Our almost 14-year-old daughter came home from school last week and burst into tears. Final exams were over and the students were receiving their answer sheets in class every day.
She had told me earlier that she wasn’t interested in knowing what marks she had got in her final exams.
“What is upsetting you?” I’d asked. “When you’d decided that you didn’t want to study and we told you that we are okay with your choice, then why worry now? Just go and receive your answer sheets in peace,” I had said to her just that morning, wondering what was really bothering her.
She returned pale and tired that evening. After she had had a good cry, she told me that her distress wasn’t about her own performance.
“My friend, who had far better marks than me, was crying helplessly in class,” she said. “She kept saying that her father and mother are brilliant and how could she take her less-than-brilliant results home to show them. I felt so bad for her, Mamma.”
It was a déjà vu moment for me. I had been like my daughter as a child and adolescent and my mother would often have to shake me and ask, “But nothing happened to you, right? So why are you hurting like this?”
It was my turn to tread carefully. I don’t want to tell my daughter to not get so involved with others. I want to encourage the empathy she feels. I don’t want to say, don’t be so sensitive, because I do want to validate her feelings. I don’t want her to be self-obsessed, but I also don’t want her to over-invest her emotions in matters that are eventually not her own responsibility. I want her to acquire the discretion to choose where she invests her energy and thoughtfulness.
The real learning is what to do with one’s feelings. How to rescue ourselves from the easy trap of just denying them. How to build a mechanism that also helps us to change those feelings into some sort of action or decision. How do we train our emotions to know their own boundaries. That delicate balance where we know that our emotions must have space for expression, and also that feelings of sorrow and frustration must find their sublimation in actionable change.
A lot of this happens in solitude. By taking oneself out of the everyday carnival of life. Shutting out the deafening clutter of noise, information and opinion, so that only the essential remains in our sieve.
To start with, we need a silence within us in which we can listen to the dissonance. It is trying to be heard. Feel your discomfort, as if it were muscle pain. Live with it. Don’t be too eager to be heard, too fast to influence, too desperate to make your voice count. In the isolation of reflection, you too will begin to discover your role in the larger scheme of things.
Because they are still quite young, I try to protect our children from the unedited stream of media exposure that has become a normal part of modern life. We don’t have a cable TV connection at home and we don’t watch any news on our Internet-enabled devices either. I almost always know what is going on in the world from news updates from my Twitter and Facebook accounts but I myself play the role of being the filter between my family and the world outside.
Every now and then, of course, events are so momentous that the news comes in like a deluge. Last year, the constant, confusing updates around demonetization were hard to not be overwhelmed by. We tried to laugh through our outrage, but frankly we were staggered by the scale of the arbitrariness, dissonance and injustice of what was going on, particularly by what others less privileged than us were experiencing helplessly.
There was that day last November when Donald Trump came to power in the US. We had friends from Scotland visiting us that week. Nothing we had experienced in our personal lives had prepared us for the way the world seemed to change, demanding a recalibration in how we understand it.
Last week, Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The next morning, many newspapers carried compilations of some of the most violent words he had spoken against Muslims, women and the pluralistic fabric of our society. Opinion pieces began to appear immediately, trying to make sense of what to expect next.
It is often in the intensity of these times that one is rescued by one’s role as a parent of young children. Their needs distract you. Their presence reminds you that you are required to go beyond mere talk and find a way to participate. You owe them.
The more visible events are not the only ones that need to be challenged. It is shallow to be distracted and outraged only by regime changes that don’t suit our personal politics. The crises of livelihood, forced migration, political persecution, climate change and violence against marginalized communities are ongoing injustices. It is because these have been normalized by the unchecked privilege and apathy of others that the stage gets set for worse oppressions.
Our middle child engages with world news and national events in her own inquisitive way. She is 12 now. When she speaks up, I get a sense that she has created an invisible boundary between what she understands as the world she will grow up to influence and what she has begun to dismiss as the world we seem to have messed up.
The child has found hope in herself. She has begun to believe in the potential of her own generation to fix what we seem to be losing our grip on. Again, it reminds me of my own adolescence.
As she grows up, she will acquire tools and learn strategies from watching the adults around her. She must not witness a generation of adults who accept too quickly the things we cannot change and have too little courage to change the things we can.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.