I recently had a brief back and forth with Quora User here What is the definition of “evil“? Eivind, you inspired this two-part blog post that I dedicate to you.
I had several experiences during childhood that I believe made me, “A child – with a most knowing eye” (Romance by Edgar Allan Poe : The Poetry Foundation) in a context that was perhaps not Edgar Allan Poe’s intention. That knowing eye turned inward, I used to ponder why I perceived value differently from many around me, and why I didn’t feel a full sense of belonging within the family and culture into which I was born. Presented here as my prose interpretation of Walt Whitman’s poem, There was a Child went Forth (103. There was a Child went Forth. Whitman, Walt. 1900. Leaves of Grass) is a brief description of what I learned on my journey into what I call identity exploration.
We each have an identity I call our parochial identity and an identity we can hew on our own. We inherit or imbibe the former, consisting as it does of certain physical and mental attributes, formative influences, the language(s) we grow up learning, and cultural practices. In our formative years, our identity begins assembling almost unbeknownst to us. However, with my knowing eye turned inward, my childhood experiences taught me that it behooved me to separate out and examine the parochial elements within my identity. I learned that they are double-edged swords that can be boons as well as banes.
Boons like Whitman’s “Affection that will not be gainsay’d” include familial and cultural practices that expand the mind and endow us with the ability to engage with others principally through kindness and generosity. They also include access to opportunities that the circumstances of our birth make possible including but not limited to loving caregivers, and material comforts that can make living pleasant. I had a mother who was kindness and generosity personified, a roof over the head, indoor plumbing and electricity, and education at some of the best schools and colleges in India.
Banes are “The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure“, in short, certain accepted norms we imbibe from our surroundings during childhood, norms that could be deeply divisive, and unfair to others in the society at large. These include familial and cultural prejudices that teach us to perceive certain others as somehow inferior and that encourage us to look at them a priori with suspicion, even hatred.
To a life led in unexamined fashion, some banes may even appear to be boons. Growing up, we had a maid and a chauffeur driven car to ferry us around. I don’t intend to misrepresent. We weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. It is just that in a country where place in life is primarily determined by birth, I was born into an upper caste, my father was a senior executive at a large public sector company, and voila, I had material comfort aplenty. Yet, how eye opening to realize that such comforts have quite the sting to their tail!
In my teens, I realized to my dismay that I was born into a deeply hierarchical culture and that many of my material comforts came from the labor of those whose circumstances of birth rendered them much less endowed. Stitching my own clothes, traveling by public transport, choosing to pursue higher education not by birthright but by earning government scholarships, such were some of the ways I felt compelled to eschew as much as I could those material comforts that came my way through the toil of others less fortunate by birth. Since, I strive to follow my mother’s example and try to lead a non-transactional life.
The subject of Whitman’s poem is every child. In childhood, we are moist, fertile soil that germinates the unique seeds our surrounding environment plants within us. Like Whitman’s child, if we choose to entertain “The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how“, and if we choose to question, “Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?“, we would be choosing to closely examine the particulars of the world unique to each circumstance of birth and upbringing, and how such particulars shape our parochial identity. In short, we would be choosing to parse the boons and banes of that parochial identity. If we performed such an examination with the utmost sincerity and impartiality we are capable of mustering, we might identify some of the banes within our parochial identity. We would then have the choice to banish or at the very least mitigate such banes from our lives.
Post by Tirumalai Kamala:
Identity Part One
Our Parochial Identity: a tale of boons and banes