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Friday, June 08, 2012

Make up your own mind!

I have believed since I was very young that the most important sign of maturity is both wanting to and being able to make up one’s own mind on more or less everything under the sun that concerns one’s own life. As an elderly friend I respect said, ‘I will not of course always make wise decisions, but the point is I will make them myself and then enjoy or suffer the consequences; what else marks me out as a man rather than just another member of a faceless herd?’ Yet all my life I have watched people either completely unable to make up their own minds, or terrified to. So they go around consulting all and sundry, usually working upon the premise that if most people I know agree upon a certain course of action it must be the right (or at least safe) thing to do. Here is a random sample of questions people of all ages agonize over, though the ‘importance’or urgency of the questions varies with age:

Should I/my son study science or arts or commerce? Should I attend this or that coaching class? Should I bother much about examination scores? Should I go to this or that party? Should I keep long hair/wear short skirts? Should I have a girl friend/boyfriend? Should I tell my parents about it? Should I have an extra-marital affair? Should I tell my wife/husband about it? Should I shop at this or that mall/become a member of this or that club? Should I gossip with my friends about the latest scandal I heard? Should I watch an ‘adult’ movie? Should I take up this or that job? Should I smoke or drink, and should it be done on the sly? Should I tell my doctor about my problem?… I could stretch that list ad infinitum.

Both youngsters and adults come to me for advice, as they have been doing since I was myself very young. There are a few things I have noticed about almost all of them: either they merely want me to confirm them in their prejudices (‘See, Sir also says you must go for engineering/not have an affair at this age, just as I told you!’) or they are terribly guilty or afraid to take a decision which they feel inwardly compelled to, and are only seeking some sort of solace or reassurance from me that nothing awful is going to happen if they go ahead with what they want to do (they sometimes want to do quite pedestrian things, like kissing a girl/boy, and sometimes utterly weird ones, like ‘I’m studying physics and want to switch afterwards to an MBA to have a safe career, but basically I want to make a name as a writer, is that okay?’). For long I have enjoyed helping them, but these days, after handling too much of the same thing over and over again (and seeing confused teenagers grow into confused adults despite everything I said and did for them), I get very tired sometimes. It is neither possible nor pleasant to keep telling people they are doing all right even when I know they are being common at best and foolish at worst; it is also wearying to have to tell craven people that sooner or later they must make up their minds and choose between options because they can’t have everything unless they want to regret missed opportunities all their lives, and if they can’t do that no outsider can do it for them anyway, so what the heck? – I actually say this aloud very often, and then they go away not only confused and hesitant as before, but resentful of me that I did not resolve their dilemma with a painless wave of some magic wand. How childish most people are all their lives! All that swells with age, it seems to me, is the paunch and the ego.

Mind you, just because I advocate independent decision making, I am neither an anarchist nor a blind rebel without a cause: indeed, I fear the one and despise the other. As my readers will know, I set great store by order and discipline and old-fashioned good manners in social life, regretting much that is wrong in this country solely because our rulers (including heads of families) do not sufficiently appreciate their value to civilized living, nor have the courage of conviction to impose them without fear or favour. In personal life and habit, as those who know me closely will vouch, I live in a very staid and conservative style: I dress simply, paying no attention to fashion fads, I cut my hair short, I do not use trendy abuse in my speech, I do not zoom around on a macho bike, I do not stay out late, I am content to be much closer to  a stick-in-the-mud family man than a wild bohemian, I happily put up with my wife’s occasional puja at home provided it is not too long, loud or expensive, and I neither walk in noisy political processions nor subscribe to the idea that throwing a few bombs can solve any problem. And yet, ever since I was a teenager, I have insisted on taking my own decisions – seeking the advice of only those I personally respected (not necessarily parents), and never considering myself bound to follow anything that conflicted with my own reason, conscience or gut feeling. That has applied to things major and minor alike: nobody ever told me to smoke a cigarette or forced me to go to a movie, I dropped engineering and medicine because I wasn’t interested, I had affairs when I chose, got married when I wanted to, quit jobs that I didn’t like, read books because I wished to read them, went travelling when and where I desired, avoided partying like the plague, and reared a child the way I thought best. And look, at this age I have very few things to regret having done!

So why on earth do people bother much more about physics and chemistry and marks and looks and pay and what mummy and daddy will say and what their wives will do and what latest gizmos are on sale instead of this most important of all questions: ‘When will I learn to make up my mind?’ Give me an IIT topper who has never had an original thought and an 18-year old who knows his own mind, and I know which one I won’t waste a second giving attention to.

