Written on May 3, 2009. Originally published in Eye Asia (July 2009 edition).
I have to know
If there is God, or karma
Is Life a string of random mishaps
Or a laborious web of scripted dramas
I cannot tell
If anyone will be waiting
At that last stop of our turbulent Odyssey
But I sense the magic in the forests buried deep
And hear the mystic music of the dewdrops’ perish
Thence I know: the unspoken words that I must keep.
For in waking moments I’m mostly blind
Revelation flickers only in my troubled sleep
And for one brief moment I felt as if I had touched my soul
(Ah, was that really it)
Before it was lost, to that hot, hurried night
The series of writings that I hope to undertake in this monthly column will canvass diverse subjects, but will orbit around a core quest: the quest for the meaning and value of humanity and human existence, viewed individually and collectively.
This agenda that I set for myself is not half as ambitious as it is crazy. It is bordering on insanity to think, or indeed to hope, that the answers that have eluded centuries of thinkers, scientists, poets, writers and more might suddenly descend upon an amateur columnist. But it is the kind of insanity worth pursuing, even at the risk of falling flat on one’s face. If the final oracle shall elude me, I could always fall back on the consolation that the reward lies in the pursuit itself, just as many pilgrims before me had insisted.
I shall begin this journey by examining that which human beings are so proud of: civilisation.
We set ourselves apart from all other animals. We inform ourselves that we are special in the animal kingdom. We justify the distinction in various ways, one of which is to affirm, and then believe, that we alone have souls while the other animals do not, even if empirical proof of it is missing.
We parade our achievements, and point out that no other has managed what we have done. We marvel at our scientific and engineering feats. We stress that we have moved mountains, diverted rivers, harnessed the wind, and built structures that conquer the elements and put us beyond the reach of other living beings. We have ventured into the Outer Space, mapped genomes, and created Dolly. Better things are yet to come.
We hail these as proof of progress, and then we equate progress with civilisation. But should we?
Today we indeed have a much better understanding of the universe, the Earth, physics, microbiology, our body, and a long list of other things. But we can hardly claim to know our inner selves, our psyches, our basal desires, any better than did the uninformed cavemen, the austere ancient priests, or the merry-making Romans at the fall of their empire. We have refined our tools to precision, but our hearts stay as raw and savage as ever.
For we have done nothing to construct and improve our collective behavioral health, compared with the advances we have made in the provision of medical care. I employ the term “behavioral health” here, to distinguish it from the current concepts of mental health and spiritual health, as I will explain below.
We recognize symptoms such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism and gambling addiction as mental health problems; yet we do not perceive behaviors such as excessive greed, intolerance, or bigotry in the same light. We see the former set of behaviors as traits harmful to both the individual sufferers and the society at large; but we decline to apply the same diagnosis to the latter.
We fail to appreciate that the latter group of conduct brings as much, if not more, harm to the individual practitioners and the society as a whole. Hence, we do nothing to address those problems in a systemic way. Worse still, at times greed is touted as ambition or the impetus for growth, intolerance regarded as defensible, and bigotry promoted as championing the only truth. So, instead of seeing the need to treat such behavior, society at times applauds their display.
Limiting our attention to mental health problems (as we currently define them), and overlooking wider behavioral health issues, prevents us from building a civilised society.
Because our accumulated knowledge, passed on through education, tells us that our body needs carbohydrates, protein, salt and minerals, but also that too much of any of them would become detrimental to our physical health; we have constructed a health care system that can, among other things, adequately deal with problems arising from overindulgence. We understand the human cost, and the cost to society, if we ignore the need for moderation in these habits. But we do not do likewise in relation to behavioral health.
Behavioral health requires a similar balance of chemistry and mental attitudes, but this is something that we understand far less than we do our physical body. An overdose of greed, self-righteousness or self-centeredness harms both our own well-being and the society. We have not developed any systematic curriculum to educate ourselves on these matters, nor placed enough emphasis on research in this area so that our knowledge can advance in the same way it does with other sciences. These are subjects to which we have not given priority. Our relative lack of progress in them is the result.
Education alone will not solve health problems. There will be many who, despite adequate knowledge, neglect or damage their health. We do not punish them for their deliberate or reckless excesses. Instead, we build a system of clinics and hospitals to treat them, to make them better. We carefully examine the root of the problem, and administer treatment over time. We have re-education programmes to advocate prevention over cure. There are various commercial concerns in the business of the promotion of healthcare.
No wonder physical healthcare today is generally better than ever before, although not in places where man-made poverty is widespread (which is another subject for a different day).
It is the exact opposite when it comes to behavioral ill-health, which is produced no doubt by the failure of our family and public education systems. We deal with sufferers of behavioral ill-health solely as bad people who need to be punished and thereby, or so we think, be deterred from being bad in the future. We build prisons to teach them a lesson, to make them pay the price, to make the pain greater than their gain. It makes us feel good and justified because they deserve it. We hope that the brutal condition we create and put them in will make them refrain from future misconduct, just like that. We do not go to the roots of the problem. In this profound age of science, our methods in dealing with behavioral ill-health are as unscientific as can be.
Hence, our collective behavioral health has not improved much over the centuries. It has been largely neglected on our fast train to development. The inhumanity that men inflict upon fellow men is as cruel and as prevalent today as it was thousands of years ago.
It is time for us to pause, and rethink our concept of civilisation.
Currently, we equate evidence of progress with civilisation, without examining the fine prints or weighing the human cost. The ancient civilisations (as we call them) were orchestrated by kings and emperors, who built their “greatness” by trampling on the well-being of their subjects. Today in many parts of the world we have evolved systems of government that, when not abused, are indeed more egalitarian. But there lies the problem. The support structures for these systems are so fragile that, more often than not, abuse of the system becomes rampant, chiefly because of the behavioral ill-health of both the leaders and the followers.
Everything we regard as a symbol of civilisation, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and the Angkor Wat for example, is in truth also a reminder of the oppression of men. Human history has yet to see the kind of worldwide civilisation that is not built upon the enslavement of humanity, and that is constructed by embracing all human beings in equality. It is time to rethink the way we view civilisation.
To be of value to all humanity, civilisation must not consist solely of making our lives easier and more comfortable, or, more accurately, of making the lives of some of us (the elite) easier and more comfortable at the expense of the rest. This kind of elitist “development” is at best “material civilisation”, as opposed to what I will call “value civilisation”. Value civilisation must encompass the betterment of the condition of all sectors of humankind, in counterbalance to the throw of the dice of the survival of the fittest. There must always be a place for the weakest, as otherwise civilisation will be no different from the natural law of the jungle. Due to space constraint, a more detailed discussion of value civilisation will have to be reserved for another day.
I do not know the origin of this quip: “civilisation is defined by the distance Man puts between him and his excreta”. Sarcasm aside, there is prevailing truth in the lurid metaphor. We must not allow our civilisation to be proportionately measured by the distance we put between the elite and the have-nots.