We live our lives in compartments. The big one for this, the smaller one for that, and the mid-sized one for something else. Each is sealed tight, keeping out the issues and concerns from the others and from the rest of the world. When we read treatises on the interconnectedness of things, we agree and resonate with those ideas. But when the book is closed, we can forget about these connections and go back to our own sealed shut-out-the-rest-of-the-world lives.
Focussing on the here and now is so easy. Seeing the present as a result of the past, or as something that creates the future, bears too much thought and brings too much responsibility. It means seeing that each of us is a dot on the continuum, a complex network where every push means a pull somewhere else, every constriction ripples into an expansion elsewhere.
When we pass the beggar on the street and our children ask, 'Why do some people need to beg?' or we see the line outside the churches and temples and they say, 'Why don't some people have food?' there is no escaping the interconnections, even if we sidestep the issue with simple and seemingly direct answers. Because there is rich, there is poor. And because there is so much power in one place, there is so little or none in the another. And because one sort of life is so valued, another sort becomes bereft of all value.
And who is responsible?There are two answers, at least. Each is equally facile, equally meaningless. We are all responsible. And someone else (the System) is. It is easy to remark, words flying past in the wind, 'Everyone contributes to the problem, and we must all find away to solve it.' And so much easier to say, 'It's the system. We can't do anything about it.'
The first response leads to chequebook charity and variations of it. Giving out a bit to salve the conscience and contribute to the removal of symptoms, if not cause. Like the industries that exploit their workforce on the one hand and set up charitable foundations on the other. Like sending in money to the endangered animals fund and buying a pashmina shawl from the bazaar.
The second response absolves us completely, puts us back in our boxes, and cuts us off from the System. No questions asked, and no answers attempted.
But for the many of us who can even begin to see beyond the six sides of our comfortable cubes, it is an agonizing question. How do we live with the sense that somehow things are not right, that it is going to take a great deal to make it right, andwe cannot sit by and not do anything about it?
How does one teach a child that responsibility is a collective burden, a load that we all must carry, but one that we must never be overwhelmed by? How do we show all the connections, all the little acts of everyday violence that we indulge in, without being drowned in the guilt and complete injustice of it all? How do we face the problems without getting lost in the causes?And how do we discern from all of this a means of fulfilling our responsibility?
For the most part, being socially responsible has been interpreted as an act, as something you do. One's sensitivity is shown by writing a cheque to support a cause, or at the most by volunteering a few hours to 'help the poor and disadvantaged.' But real social responsibility must go beyond that, to reflect itself in our lifestyles, in the way we balance power equations in day-to-day life, in the way we make decisions. It means recognizing that each of our acts may have a consequence that goes beyond the immediate.
And how do we make explicit these connections to our children as they learn about the world and how it has come to be? Teachers, for instance, could talk about the consequences of actions in all spheres and the effects they have had on the development of our society. They could show children how history has shaped us and how actions, if played out differently, might have had different consequences. We tend to teach subjects like science and history as a series of discrete events, unconnected with other events in other spheres of life. Allowing children to view the world as a matrix that is continually changing and shifting might help them see where their every action spills over into other spheres as well. This means that teachers have the responsibility to explain to children how different events and actions - in history, in science, in culture - have influenced not just the way we were, but the way we are. They must help make them reflexive beings, who are conscious about the impact of their actions on the world around them, and then put this consciousness to good use.
Of course, being rather than doing may also mean that we begin to feel distinctly uncomfortable with the way things are. It takes a very delicate balancing act to feel that discomfort and continue to derive happiness from this world. Each of us may not be in a position to change or move the entire System, but each of us does have the power to make choices that can eat away at it, bit by bit.
We need to show our children the interconnectedness of things, so that they begin to take responsibility for the way things are. So that they can livesocially responsible lives, rather than simply do the socially responsible thing.
Re-printed: Courtesy Edu-Care, Vol. 6, No.1, 2002. Published for private circulation by Centre For Learning, C-128, AWHO, VedVihar, Secunderabad 500 015.