Distancing for happiness

We endeavour to keep up our appearances and exhibit our best behaviour in formal settings but our mask mysteriously disappears in informal settings. Why? The answer is ‘because we are humans’. It is an intrinsic human character to act deceptively and use camouflage for maximising our gains. No wonder many people who fall in love also tend to fall out of love after some time. Search for an ideal and perfect human is, therefore, like chasing a mirage, both just don’t exist.

We all stink but those amongst us who use the best perfumes and know how to groom themselves cleverly – to mask and camouflage themselves – appear to be relatively more presentable than the rest. We are all similar in our eating, sleeping and breeding habits. Our body ages the same way; our hair turns grey and we become bald. Hatefully, on the contrary, we start growing hair in strange places on our body where we hate to see it. We develop cavities in our teeth and our gums weaken with age. Finally, when we lose our teeth, we use dentures. Our eyes weaken, prompting us to wear glasses. Our ears weaken too, as we grow older, prompting us to use hearing devices. But how many richer, older people accept ageing and stop their endeavours to prevent showing their true age? The answer is ‘not many’. Hair dye, dentures, wigs and cosmetics become their saviours.

From outside, to an inexperienced eye, the lives of celebrities, godmen and the influential may look fabulous and charming but they alone know what it takes to keep up their public image and made-up appearance. Appearances are deceptive. Ask their immediate family members and, if successful, you will discover many other shades of their overall personality that remain mostly invisible to the common eye. How do we then decide which shade depicts them correctly? All shades are realistically valid, those that are visible to the public eye and those that are seen only by those who are closest to them. It all depends upon from how close you wish to see them. The closer you move towards them, the more disappointed you are bound to get. Expectations bring misery and suffering.

American writer, Mark Twain (1835-1910) wisely reminds us: ‘Distance lends enchantment to the view’, which means things look better than they actually are when they are seen from a distance. From a distance, grass looks lush green but only when one sees it from up close, one can spot bare patches in it. It is for this reason of potential disenchantment and to prevent oneself from disillusionment, many wise people have advised us against coming too close to our friends and relatives and all those whom we love dearly. To save disappointment, therefore, it is wise to keep healthy distances other people and not to get too close to them due to likely misalignment between our expectations from them and their behaviour or performance.

A Kashmiri proverb that emphasizes the importance of healthy distance in relationships goes: ‘Dhoori dhoori saet chhu murtch ti maethhaan’, which means even black pepper sweetens from distance. In his famous book, The Prophet, philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) also advocates for a respectable distance as follows:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of your be alone,
Even as the strings of the lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

The above advice was aimed for partners in the context of the institution of marriage; nevertheless, it is also applicable to most other social relationships, including social friendships and peer relationships between colleagues at work.

Indian poet, Wasim Barelvi (1940- ), says: ‘Jo dekne’ mein bahut he kareeb lagta hai, usi ke’ baare’ mein sonchho toh fasla nikle’, which means, once we focus only on the person closest to us, we spot the distance (differences).

We humans are a mix of varying shades of good, bad and the ugly, complete with all three essential gunassatva, rajas and tamas. Unknowingly, from one moment to another, we exhibit varying shades of all these three characteristics over the course of a day. Most of the time, we exhibit sanity and wisdom, and exercise pragmatism and prudence in our thoughts and actions. Surprisingly, when our moral and ethical guards fall asleep, due to tamas in us, we become overwhelmed and get consumed by those elements of tamas – anger, greed, selfishness, ego and arrogance, which temporarily trick us in doing bad and ugly things. As a direct consequence of our unwise actions, due to our momentary lapses in our prudence and discretion, we suffer one way or the other. Invariably, our suffering becomes compounded by the price we invariably pay for our actions. That is where the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path from Buddhism offer to save us from our sufferings.

At times, however, when logic fails to explain certain situations or occurrences – both Natural and man-induced – accompanied with a complete absence of timely justice – from both man and Nature – nihilism helps us in our reconciliation although some people use the concepts of destiny and karma to explain the cause of such unexplained miseries; however, both of which are unconvincing at most of the times.

Sikhism inspires where social reforms matter, such as the need for gender and caste equality, and where selfless actions and self-sacrifice are the need of the hour. The life of Christ inspires one in enduring persecution and living through difficult circumstances and when suffering arrives as a result of one’s benevolent actions. The life of Rama inspires one to be a selfless king and an ideal son. Krishna’s message provides one with a practical guide to living without expectations, with a warning that one must not be a blind spectator to unjust actions done by others. Islam encourages one to undertake charity, exercise austerity and develop empathy (e.g. through fasting) and care for the community. Jainism inspires us against indulging in cruelty and killing or consumption of animals, which is so important for our very survival and sustainability as human race on the earth.

We are very fortunate to be living in such a beautiful garden of varied flowers. It is important all these flowers are given their own space to blossom and thrive, without encroachment or trespassing from one another.

COVID-19 has provided us with a timely reminder about the importance of social distancing, so have many wise philosophers. Lest we forget! ”

… Bill Koul (Perth, 17 May 2020)

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