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It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.


I am ten days into a self-imposed quarantine after flying back to Hyderabad from Ahmedabad,  and this post had started out as an overdue review of another poetry book. But about a few hundred words in I realized that I was talking in cliches and it wasn't really working out; my thoughts were elsewhere, wrestling with the magnitudes of the world we live in, and I decided to succumb and write a long rambling essay about my thoughts on politics, privilege, empathy, and gratitude instead.  

An unusually empty Ahmedabad Airport. I had empty seats next to me on the flight, too.

The Negative News Keeps Piling On

I don't know if you can relate, but one of the consequences of exposing myself to news so very often these days is that I am left with an overwhelming sense of pessimism and frustration. I feel that society seems to be crumbling around me everywhere I look, all against the backdrop of a crippling, once-in-a-century pandemic.

At home in India, the nature of our secularism is under intense pressure following a slew of major policy changes (read CAA and response to ensuing protests) from a populist right-wing government (coupled with a questionable string of verdicts from the judiciary). There is a complex web of conflicts in a very fragile Kashmir exacerbated by malicious outside influence and oppressive internal actions;  a worrying response of vigilantism and police brutality is being meted out to protests against the above - both peaceful or otherwise. As a result of the pandemic lockdowns, the recent migrant exodus has left a very public trail of pain and loss, affecting the demographics and economies of cities in ways we are yet to realize. Cyclone Amphan has just lashed against the East Coast leaving death and devastation in its wake. Meanwhile, I worry about testing numbers across states and the efficacy of healthcare systems while adapting to my new lifestyle of social distancing, emotional isolation and financial thrift. And all of this, of course, is while I manage the mental toll of living in isolation (prior to this 10-day quarantine, I spent 67 days of lockdown alone in my Ahmedabad apartment learning the elementary skills of self-sustenance).

PC: Outlook India, Ahmedabad

Internationally, things aren't looking better. Higher up on the map, towards the North-West, Europe is going through their own version of turmoil. Sweden's scientific models, once widely touted, eventually failed, as did the confusing, ever-changing approach from the UK (which lost credibility when the Government's own top advisor deemed them optional). Spain and Italy - both having suffered heavy losses to the pandemic, have lost entire generations of elderly citizens. Towards the East is the enigma called China. While denying deceit of the WHO, they have seemingly controlled the spread of the virus behind closed doors while finding time to encroach on Indian borders and strong-arming away criticism using trade sanctions. Meanwhile, in Brazil, one of history's most corrupt, authoritarian and shameless leaders (and India's Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade) has doomed an entire nation to burn. Talking of racist, xenophobic, bigoted, corrupt, lying, narcissistic, bumbling, divisive, selfish, misogynistic, cowardly and pussy-grabbing Presidents - Donald Trump has deemed it appropriate to respond to protests culminating from centuries of racism and oppression with well, more racism and oppression. That is bound to work, isn't it?

AP: Nam Y Huh

Needless to say, there are many other current events I am not aware of or am not thinking about, just as there are positive, inspiring events that I've left out for the sake of my narrative. It is also needless to say that these are my political views to a large extent, and many might strongly disagree with my side of the fence.

Frodo: "I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The Toll of Empathy

Irrespective of our polarities, the fact remains that each of these events, both domestic and international - are overwhelming in the magnitude of the emotions they generate. A cascade of heart-wrenching images and videos of people across all these spheres floods the news and social media platforms. Each of these instances could be you or your loved ones. You could be a Muslim threatened by the CAA bill, losing your citizenship and your life in the process. You could be a Kashmiri local walking out of your house not knowing if you will come back safely. You could be a salesman just fired from your job and have no means of paying back rent or repaying college loans or buying your mother insulin. You could be that poor migrant walking hundreds of miles home with no source of income, wondering how you will support your child and wife. You could be a victim of the cyclone - having left your home to nature's fury or worse, having lost a loved one to it. You could be a peaceful protestor being lathi-charged by the police, the shock of the act stinging you even more than the baton blows. You could be the son of a father quarantined alone in a dirty hospital bed, trying to cope in your helplessness as you imagine him struggling for oxygen, understaffed nurses and doctors scurrying around, no one by his side as he breathes his last. Or you could be the black man with a cop's knee to your neck as you plead for life.

Brene Brown on Empathy

The effort of empathising with the sheer magnitude of each of those scenarios exhausts me. It brings out fear and terror, it brings out anger and pain, it brings out helplessness and disillusionment. It affects my daily life - I am distracted while I write code, I attack my dishes with subtle fury, and I take longer to fall asleep. I realized I had to find closure; bottling up the emotional response is harmful to my mental health. If left unchecked, I could reach a stage of indifference where prolonged exposure to pain and suffering would leave me desensitised to both.

However, I strongly believe that we cannot simply shrug it all away and move on. We cannot bolt the windows, shut out the outside world, gather close our loved ones and bury our heads together in the sand like proverbial ostriches. That is not an acceptable solution, not for me. We cannot let our compassion - be it for friend, foe or stranger - be worn away like the soles of our shoes once we have walked a few miles in them.

So how, then, does one deal with the toll of empathy? How do you not give in to the hopelessness of it all? The entire experience is intensely personal and varies for different people, and I am neither aptly qualified nor arrogant enough to oversimply the issue and provide a sweeping one-shot answer. I can, however, share that my own coping mechanism is two-fold.

One - to acknowledge my privilege and be grateful for it, and use that as motivation to contribute in whatever way I can to whatever cause I believe in. Two, to understand that we see a biased picture and that the world isn't so bad after all.

