Most of us have much to be thankful for. We have been taught to count our blessings, to delight in the ‘little things’ in life. And probably that state of contentment is the best way to go on with our daily routine without being maddened by a constant pursuit of something which is elusive. But is the emphasis on learning to be content with our lot holding humanity back? To accept the bondage of circumstances is alien to human nature. If we had been content with merely escaping being eaten by lions, we never would have left our caves to create marvels of science, art, music and poetry which are the children of hungry minds and not hungry stomachs. But we are being conditioned to lose our restlessness. Maybe it is a product of history, culture and spirituality and undoubtedly it has its uses. Society as a unit cannot be in a state of constant flux. But what about the individual? Is it desirable for the individual to be quietly resigned to the world as it is without giving any thought to the world as it ought to be? Or at a simpler level, must not the individual question his own life at the very least?
The question of what is ‘the good life’ has been asked almost in all cultures and through the ages it has been answered in different ways by different societies. While there cannot be an answer that is universally acceptable, the foundation upon which the human enterprise of seeking out the good life must stand upon would be common. To be able to debate upon the purpose of existence one must be in a position to have the leisure and means to exercise reason to determine one’s own raison d’etre. This opportunity to exercise reason is the common foundation upon which humankind must build its citadels of thought. It is a simple assertion that as long as a person is preoccupied with ensuring her and her dependants’ survival, there is no scope for humankind to reach its fullest potential. Higher needs can be pursued only when basic needs have been met. So does it follow that our social contract has failed us? It is true that modern governments have more or less shielded us from the Hobbesian description of human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. But for all our collective achievements we are not really that far away from a state of nature because we have failed to ensure the opportunity for every individual to achieve the highest potential that she is capable of. As the Supreme Court of India observed – ‘Life’ in Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the right to exist. It does not connote mere animal existence. It has a much wider meaning… and includes all those aspects of life which go to make a man’s life meaningful, complete and worth living. But when we look around we see our fellow men and women struggling to swim against a daily tide that threatens to drown them in drudgery. We see struggles just to exist. Some of us have had the chance to give expression to creative urges, the chance to savour the privileges of being human, but collectively as a society how can we claim to have elevated ourselves above the beasts that we proudly tamed? Yet we are told that contentment is a virtue.
Contentment has the danger of sliding down to apathy. We have learnt to accept things that must be fought against like corruption, inefficiency, inequity and injustice and instead have diverted our energies to fighting over religion, caste and social morality. Contentment is the tool that the powerful use to lull agitation. It is the insidious device with which the populace has been tricked into believing that their rights are the largesse of rulers. Contentment has lowered our standards and expectations. We are elated if our elected representatives and officials just show up and do their jobs. We hail them if they are relatively honest and efficient. We do not demand excellence, in fact we have forgotten what excellence, true probity in public life and real leaders look like! I am not arguing that we all should pursue individual pleasure fuelled by hedonistic greed. The danger of this misunderstanding is present because contentment has come to be understood mostly in material terms. I am arguing that it is inherent in human nature to want more than existence and as long as we have not created a society in which each individual has the chance to reach beyond merely surviving, we cannot let ourselves be content.
I quote from Kahlil Gibran’s short story ‘The Ambitious Violet’:
“’Ambition beyond existence is the essential purpose of our being.’ At that moment my spirit revolted and my heart longed for a position higher than my limited existence. I realized that the abyss cannot hear the song of the stars, and at that moment I commenced fighting against my smallness and craving for that which did not belong to me, until my rebelliousness turned into a great power, and my longing into a creating will…”
Ambition beyond existence is indeed the essential purpose of our being and all human beings ought to have the opportunity to nurture such an ambition. Only if we shrug off our blankets of contentment can we awaken to the injustice around us. A perfectly equal society is utopian, but starting gate equality can become a reality. What an individual makes of his/her life is ultimately up to that person alone. But it is abhorrent to the human essence that there are millions who must make do with being alive because the greed of some and the apathy of all have created a structure which cripples the human spirit that seeks to soar.
I do not reject contentment. I only question the wisdom of preaching contentment to those who have been deprived of the chance to even dream of discontent. Contentment must not be helpless acceptance. There is of course no limit to human want and true contentment has material, intellectual and spiritual dimensions. But temperance can be practiced only by those who have the possibility of fulfilling immoderate desires. To quote Gibran again, “How painful is the preaching of the fortunate to the heart of the miserable! And how severe is the strong when he stands as advisor among the weak!”
And what of those who have the opportunity to give expression to all their ambitions? To preach contentment to them is even more an undesirable act. The desire for change ought to be encouraged, for it is only in times of great discontent and revolutions has human civilisation made great strides in thought. Where would liberty and equality have found sanctuary had tyrants not been deposed and Constitutions not been written? I do not advocate violent rebellion or thoughtless dismantling of existing institutions. However we are not collectively angry enough. Only when we begin to challenge the status quo can there emerge a remedy to the ills that plague our societies. The recent anti-corruption movement is illustrative of the how incapable we have become of sustained agitation for change. The danger of discontent with injustice not simmering in every heart is that it allows certain elements to hijack the course of the nation building enterprise and renews the cycle of domination by the powerful elite. The discontent must not find expression in chaos but through a systematic demand for accountability and a judicious exercise of the voting right. Another troubling aspect is that by imprinting the lessons of contentment are we not turning future generations into a risk aversive lot who are afraid of breaking the status quo, be it external or personal? How many scientists and artists, how many geniuses have we lost because children were taught to be happy with what they are rather than what they could become? It has not made people any happier. We have only succeeded in quantifying contentment in material terms and have killed the spirit of reform and inquiry.
The summit of human potential and capability cannot be pegged. It is not a tangible level of accomplishment. What matters is the chance to strive to reach that potential. The human spirit answers to a higher call the music of which is unique to the individual. It is the duty of the society to allow the individual to answer that call and premature sedation of the mind by ‘contentment’ would perpetuate the unfortunately inequitable present state of affairs. Therefore let us fear contentment. Let us listen to the bee in our bonnets that does not allow us to walk through life like puppets waiting for death to smite us down. Let us lay the fertile ground on which each seed that falls has a fighting chance to flourish into a great tree.