Friday, November 6, 2009

Of desensitization and defence mechanisms

My mother breaks down crying with one look at the front page photo spread of the Peshawar market bomb blasts. The image is poignant … a father and a relative frantically rushing a small child to the hospital. The child looks barely six or seven years old, if that, and is obviously heavily injured and unconscious.

What disturbs me more than the image though, is that the same morning, I have looked at the same image and felt hardly a passing twinge. So what's the deal here? Did mom overreact? Or have I turned to stone. For reasons, obvious enough to people who know me, this buzzed around in my head all day. Restless, and disturbed, I got no work done, but couldn’t put things down in writing either. What was I thinking, what was I feeling, what got under my skin so badly? It just churned around in my head for days and days, and refused to become crystallized enough to write about.

As bhai says, distance is almost essential sometimes. The whole "emotions recollected in tranquility" bit, bullshit as it may sound like when applied to poetry, does seem to be the only thing that works, sometimes. Only, this time, I'm not so sure it'll work. My head feels no clearer than that morning, and I still feel as lousy as I did then. Only, now, it's in fits and starts, every time I remember.

Everyone knows I was a big softie who cried at the drop of a hat. My man, who happens to have known me since I was about 10, claims that this "baat baat per rone ki adat" is one of the things that drew him to me in the first place. Others have had varied reactions. Some found it endearing, some irritating; some thought me sensitive, some called me nyaka. Whatever the reactions, I remember what it was like.

Dissolving in tears when I visited a friend who was hurt, crying when I went "home" to Dehradun, weeping at the sight of old friends, or at a film, or with a good book; this was an everyday occurrence. And I can still feel those pangs, although the waterworks have been ebbing over time.

I have found myself less and less prone to hydraulic display as the years pass. I don’t always like the fact, but I see its advantages sometimes. It's another defence mechanism, like my fat jokes. Someone told me recently that I am good company because I laugh at myself. What they obviously didn’t get, at least about the overweight jokes, is that it's an extension of the offense-is-the-best-defense adage.

Having been overweight most of my life, and sick of callous people whose first comment to you… on chat and in real life… is have you tried exercise/diet/gym/whatever, I have become exceptionally good at laughing at my own weight. Since I have no weight related health issues, am not part of the skinny is sexy brigade, and definitely not unhappy with the way I look, I have never quite "got" what business it is of casual acquaintances that I am not a "CNN coverage of Ethiopia". However, to avoid the repeated, pernicious and yes hurtful comments (from well meaning friends who don’t realize that it hurts, to strangers who don’t care), I learnt early to make fun of it. Better me laughing at me than them making me cry. Often, too, the way I jump into and even begin the fat jokes nonplusses and confuses the others, puts then a little bit off balance, which is good.

So then, coming back to the "crying" there are many kinds of defense mechanisms one learns to adopt over one's lifetime. Over my thirty odd years, I've had my share of pain. And yes I know my life isn’t nearly the most tragic, it's had its pits. Being someone as given to being hurt as I was practically dragged me into the nuthouse. And then, fighting to think through a haze of antidepressants that threatened to turn me into a zombie, I decide ENOUGH.

Either I had to grow my own set of walls, filters, sluices and defenses, or I was never gonna make it, mentally and emotionally at least. That’s one reason why I don’t cry much these days, and probably feel with much less intensity. (Come to think of it, that might be another reason why poetry has dried up recently). But that’s not all. There is more, I guess, to the difference in mum's reaction, and mine.

People of every generation complain that the next generation is more callous, has less depth, and feels less than they do. That’s probably true, but is it as reprehensible as they make it out to be? Is it such a bad thing? Is it entirely the fault of "aaj kal ke bacche"? I think not. Incidents of violence have been increasing steadily since I was a child. In numbers, as well as percentage, these things have gone through the roof. Human life seems cheap, and blood like so much spilt paint. If anyone is to really maintain sanity, and function in some coherent way, one cannot afford to feel intensely about every incident, every life lost.

Not just our ability to feel empathy, but the ability to step out of the door and have a normal day, depends on being able to fell less and less as we see and hear more and more about such things. If we didn’t get progressively more "callous", we would simple turn into gibbering masses of flesh curled up on our living room floors unable to function from grief and fear. And although the growing lack of "feeling" is one of the biggest problems society is facing now, there really is no other way for an individual to survive.

Terrorism doesn’t look like its going to take a breather soon. Neither does it seem as if the myriad other socio-politico-economic problems that are rampant today are suddenly going to solve themselves. Given the world we live in, what are our options? What, specifically, is my option to try and hold on to my humanity and sensitivity, without going nuts? I guess this process, this act of questioning why I feel the way I feel, of probing why I feel less now than I did 20 years ago….. this is a start.