July 19, 2012

Guilt, You Don't Own Me

I haven't blogged in more than a month. It was partly because it was good to take a break. Recharge. Clear my head.

But there was another reason too. And I could feel it even as I was finishing my previous post. The post in which I expressed publically for the first time the pain I felt in college of not having the philosophy of my home reflected in my education. I had felt this pain for fifteen years, from when I went to college to when I was a professor. Most of the time I repressed the pain. Though I could feel it then, I couldn't see it. I couldn't identify it. And I wouldn't identify it.
 
If anyone had said to me in college, "Bharath, do you have any culture issues about your classes in terms of combining your Indian and American halves?", I would have said, "No way. I am quite lucky. I don't have any such issues." I would have smiled broadly and thanked my stars for being part of such a wonderful world. I wouldn't have let the thought linger in my mind for even a second, so sure I was then that such issues didn't apply to me. I would have said then, "I am simply interested in philosophical truths. Cultural, sociological issues--those subjective domains of human messiness-- those have nothing to do with me!"
 
I see now that I dismissed such thoughts not because I didn't have any issues about understanding myself as an Indian-American (a hybrid, a mongrel, belonging neither here nor there uniquely, but belonging to both fully). I really didn't consider the question long enough to truly entertain it.
 
Instead, I dismissed it because of GUILT.
 
How could I say that I have an issue about how my home life relates to my school life when neither my family nor my teachers acknowledge any such thing? Here was the root of the double-edged guilt.
On the one hand, to claim that I have such an issue seems to draw a sharp line between myself and, say, my father. After all, as someone who grew up in India and was there till his forties, my father's experience of education did not involve any sharp difference between his home life and his education. Thus to say that I am having an issue at school would be to say that my experience of education was different from my father's. But if we are different in such a fundamental way, then in what way could I think that my father's life could be a guide to my life? If we are different in terms of how we learnt about the world, are we essentially living in two different worlds? Such a thought felt like a betrayal to me, and out of my love and respect for my father and my family, I buried the thought as totally irrelevant to me.
 
The issue here is not that because I grew up in a Indian home, my individuality was somehow thwarted. The same issue arose for me with my decidedly American teachers. That is the other edge of the guilt.
 
As far as I could tell, my teachers too did not have the kind of issues I did in reconciling the culture of their homes with that of their education. If for them there was any such tension, it seemed to me that it was because their families might have been religious (Christian or Jewish), and they were breaking free of that to embrace the Enlightenment values and language taught in the philosophy departments. Though this can be a big rift, it is hardly of the magnitude which I would have to contemplate in my own case.
 
For my teachers the rift, it there was one, was centered on the issue of religion. But issues of race and of culture, and the hundreds of other issues that come with that--these did not apply to them. Breaking with the Bible to embrace Kant's Groundwork can no doubt be a big break. But in a way that break happens against the background of a common shared culture. After all, Kant, like Descartes and Leibniz and scores of other greats, was Christian, even if his understanding of it was totally different from that an Augustine or an Aquinas. And even the atheist greats like Hobbes and Hume and Nietzsche -- they are responding to the Western tradition, and saw themselves as part of that tradition.
 

Thus my teachers' situation seemed to me different from my own. For in my case, it wasn't just that in the classroom I had to set aside the religion of my family. I also had to set aside the language, the cultural habits, the historical self-understanding--in other words, the whole "Eastern" tradition. My teachers would often grandly state that Plato, Kant and Russell belong to all people, because all that matters are the ideas. What they left out was that Plato, Kant and Russell belong also to the Western Tradition, and so purportedly belong to the tradition to which my teachers also belong. This double play is reflected in the fact that through my education I seemed to be simultaneously initiated into both philosophy as such (as a universal subject) and to Western Philosophy in particular (as opposed to the Eastern Philosophy which one can learn about only in select departments few and far between in America).
 
Here was the same worry for me with my teachers as with my father. If my situation as a student is different from my teacher's situations when they were students and to their situation as teachers, in what sense could I look to them to help me with my trajectory in life? If they could relate to the texts in class as belonging to the tradition they belong to, but for me such an identification was thrown into question, in what sense could we both relate to the texts in the same ways? And if not in the same, in what sense could I look to their understanding to help me with my life?
 
Here too to even acknowledge that I might have culture issues seemed to me threaten my link to my teachers, and so threaten my ability to learn. To even raise to myself the possibility that my situation is different from my teachers seemed like a kind of betrayal of them, a turning away from them. Hence the guilt. Hence the dismissal of the very thought of such a tension in my own life.
 
This fucking double-edged guilt. How much of my life it has eaten away.
 
And it reared its head again after my last post. "How dare I raise any issues of the tension between my Indian and my American selves? Between my family life and my education? How dare I betray both sides at once?!!! What level of depravity must I have sunk to in order to turn against both? What good can come of it? Why was I making a big deal of all this? Why not just let it go? Why can't I let it go? It must be because I am deranged somehow. Bad. Corrupt. Twisted. Silence! Silence! Return to silence instead of continuing on this belligerent path. Enough. Enough. I have said enough. I shouldn't say more. I am done. I have had my say. Now I can slink away into a peaceful the-rest-of-my-life."
 
There is, however, only one problem with keeping quiet. The guilt doesn't go away. It keeps beating away to make sure that one remains silent. Everyday it rehearses the same story, the same indictment, the same condemnation, the same mental punishment. One can hope that being silent will make it all go away. But what an awful thing when it only makes it drum harder and faster in one's head, more and more, threatening to rob one's very spirit.
 
To give into the guilt is to lose for life. Better to fight for one's life, and to fight the guilt. To not give into it. To make it clear to it that it does not own me. That I did not say anything wrong. That what I did was not wrong. That speaking out is needed. To tell my story as an Indian-American, as a mixed person, a hybrid, a mongrel. To say that the old rules meant for seemingly homogeneously defined communities separated from other seemingly homogeneous communities don't apply to me. To speak out that I live in the edges, the cracks, the margins of communities so defined. And guilt, shame, confusion, self-doubt--these have been my companions as I occupy those margins.
 
Guilt, you have been attacking the wrong person for years. I didn't do anything to deserve your attacks. You first visited me in middle and high school when I started to become a mixed cultural person, and you slowly settled into my soul as if it was your natural dwelling place. So much so that by the time I went to college I accepted you as a natural part of my consciousness, and my ambitions and my will became contorted by the weight of carrying you around with me.
 
But no more. Never more. Never again.

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