The paradox is that the more the ad men extol and celebrate ‘freedom’, the more restrictive our real lives seem to become, the less independent our minds (and we seem to be growing so used to it that most of us cannot even see that anything is amiss!) ‘Children’ of 18-20 still have all sorts of decisions taken for them by parents, including when, where and with whom they should go out or chat on the Net; older people do unquestioningly what the boss/TV/wife tell them to do, modern ‘adults’ go chhee-chhee over things that would have been par for the course several generations ago: Romeo would have been arrested for pedophilia today, Shakespeare hauled up before the Race Relations Board for writing something as ‘prejudiced’ as The Merchant of Venice, and the Wright brothers punished instead of merely ridiculed by their father for ‘wasting their time’ trying to build a flying machine. Most people cannot imagine that they need not watch cricket when everybody else is doing it, or go pandal-hopping at puja time if they live in Bengal.There are millions who work in offices where they are constantly monitored by CCTV cameras in the name of security, the way only prisoners used to be not so long ago, something that Charlie Chaplin mocked so tellingly in Modern Times. And most don’t even seem to mind: rather, they are probably happy that the burden of taking decisions and being their own men has been lifted from their shoulders for ever, lifelong. But it makes me feel as though I am living in a cage, gilded though it might be, and the walls are closing in…which reader dares to tell me, after reading this post closely, that s/he still believes that the world is ‘progressing’?


Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.A very keenly observant post,like all others,addressing the true issue of freedom,choice and moral courage.I support your belief wholeheartedly,Sir,for you have re-iterated the importance of the moral maxim-"Courage is the foremost virtue that guarantees all others."Indeed,Sir,we now lack the power to choose wisely,employing discrimination as our tool-We are free to choose,but we wish to shirk all consequences!We are liberated in such a sense,Sir,that we are mere slaves of matter!We are told to 'live our own life',only when it toes the line with accordance to set guidelines.At this juncture,Sir,all we have,is a choice-to live 'freely' in the cage of our own making,or to break out and be a 'slave' to the wide universe,with all its 'rules'!

Originality of thought,individuality in actions have all vanished like a wisp of smoke-all that is left are rules and their imposers.You addressed this issue so beautifully,Sir,in your posts titled "Troublesome Freedom" and "Thoughts for the new year".I think,Sir,that one line quoted from the duo admirably sums up this wonderful post-

"How little we as parents and teachers know what makes a good life when we so pedantically and enthusiastically lecture the children in our charge how they should order their lives to achieve ‘success’!"

This is a line worth reflecting over numerous times.Thank you so much,Sir,for writing about freedom,as a truly free man,to free us from taking the roads,at the end of which,lies a future we exactly know,secretly dread,and openly 'progress' towards.

With best wishes,

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,
It is indeed sickening to see virtual slaves around us and it should be very tiring for you to help them out. I was shocked to see that most children nowadays cannot make their own decisions even on the most trivial things like attending an extra class and lending a book! They cannot dream of choosing their career on their own. Their entire life is pre-programmed and they live a miserable life desperately trying to show off in front of everyone outwardly but constantly in self-doubt inside. So, to distract themselves from the momentary dawn of realization that something is wrong, they have hundreds of friends on facebook and obsess themselves with the latest expensive gizmos.
For now, I can think of two reasons for this-
1. In the present educational scenario, History and Literature are read only under compulsion (and forgotten the second after the examination is over) and philosophy, biographies, ’serious’ books and movies are a complete waste of time and actually dangerous. As a result, we are left completely incapable of thinking and deciding for ourselves.
2. As is beautifully shown in ‘The tale of desperaux’, we are taught to fear and be cowardly and never take responsibility for our actions. So, very few have the courage like you and your elderly friend have to say, ‘This decision of mine may not work for me but I will happily face the consequences and I will learn from my mistakes’.
Your life is an example for all of us to learn from. You follow the many opposing ideals such as strict discipline and personal liberty in the most mindful and balanced way.
Thank you for the post, Sir.
Warm regards
Rashmi Datta

Ūrṇā said...

Dear Sir,

It is amazing (and quite galling) how long we have come since the times when scholars used to debate on whether humankind had free will or not yet the the practical application of the said 'free will' still seems like a distant possibility. When I have heard my room-mate moaning for the twentieth time in an hour about how she can't decide if she should take a bath before or after lunch, I can't help but gasp: "Wow, life-altering decision!" Not to generalize, I have observed how, with so many people, minor, daily decisions like these are played out like Parliamentary debates till someone has to snap at them, "For God's sake, just do it!" On the other hand, they seem content with their parents and older siblings and friends telling them what's best for them in terms of decisions that should really matter. I actually know people who aren't even aware of the fact that they are supposed to have personal likes and dislikes, passions, interests and so on. It is as if they had been stripped of a personality during the formative years.
And in light of your last comment about how most people don't seem to mind that their lives are being lived for them, I am reminded of a crucial point Kant makes with regard to the Enlightenment. He says that people are ignorant not because they haven't been allowed to know, but because they are too lazy to find out and know for themselves. I think it is quite possible to place the same logic in this context as well - it's not that people can't think for themselves, maybe they are just too lazy. I know it's too simplistic an explanation, but I have heard people say, "Oto ke bhabbe?"

