By Suma Varughese August 1997 There’s a way out of the conflicting interests that seem to mar modern relationships. And the answer lies in looking inward Anu is unmarried and lives alone. Struck with terminal cancer, in all probability, Anu will die alone. Estranged from her parents and with few friends to call her own, Anu’s death, when it comes, will be a requiem not so much for cancer, but for that deadly 20th century illness laying waste the lives of millions across the globe: alienation. An August 1995 Time magazine cover story notes: ‘Suicide is the third most common death among young adults in North America, after car wrecks and homicides. Fifteen per cent of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder. And pathological—even murderous alienation is a hallmark of our time.’ Even given its proclivity for bad news, the daily newspapers paint a grim portrait of a civilization with a canker in its heart. Child feticides, murders, bride burning, child molestation, thefts, scams, game-fixing, environment degradation, riots, poverty, divorces, teenage crime, promiscuity, stress and anxiety, are all testimony to a species out of keel with itself, others, with nature and with the universe. Relationships across the board have crumbled. THE WRITING ON THE WALL Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, totes up some grim statistics illustrating American social trends, usually a forerunner for world trends. ‘In the 1990s,’ says Goleman, ‘the rate among newlyweds predicted that two out of three marriages of young people would end in divorce.’ Meanwhile, ‘for those born after 1955, the likelihood they will suffer from a major depression at some point in life is, in many countries, three times or greater than for their grandparents… And for each generation, the onset of a person’s first episode of depression has tended to occur at an ever earlier age.’ Here in India, the cocoon of the all-embracing family has long since shredded. Says Armaity Desai, an administrator at the Yoga Institute, Mumbai: ‘Relationships are under greater stress today because of the materialistic culture which is breeding more greed, selfishness and intolerance.’ Adds meditation teacher Behram Ghista: ‘Today, children have difficulty with parents, parents with children, and husbands and wives with each other.’ According to Mumbai high court advocate, Ketan Upadhyaya, the rate of divorce has shot up by 75 per cent over the last 10 years. The hardened stance and lack of emotional bonding is visible in all class and age groups. A small-town journalist, resettled in Mumbai, rues the impossibility of making friends within the industry. ‘Everyone is so competitive,’ he says. Actor Rahul Bose likens today’s Mumbai with the 1980s New York. ‘Greed is God and everyone’s snorting cocaine.’ You could take a spiritual view of it as a spokesman of the Kalki movement does, placing blame squarely on Kalyug, typically characterized by ‘a breakdown of all relationships’ or you can look at it as Daniel Goleman does: ‘These are times when the fabric of society seems to unravel at ever-greater speed, when selfishness, violence and a meanness of spirit seems to be rotting the goodness of our communal lives.’ Whichever way, the prognosis is bad. So how did we get this way, and what is the way out? LOSING OUR LINKS The industrial and scientific age have re-created the world as we now know it, a world of burgeoning complexities and specialties, almost incapable of being understood holistically. Matter is divorced from mind and spirit, the earth from heaven, and man from God and mankind. With nothing to link us together, we have lost sight of the whole and slipped into the illusion that we are alone in an alien and even hostile universe. The current impasse in relationships is further cemented by the fragmentation of social structures. The flux from agricultural to urban centers severs our links with culture, tradition and community. Lonely and lost in big cities, separated from everything that gave our lives stability, meaning and continuity, we have become more and more alienated from life and people. In the barren wastes of city life, our emotional lives dwindle and die. Today’s man has been reduced to either labor or consumer, the earth to natural resources, countries to markets, and profit is the purpose and ultimate justification of all interaction. So where is the space for selflessness, altruism and disinterested service? Psychologist Erich Fromm notes in The Art of Loving: ‘Man’s happiness today consists in ‘having fun’… The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast.’ Further alienation in relationships is caused by our headlong dependence on technology. Technological inventions have ripped through our web of interconnections and established an illusion of self-sufficiency. Household gadgets have allowed for the existence of the nuclear family sans servants. Home entertainment like TV, music systems, CDs and home theatre permit us to derive our enjoyment alone at home. Automobiles let us slice through human traffic encased in a bubble of privacy, while home delivery and telescoping have further limited our interaction with people. In the computer age, we are rapidly reaching the stage when we will even be able to work in the privacy of our homes, and network if we must, with our Internet buddies. As a metaphor for our times, Internet friendship couldn’t be more apt. Faceless; voiceless, it is possible for us to manipulate our identity, for the other person is unlikely to know which parts of us are authentic and which not. It is friendship without risk or intimacy. A virtual friendship, an illusion of one. Is it any wonder that deprived of human warmth, we are swamped with loneliness? THE CHANGING FACE OF RELATIONSHIPS If the advances of the 2Oth century changed the role of relationships in our lives, social revolutions such as the women’s lib, the cult of the individual, and even the human potential movement have redefined its very nature. A good relationship today is not one that just lasts but one that coexists with self-respect, individuality and the need to grow. The rules and narrow certainties of the past have given way to a more fluid, open-ended approach. Many women, with their enhanced levels of self-respect, have upset the traditional power equation between the sexes. They are staking their claim to be regarded as equals in the relationship with an equal right to work outside the home. In many ways, this change is the most visible reason for the convulsions in relationships. The double-income couple may have more money, but child rearing has suffered, leaving many children condemned to the sad loneliness of latchkey existence. It has also created stress between the couple, as household responsibilities must be juggled with those of the workplace. THE ME GENERATION Popularized by such writers as Ayn Rand, the cult of the individual asserts the right of the individual to put his interests ahead of that of the community, spawning the Me Generation and culminating in the unabashed hedonism of the 1980s. Because it pitted individuals against each other and against the system, individualism became a crucible of conflict, with damaging effects on relationships. Husbands and wives saw no reason to put the other’s interest ahead of their own or even that of their children, and vice versa. The human potential movement with its stress on self-actualization, liberation, mukti further rocked the boat. In search of the perfect relationship, ‘for peace, happiness and harmony, individuals meet and part, unwilling to settle for less. Often, the seeker ‘outgrows’ a relationship and must perforce let it go to continue his spiritual quest. Given these diverse and wide-ranging factors, what hope is there for relationships today? Turning the clock back is futile, but what is the way forward? LOOKING FOR ANSWERSThe seeds of the solution lie in the problems themselves. The numbing intensity of alienation is alerting more and more individuals to the need for pushing beyond material progress. The quest for happiness and peace of mind is giving impetus to the New Age movement. And by questioning the status quo, social revolutions like the women’s liberation are paving the path for more authentic, integral relationships that work for both parties. If lifelong marriages, the implicit obedience of children or one-job careers are no longer the norm, it is because individuals are questioning old values, which sacrificed growth and change for stability. Marriages of yesteryears often lasted because the couple, more often the wife, had no choice. Tradition-bound parents used to exploit children’s obedience and inhibit their growth. Power equations were unbalanced and submission often enforced. If relationships are in a flux today, it is because there is a reaction against the enforced rigidity of the past. To make relationships work today, we have to look for a way to straddle both stability and fluidity, constancy and change. What could the way be? FROM A LARGER PERSPECTIVEIt’s clear that when individual interests are pitted one against the other, relationships cave in. Man is pitted against woman, the parent against the offspring, the employer against the employee, capitalism against environment, and so on. The great challenge of our times, therefore, is to look for a way that will correlate individual welfare with general welfare. The need is for a vision that will fuse the contradictions and conflicts between the two and move towards unity. Such a perspective does exist. Indeed it underlies all traditional wisdom. I refer to the spirit
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