… The tree is made up of the roots, the trunk, the branches, the big ones and the little ones and the very delicate one that goes up there; and the leaf, the dead leaf, the withered leaf and the green leaf, the leaf that is eaten, the leaf that is ugly, the leaf that is dropping, the fruit, the flower—all that you see as a whole when you see the tree. In the same way, in that state of seeing the operations of your mind, in that state of awareness, there is your sense of condemnation, approval, denial, struggle, futility, the despair, the hope, the frustration; awareness covers all that, not just one part…
-J Krishnamurti, The Book of Life
On a Saturday afternoon around twenty teachers—mostly house parents—had gathered for a workshop session called ‘Care for Care Givers’ conducted by Parivarthan Counselling, Training and Research Centre based in Bengaluru. What is noteworthy is that as a group of teachers, we were quite a loquacious lot, sharing views freely and yet, we struggled to express our emotions. Earlier, in the warm up leading to the sessions, we had looked at pictures, worked with clay and were even given a colourful picture of an emotional wheel which had a large vocabulary of ‘feeling’ words. Surprisingly, or maybe not really so, we struggled to express what we felt. We would readily say what we thought. Our facilitators would gently nudge us, “That is fine, but tell us how do you feel?” Ultimately, we all said something. Many looked at the emotional wheel to find the right expression. Some of us have known each other for more than ten years and we have worked closely together and yet, here we were, not able to articulate what we were feeling.
All through our lives, we have been taught that emotions are negative or worse, a sign of weakness. Who has not heard expressions such as: “Do not speak like an emotional fool?” Or, “Don’t become emotional.” Emotions are seen as capricious; vulnerability is looked at as a sign of weakness; holding feelings in check is often lauded as an ideal. As teachers and parents, we do strive towards building strong children. The moot question here is—Is there strength in supressing and shielding our vulnerability or in openly meeting and accepting it? A straightforward answer to this would make life too simple and insipid. The great tree in its entirety contains it all—the leaf, the dead leaf, the withered leaf and the green leaf, the leaf that is eaten, the leaf that is ugly, the leaf that is dropping… condemnation, approval, denial, struggle, futility, the despair, the hope, the frustration; awareness covers all that…. It is all a part of the whole, a continuum.
Unfortunately, we are at times deadlocked in a binary world that packages life under neat labels. We do not like to see the different shades or the continuum of things. I cringe when I hear doting parents or grandparents blatantly ask a child, “Are you a good boy or a bad boy?” The moral burden of this question is carried throughout our lives. There is a primaeval urge to always show ourselves in a favourable light. We hide our different selves and project a ‘self ’ that would be most lauded or accepted.
It is not that we do not talk about these things in our students. ‘Competition’, ‘comparison’, ‘peer pressure’ and ‘excellence’ are by-words in our school. Yet, how often do we actually talk about our vulnerabilities or fears? Even when children bring up these topics, I have often seen adults too quick to reassure and encourage the students. Consciously or unconsciously, we are always helping students build up images about themselves. So, if a child feels that he or she is not good at something, we are quick to point out how good they are at something else. There is a girl in class twelve who is doing extremely well on several fronts. One day she quipped, “I sing so horribly. I am always out of tune, but I still love to sing.” I wonder how many of us have that kind of courage to try something out of our comfort zone. I know of a teacher who, when doing a problem from a topic unfamiliar even to her, did it on the black-board with the intent that the students would see her struggle through it, and thereby learn that it is alright to struggle through a problem. However, a few students harshly judged her to be an incompetent teacher. Despite what those one or two students may have thought, it was an extraordinary attempt on the part of the teacher to openly show her struggle.
Once in a dialogue with Mary Zimbalist, Krishnamurti remarked on how fear is an ‘extraordinary jewel’. He further said:
You have the feeling of beauty, the feeling of the intricate pattern, and the sparkle, the brightness, and the sparkle of the jewels and so on. So we can deal with the fact of fear and look at it that way, not escape, not say, ‘Well I don’t like fear’, get nervous, apprehensive and suppress it, or control it, or deny it, or move into another field.