Al-Le-Gr-Fi said...

When you wrote this post, did you have India or all of the western world in mind? Because from a British point of view, you've hit the nail on the head.

I've lost friends in the last couple of years over what can only be described as sheepism. The problem here is that when kids realise they're being treated like a herd, they rebel. They don't realise, but when they start taking drugs and smoking/drinking, it's exactly because of the issues you've pinpointed. They want to feel like they've decided to do something the rest of society didn't want them to do, for a change.

You might have forgotten me by now, I've been gone a long time, but there was a short period where we conversed, and I withdrew from all of this for personal issues, which I don't mind talking about. But I would like to announce that I am back, and still thoroughly enjoying your ramblings.

~ Alex, the seventeen year old British boy.

Navin said...

Dear Sir,
This is a very relevant topic of discussion that you have started here. In my personal experience, we Indians suffer from conformism to the extent that it is not possible for any real change to take place fast, or even a vibrant democracy to exist. Even in our personal values, we live lives of dead men and women. Most parents do not encourage independent thinking in their children and it is largely because they do not want to face any unfamiliar consequences. It pays to make duds out of your children.

This is one of the several tricks which our tradition and culture uses to keep women in india docile and subservient and indian men insensitive and increasingly dependent on ruling with an iron fist over their women.

If only we would be taking our own
decisions, I am quite sure half of our problems would simply vanish.

with regards,


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvro da

This is a very important essay.

Every year, I meet with fresh graduates at work and find no correlation at all between their marks in the university and their work ethics /general quality of work. Most of them are scared to “look bad” so either they don’t take decision about their part of the job or they shirk ownership. The more empowered people are becoming with technology etc, the more scared they are of doing things “incorrect”.

In fact, this time when I toured India, I was surprised to find out there are hardly any young kid who play outside their home – people are scared to get either dirty or dark(!). Most of today’s children and adolescents are encouraged to remain at home and play with gadgets. They gladly accept too. Seats in shopping complexes like South City Mall meant probably for people who get tired because of long walks are used by couples who date under the air-conditioners. I mean, nothing wrong with that especially since we are getting used to having it easy and as a result are not exercising our feet, body and mind that much.

If people who take decisions on their own become exceptions then at some stage frustrations are bound to rise and overpower us.

Surprisingly, most people I meet tend to accept this change in attitude. Sadly, I cannot.


Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,
Your post reminded me of my childhood and teen years, when I was too dependent on others for work that especially required the use of my limbs. I felt scared to travel alone and would feel butterflies in my stomach when I had to talk to strangers. My manner in conversing with them can only be described as awkward; and some of that awkwardness still remains, although I have to deal with strangers frequently nowadays. For the confused and dependent teenager that I was, I can only blame myself and my parents. Much of the improvement happened only later on, when I got thrown into a hostel, too far away from home to be able to seek help from mummy or daddy, and had to fend for myself.
I entirely agree with Tanmoy da that kids nowadays prefer staying at home in air-conditioned rooms with gadgets for friends than going outside. I myself was a pretty mediocre student (by exam scores, that is), though I excelled in sports and all the pent up frustration of a day at school would be released at the field, in the evenings...Times have changed evidently.
Sayan Datta

santanu Chatterjee said...

As far as i remember, i had written an essay in class 9 titled "Freedom is an illusion", where i had started with the immortal line of Rousseau "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains". So, no matter how much a person, i mean a man(note an interesting thing, Rousseau never talked about woman, because he definitely observed otherwise) strives, there are only a certain number of alternatives from which he is allowed to choose.

Talking about indecisiveness, since time immemorial, human being always had the herd mentality with a miniscule trying to break the 'norm'. And they have been considered to be path breakers. But all said and done, i feel today the indecisiveness and herd mentality has been carried to an extreme as is obvious from everyone trying to follow a particular career path, spending money in the same fashion and so on. Now to end, i have even observed that students are copying from each other's feedback sheets.

Amit parag said...