Of Privilege and Gratitude

Where do you think you would end up on that line?

Privilege, in my experience, is not an easy topic to discuss, because it's a very personal affair for everyone involved. I have seen it being defined as an invisible, unearned, advantage that some of us have relative to others due to our environment or social position. This means that when your privilege is being examined, you might feel like you're being denied any credit for what you consider to be your own achievements.

Where do you fall in this table?

The fact that I am not a victim in any of the tragedies mentioned above is a good representation of my privilege, for instance. I am a heterosexual, able-bodied male born to Hindu Brahmin parents who were able to pay for my education at one of the country's premier institutes - a consequence of which is my stable, well-paying job working on projects I like. According to the State of Working India, 2018 report (p. 103) by the Azim Premji Institute, my income falls quite comfortably in the top 1.4% of all salaried employees in the country.  I have never faced discrimination based on my skin colour, religion or position in society, never gone to bed hungry,  never been oppressed by my government, never been sexually harassed or catcalled, and never been homeless or poor. I have been through a couple of years of clinical depression after the passing away of my father (who ensured we were financially independent even after his demise), but apart from that I have led an extremely privileged life, and so have most of my friends. God rolled a pair of dice before I was born, and I got lucky with double sixes. It could have been two ones, or a two and three. But I got away with double sixes. And for that I'm extremely grateful every day.

Caste Inequality is still relevant.

This gratitude is what helps me acknowledge that all that separated me from the people suffering through dark times, the people I read about and try to empathise with - was a random roll of dice. If God had rolled something else, or the dice were biased, or any such random cause had led to some other random effect, I could very easily have been Faizan or Ahmaud Arbery or Anne Frank or the other nameless people who suffered a similar fate.  We are all humans of equal faculties, born into vastly different circumstances. I have worked hard at life to get to where I am, but I would be kidding myself if I did not accept that the odds were also rigged in my favour.

India ranks at a dismal 112th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2019-2020, having addressed only 66.8% of the gender gap. Male Privilege is not a joke. Source.

Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist who kept popping up in our NLP lectures at college, famously said, "The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have." And I wholeheartedly agree. My response to the emotional toll of apathy is through the gratitude of my privilege and an acknowledgment that I must make something of the good fortune I've been blessed with  - I must contribute to society in whatever way I can. This bandwidth may vary for others - but for me it means working hard at my job which benefits other people, contributing to initiatives to help the less-privileged (both in-person and in-kind), spreading awareness about privilege among my loved ones, urging everyone I know to be politically literate and vote and most importantly - ensuring I keep trying to empathise and don't turn into an ostrich.

Privilege comes with a responsibility to be politically literate. PC

A tangent on the topic of voting - I feel that with my privilege, being political is not a choice, it's a responsibility. My words are louder, my ability to cause an impact is greater and I have enough quality of life to devote time to read, watch and assess the effectiveness of the people who wish to serve us in this democracy. I try to learn about my local MPs and MLAs, listen to their campaign promises and follow up on them and I make sure I vote for whomever I deem fit and urge others to, as well. I like to believe that makes a difference, especially given the low voter turnout in urban constituencies in India.  But I digress.

Is the world truly a better place than it used to be?

With all the negativity going around, I sometimes wonder about this question and the multi-faceted nature of a possible answer. Have things been this bad before? Despite feeling like the contrary, I don't think so. Some quick research, in fact, reveals empirical evidence that shows an increase in metrics measuring quality of life.

A more detailed set of graphs available here.

I believe the main cause behind the lingering feeling of pessimism is the evolving nature of traditional news channels, websites and social media.  A fascinating Forbes article published last year suggests the same. I quote the author, Kalev Leetaru:

The plunge towards negativity of media across the entire world was due to the rise of the Web itself and the increased competition that news outlets now faced.

In the pre-Web era, newspapers competed primarily locally. It didn’t matter what the newspaper 30 miles away wrote, outlets could rely on the steady income of local readership that had few other choices to stay informed. In the Web era, newspapers were suddenly competing globally. A user could just as easily visit the website of their local newspaper as they could an outlet halfway across the world. Most importantly, revenue was no longer fixed at the paper level. A single riveting story could no longer sell an entire issue. Each story had to capture user attention on its own to encourage visitors to browse through as many stories as possible to consume the maximum number of ads.

Sensationally negative news captures the public’s attention and draws readers far more than a clinical and dispassionate summary of statistics.

Another fascination reason for the feeling of negativity could be the Availability Heuristic:  that people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. When we spend all our time being exposed to gory, grotesque, sensationalist, disturbing or troubling content, we overestimate the frequency of such events in the real world. To quote an article from the Guardian:

Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving.

Our interpretation of the world perhaps, like most things in life, lies in the little things. Perhaps once I spend more time with my family and loved ones in person, or sit down with a cup of tea for a reread of The Name of the Wind, or maybe just watch Marcus Rashford score at Old Trafford once again - the world will feel like a much better place once more. Perhaps Dickens was right all along.

A Pale Blue Dot

I'll end with an excerpt from a book called Pale Blue Dot - introduced to me by a colleague of mine while we were talking about life and death and the small things that occur between. It is a humbling perspective, and it often helps me rekindle the idea of compassion and unity whenever mankind seems too unruly.

NASA / JPL: This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. This image is part of Voyager 1's final photographic assignment which captured family portraits of the Sun and planets.

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

-- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994