, she did not budge. Was she being genuinely grateful? Her demeanour was more business-like. It was perhaps her way to ensure that she wasn’t pitied upon. It was a transaction and she wanted to hold her end of the deal up.

Though there might be a seemingly close correlation between pity and compassion, it need not be a cause and effect relationship. No one likes to be pitied. Ask a blind man with self-esteem and he would tell you that he doesn’t want your pity. Sure, help him cross the road if he asks for it, but don’t help him out of pity to get up after he tripped because he couldn’t see that twig in his path. He is completely capable of getting up himself. Denying your helping hand makes him feel in-control of himself. It makes him feel as an equal to you and not a victim. Think of the time you were annoyed because your mother took a little too much care of you when you were sick and you will know how the blind man feels.

When Ascher talks about the homeless, she points out to the rights of the homeless people. Their economic or physical condition doesn’t strip them of their right to the autonomy of being. Involuntary hospitalization is a clear infringement of that very right. We, sitting in the comforts of our homes, tend to forget that. But, just as the life force in Woolf’s moth is the same as any other life force in nature, these ragged and homeless are no lesser beings when compared to the more sophisticated ourselves.

The underlying human spirit, which is actually the essence of our being, is the same in every homo sapien. It’s imperative that we respect the needy as no lesser a being than ourselves.Not that I expect that we can be selfless. Human beings are born selfish. We all have ulterior motives to our acts of compassion. I only ask you to not act out of pity or a feeling of superiority. Treat those in need as an equal and with dignity. Derive happiness out of helping an equal being, as if he were your own kin - an extension of the human in you.

Playing God is not what is needed; being human is.


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