People who are capable of making up their own mind are those who try to do something,now it is all about trying to be someone-the crescendo of aspirations of the second kind of people points toward stupid, rotten but famous celebrities.
There are two essays that may be worthwhile to read in this context:



Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks, all those who commented. Frankly speaking, I didn't expect too many to comment, because that too requires one to make up one's own mind (besides having anything at all to say), and the whole point of this post is that that is something most of us are not very good at!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Only this morning I learnt that a girl, ex-student, who has been two years in college needs to lie to her father that she is not planning to visit me alone but will bring some friends along. I asked my wife, and she confirmed that things were not so bad in her time, and she was in college more than twenty years ago. I did mention in an earlier blogpost that we didn't see so many children wearing charmed amulets in our day, either... we are 'progressing' so rapidly now that I won't be surprised if in another twenty years' time all our girls were in burqa, and getting married off in their mid-teens to old men again.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I think the inability to make up one's own mind stems from the inability to think about any subject in depth. Also, there is a tendency to shift the blame on to others (the ones who take the decisions) when it doesn't work out. People would rather go ahead and blame them rather than being brave enough to decide for themselves. Most of my peers had no idea of what they were going to study even when they were 17-18 and were clueless till they got a'chance' in the entrance examinations. A classmate who wanted to be a doctor even took the entrance examination of a law college!
Thanks and with regards,

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

This post brings an incident to mind: I was in class 11 and a 'teacher' came to class and wanted one of the students to take part in a football game. He said that he didn't want to, he didn't have the time. She kept on insisting. He finally said that he was grown up enough to make a decision and he didn't want to play. Maybe she took offence at her authority being undermined. She told him, "You're still a kid. You're supposed to study and listen to what your parents and teacher say."

I don't blame the people of my generation entirely for being indecisive about most things. The parents play an important role in the formative years (early years of childhood) and the people around, with whom the kids interact, as well as the teachers in school play very important roles. Some people are lucky in that their parents instill independent-thinking, good moral values and good-habits while they are being raised.

Of late, I have been watching old debates in which people like Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens participated. They debate on topics that are fundamental to society and there's invariably a very large audience to hear them speak. Often there are very good questions from the audience as well. And they are proper debates with decorum and civility, quite unlike what's shown on our news channels, in which the 'debate' very soon degenerates to shouting and quarrelling. When I watch real debates and look at the audience turnout, I realise that it's not hard to guess why theirs is a developed nation.

I hope I didn't go too far off topic.


Dr Preetish Vaidyanathan said...

Dear Suvro,
Permit me to express my gratitude for this excellent blog.How true, most of us are unable to make up our minds even on seemingly trivial issues. It has been an eye-opener for me and reading and re reading your write-up has given solace and strength to take a bold decision in my life. Thankyou Sir.
Preetish Vaidyanathan

Suvro Chatterjee said...


First off, it's delightful to hear from you after ages. I thought I had lost you.

And then, thank you for writing what you did: it's the thought that what I write might make a difference for the better to at least a small handful of people that keeps me hammering away at the keyboard.

Finally, I am not at all sure that you were not pulling my leg. 'Thank you Sir'? Weren't we in school together?

ananya mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
I believe that when we are not organised enough to think deeply or lack the courage to take risks and learn from our mistakes,we emerge as nothing more than virtual slaves(as Rashmi di has aptly pointed out)which prevents us from taking important decisions or making up our own minds. Moreover I also feel that to make up one's own mind one needs to be aware of one's desires(well if there are any such real desires at all)and most importantly be firm regarding one's decisions.Sir I was recently going through your post titled "Ten years of flying solo"and I concluded that you are extraordinarily courageous in some ways and you became a teacher because you had a real desire to become a true teacher and not because anybody had told you to do so.I have also found out that most students study humanities either because their parents want them to or because they are not good at mathematics and hence are afraid to study science.Only a handful of students study literature or history out of a keen interest to know about human nature or simply because they want to think and know more about what it means to lead a good life. There was a girl in our batch who almost evinced that she had deep reverence for Rabindranath Tagore and wanted to study Bengali.I really admired her decision until lately I came to know that she had decided to study some other subject because the others(which certainly included her parents and her neighbours)said"English medium school e pore sheshe Bangla niye porbi!"and she found their suggestion quite wise. It is quite evident here that this girl neither had any real desire to study Bengali nor did she revere someone as great as Rabindranath Tagore.Sir I also feel that if one doesn't regard oneself as an independent human being then one will certainly not acknowledge the freedom of another person. A real parent is the one who not only provides a good upbringing to his/her child but also willingly accepts the fact that child is an individual of its own and hence has the right to choose and fashion a life for itself.Unfortunately most parents are completely unaware of this truth and therefore we find parents(mostly mothers) deciding which subjects their 'babies' should study,with whom they should chat on the net,whether they should have boyfriends/girlfriends etc etc and pathetically try to justify their acts by saying that they love their children. Now did these women ever bother to ask themselves whether their getting married and getting pregnant were at all prevented by the 'love' of their parents?Does a woman who claims that she loves and respects her husband and at the same time can't place her desires (sensible desires)before her husband ever realize that her position is nothing more than a mere slave in her husband's house? Well I can keep on adding to this list but I wish to stop here.
Thank you for this wonderful post Sir. I am sure that this post will help me take certain important decisions in future.