Challenge of living together

Yogesh Khosla
World around us is changing fast. Fragmentation, intolerance and violence are growing all around us. There are widespread conflicts in interpersonal relationships and between communities. The institution of marriage and family as a reference point for stability, order and sanity, is under threat. Conflicts and violence at the personal level get magnified into wars at the macro level. And our children are simply not equipped adequately to cope up with the challenges posed by this fragmentation. While it is basically a failure of our parenting and our societal values, our education has also failed in bringing people together.
Education is rightly considered as the panacea for all human ills. But, for education to solve the problem of human fragmentation, it has to be totally different from what it is now. For most of us, education means doing well in academics/ scholastic areas and passing examinations with “Good” grades. But, in reality, academic/ scholastic success is of no value without learning to live life healthily and peacefully with rich, harmonious relationships.
It is now being realized that we all are interrelated and interdependent and old separations and fragmentations are no longer valid. Dangers of environmental degradation, ecological imbalances and ravages of natural resources are common to us all. Nuclear strike against a hostile neighbor will not destroy the “enemy” alone. Differences based on religion, caste, race, national boundaries, culture etc are disappearing in the global village in the age of Internet and social media. Economies can’t survive and grow independently and depend upon so many global factors. Nations are forced to change their hard positions due to Import/ Export considerations. Living together is now becoming a compulsion and is no longer a choice.
Unless we- the parents and teachers, understand at a very deep level that our egotistical, self centred, individualistic behaviour is the greatest hurdle in peaceful coexistence, we can’t help our children. Human togetherness and wholeness are not some philosophical or spiritual ideas, but are very real- validated by modern science. In less than a year, 98% of all the atoms in our body are replaced completely. Atoms of actual raw material of our body- the carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen- come and go like migratory birds. Atoms, which were once in the bodies of our “enemies”, may be present in our bodies today.
Take the example of our own body. We have many types of cells in our bodies having different shapes and characteristics with different functions. They serve different organs/ systems. Blood cells are totally different from brain cells (neurons). Yet all cells, while serving their own masters, work together harmoniously on a single mission- growth and development of our body. This applies to all our healthy body cells except cancer cells which self-aggrandize and thus take the whole body down. We can learn to live together from our own body cells.
Conflicts in relationships are widespread and inevitable. Can we teach our children some skills and qualities so that they can learn to avoid conflicts and take some effective steps to resolve conflicts if and when they arise? We consider here some skills/ qualities:
EMPATHY:- Empathy is a key skill to learn if we want to build harmonious, healthy relationships. It is the capacity and the ability to understand how others feel. It is the ability to understand what life is like for another person even in a situation we may not be familiar with. Empathy is a sixth sense with which we perceive the emotional energies in others. Empathy can improve our social interactions, especially in situations of ethnic or cultural diversity.
RESPECTFUL TOLERANCE OF DIVERSITY:- Intolerance and general failure to accept and respect “others”, is one of the main reasons for fragmentation and conflict. NCERT’s National Curriculum Framework-2005 has identified “Education for Peace” as a new curriculum area. Says Prof. Howard Gardner, the eminent Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard University:
“A truly cosmopolitan individual gives others the benefit of doubt; displays initial trust; tries to form links; avoids prejudicial judgements. The threats to respect are intolerance and prejudice. A prejudicial person has preconceived ideas about individuals and groups and resists bracketing of the preconceptions. A respectful mind starts with an assumption that diversity is positive and that the world would be a better place if individuals seek to respect one another.”
ACTIVE LISTENING: Most of our conflicts arise because we don’t make efforts to understand and appreciate others’ perspective and others’ concerns. This understanding comes through listening actively and attentively to what is being conveyed. Says Ernst Hemingway: ” I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen”.
If we look within honestly, we can appreciate what Hemingway means. Listening properly is rare in the present times. If we don’t like the speaker or don’t agree with him, we are easily distracted or bored or get frustrated. The great sage and philosopher J. Krishnamurti calls true listening a miracle:
” Do we ever listen? Listening in the sense: without interpretations, without conclusions, without judgement, without agreeing or disagreeing. We listen and see and perceive through screens between us and the objects of perception. Screen of our social and cultural conditioning, screen of our beliefs and opinions, screen of our fears, and most importantly through the screen of the images we have made of the others. Listening attentively without screens is a miracle”.
To summarize the above wisdom about Active Listening: It is a key skill which involves deep and deliberate attention. Keeping the attention focused without distractions requires hard work and practice. Real listening also requires suspension of immediate judgement- not agreeing or disagreeing with what is being said. It involves polite and respectful statements or questions to clarify or confirm what the speaker really means. For these clarifications, we need to wait till the speaker has finished.
ACCEPTING MISTAKES: Very few of us can have calm, meaningful discussions and negotiations. Generally, discussions turn personal and we move away from the issues involved. Blaming, insulting and shouting at others are the general ways of expressing ourselves. Most common roles we all play are “victim” and “persecutor”. By doing all this, we hurt others enormously and damage our relationships. We all make these mistakes, but very few have the courage to accept mistakes. When we hurt others, it is our responsibility that we accept our mistakes and apologize sincerely. This is the best way of repairing sour relationships. Let us cultivate this courage in our children.