Reflections on the Self
Vulnerability too is an extraordinary jewel, which perhaps should be held gently, especially in the context of our schools. We need to enable our students to access their own vulnerability instead of constantly trying to suppress or control it. Our value system leans heavily towards the binary mind frame. We try to nurture humane qualities in our children by showing them how to be sensitive, kind, generous, etc. We build a heroic ideal around these qualities. In contrast, anger and hatred are portrayed as demonic qualities. The quarrel here is not about the rightness or wrongness of particular acts. Rather, it is about building awareness about the multitude of emotions that we feel, to see and to understand them all. When a student swears or lies, we quickly condemn and say that it is a bad thing to do. We never reach out to the anger or hurt that may be a cause or even a symptom of this behaviour.
Yet, in examining all this we straddle a thin line. We could as easily get into not seeing the wrong at all. When students are taught that to lie is wrong, one hardly tells them that, “you must not lie for it is a betrayal of the trust someone has gifted you”. Similarly, that when one swears at the other, it is a violation of the other person. Teaching one to access one’s own inner vulnerability allows us to understand the roots of this anguish and thereby, sows seeds for a more empathetic nature.
Not just in real life, but in the world of literature too, we see how our viewpoint colours the way we look at a character in a play or novel. We often fail to see the entirety of a character. We always try to highlight a few traits in order to understand one. For instance, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the dramatic portrayal of Caliban has ranged from seeing him as an exotic monster, a beast, a colonised native or a worker. He is, thus, always seen as a manifestation of a political ideal. His vulnerability only gets a passing mention. Similarly, in the case of Macbeth, the critics look at the grandeur of Macbeth’s image driven to ruin by the one tragic flaw in his nature— ambition. When he hesitates to murder the King, Lady Macbeth chides his cowardice and questions his manliness. Yet it is at this ‘weak’ moment that one catches a glimpse of Macbeth’s vulnerability that makes him seem more human than simply a warrior turned into a murderer. Similarly, in a later scene, when a demented Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, she is at her most vulnerable moment. This state of fragility tugs at the reader’s mind. When she dies, Macbeth does not even have a moment to mourn her and cries out in anguish, “She should have died hereafter”. It is at this moment too that one catches a glimpse of the ‘human’ side of Macbeth.
In a totally different context, Elizabeth Frazer comments on how children are often encouraged to be a ‘good soldier’ and the suppression of their grief is admired. She writes, “Parents who teach their children to be good soldiers, fight the good fight, and suppress feelings of grief may well be avoiding feelings of grief themselves.” She exposes the vicious circle of such training thus, “Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us—i.e., the weak, helpless, dependent creature—in order to become an independent, competent adult deserving of respect. When we reencounter this creature in our children, we persecute it with the same measures once used on ourselves.”
This finds beautiful resonance in a story read out in one of our assemblies by a former student turned writer, Sunithi Namjoshi. In this story she talks about a child born with wings. The neighbours and family chastise the parents and ask them to clip the child’s wings. The parents refuse to do so. Instead they decide to teach the child to learn how to fly. Adults, who even as children are taught to supress their grief, fail to truly see the butterfly within themselves and mercilessly clip its wings. They remain quite unaware of the flight that can be borne out of the delicate wings. Our vulnerable self or the butterfly self as Frazer terms it, must be allowed to fully develop and not be dwarfed. It needs to be encouraged to fly. Literature can indeed be a great resource to help students reach out to their own emotions.
I would like to end with a heart-warming story. The children were practising for their nativity play to be staged during Christmas. One small boy who was playing the inn keeper was very reluctant to turn away Joseph and Mary from his door. The teacher explained to him that he had no choice, as there was no room in his inn to offer to the couple. He still felt uncomfortable but accepted the explanation. On the day of the play, he told Mary and Joseph in a tremulous voice that there was no room in the inn; but he quickly added, “But won’t you come in and have a cup of tea.”
Frazer, Elizabeth. 2011. Be a Good Soldier: Children’s Grief in English Modernist Novels. London: University of Toronto Press.