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Vision sees Beyond, not Around – By Asif Zaidi

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Recently a friend asked me who my hero in Pakistan is. My answer was that there is no one who can be universally acclaimed as a hero in Pakistan.

In order to agree on a hero, a nation has to first become a nation. All other malaises apart, it is only when we become Pakistanis before Muslims, Muslim sects, and ethnic groups that we can share a hero. In a polarized society one’s hero becomes someone’s enemy for no fault of his or hers – think Malala. On a personal note, my only hero from Pakistan’s history is Abdus Sattar Edhi, who will never get his due in a society where people are brought up to live and act by ‘confirmation biases’. Off late Malala and Aitzaz Hasan have been sources of inspiration for me. People who see warriors as their heroes are skewed in my eyes. Warriors are just warriors – good or bad. For instance, I dislike Imran Khan’s favourite Mahmud of Ghazna. You, like Imran, may like him. That’s fine. But invaders can’t be heroes. For me, the likes of Edhi and Aitzaz make the case for a society to discover and honour its heroes. The heroes invariably exist in all ages and in all societies but are often humble and obscure people, living devoid of publicity. It is for others to take notice of them.


In societies like ours, characters assigned fictional attributes often sow their way into the hearts of people. Such characters are easy to respect as they are posthumously made to do as is loved by their followers. These heroes combine the qualities of faith, myth, and legend. They are admired for their strength, impossible feats, infallibility etc.

Heroes are the seers, the men of vision and action who inspire us to lead worthwhile lives that can be integrated into a good human society. When a nation begins to honour the real heroes of its own and the broader human history it will be spared the ravages of chaos and disorder as it shall be able to see the light by which to conduct the operations of life.


For a writer to be able to connect with humanity the minimum requirement is that he or she must be a genuine and earnest person striving to reach the state of inwardness without which the essence of life cannot be grasped. Only then can he afford his readers a peep into a vision of the world which is furnished by the light that the writer has kindled in himself. Only then can a writer sincerely articulate a viewpoint grounded on his approach to life and its problems. For me, some of the writers who have made a cogent point of their vision of man’s status and his role in the scheme of things include, in no particular order, Homer, Euripides, Du Fu, Rumi, Dante, Hafiz, William Shakespeare, Charles Baudelaire, John Milton, Ivan Turgenev, Lord Byron, Tolstoy, George Orwell, Ghalib, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, William Faulkner, George Bernard Shaw, Steven Wallace etcetera.

All these great writers show us that the world in which we live and struggle cannot be explained by the data that our senses commit to our consciousness. They manifest an ability to transcend the world of appearances and contemplate the Truth which reveals itself in the creation but is yet independent of it. What matters is the encounter of the facts provided by our senses with the principle of intelligibility. That is how science works, that is how art works, and that is how life progresses. It is as if there is an unseen that helps us to see. This is the faith in the unseen which presents to us a certain image of eternity and enables us to see things as they are. It liberates us, sustains Man’s dignity, and lends nobility to the commonest state of everyday life.

What distinguishes one man from the other is this gift of seeing things as they are. This gift is bestowed upon various people in varying degrees and guises; some are blessed with an ability to see things as they are and others are caught in the deceptive web of mere appearances. The artist intercedes by building those bridges of communion between the tangible and the intangible to help us to go beyond the mere appearance of things. The humanity values the men who are endowed with the gift of vision and the ability to communicate the truth of things. Only someone who can see things as they are and can help us to share his vision can truly be our leader, guide, or philosopher. If we contemplate the human history in an effort to understand the decisive forces that have shaped it and have equipped it with that vital impulse responsible for human progress, we see that mankind has always owed its fortunes to the few heroes it has produced – the few who are the salt of the earth.

It is the function of writers, as the ‘Priests of Humanity’ in Carlyle’s words, to communicate the truth in the vernacular of the age in which they happen to live. Providing the man with incentives to inspire his daily conduct is, to me, the main concern of any writer worthy of his vocation. The ordinary mass of mankind are so engrossed in the day-to-day task of responding to their biological and mental needs that they neither have the time nor the will to penetrate through the world of appearances. Just as a great scientist deciphers the physical world -from the DNA to the farthest known star- to us, a great writer interprets our experience of the world for us with a view to disclosing its hidden dimension. Carlyle described this role in memorable words: “In the true literary man there is this effort, a sacredness: he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest guiding it like a sacred pillar of fire in its dark pilgrimage through the wastes of time.”

Now you may say that in our times it is hard to find writers who, in fact, correspond to this idea of Carlyle. Not entirely true. One, there are those seers who have the gift of discovering and articulating as scientists like Darwin and Einstein. Two, more lately the art of writing –like all else- has been commercialized and hence the output from genius is dictated by what sells. Writing has become a trade and it has become difficult from the prodigious outpouring of printed, electronic, and filmed word to select what is verily worthy of our attention. There is, alas! so much trash around. But, despite that, one still sees inspired writings and movie productions as the hallmark of great souls responsible for them.

Macaulay was right in remarking, “As a civilization advances, poetry declines.” But that is not because Man’s quest for the truth of things declines. It is simply because, in our time, the great mind that serves as the tool to apprehend the truth of things is more rationally steered towards sciences. The vocation of great writers has made way for the occupation of great scientists and inventors. The modern man knows so much that a good knowledge of science is essential to keep pace with the immense range of facts and contexts with which it is necessary to cultivate acquaintance to have a good understanding of our world. The scale of modern man’s contact with the world of experience has become enormous.

The twenty-first century man embraces the whole world through his ability to travel and through internet and electronic media. My favourite TV presenters have literally become an inmate of my home, whereas my next door neighbour may be a mere disinterested spectator of my existence. A remarkable change has taken place in this automated and ‘webbed’ world. No doubt our ancestors lived a lot more intensely than we do. They were a vital part of their own personal experience. We have lost our ancestors’ ability to know people and places closely and intimately. Not only is there for us too much to know but there is also so much more to do. We need ceaseless stream of energy to cope with the challenges that the modern world has placed on us. The result is that the modern man is losing the ability to feel intensely most of what is happening around him. The world of verbalization, picturing, and make-believing is dimming our capacity for emotionally experiencing the truth of things. I know many will object to the emotional bit, let me explain this further. Knowing a great deal more of what is happening in the world finds our emotional energy spread out on too large a surface of events and concerns. This is the real explanation why we have become superficial except regarding our specialized concerns. Pre-occupation with too much drives us far away from ourselves.

The fulfilment of man’s life lies in a harmonious development of his personality. What cannot be emotionally experienced by man is very difficult to be understood by him. Understanding is not merely an intellectual operation as our intellectual encounter with reality may yield information but not understanding. We understand only when our personality responds to the things or thoughts in question. All words that we may use in the absence of this direct personal experience animating them are reduced to mere instinctively projected expressions. After all, the ability to communicate is simply a handmaid of that truth which has been personally experienced by us. A writer cannot successfully communicate the hidden dimensions of life if he has not been able to discover them for himself. Woolly verbal expressions cannot make up for the poetic truth of a Ghalib.

Another handicap is the belief in the omnipotence of money. Whether or not we consciously acknowledge it, our age worships exclusively the god of money. Prosperity is no substitute for vision. Compare Sweden or Norway with oil-rich Arab and African nations, for instance. Of old it has been said, “Nations without men of vision perish.” The great artists, writers, and scientists of whom humanity has reason to be proud were not, by and large, affluent people. Money no doubt can do a lot but it cannot produce a genius. The immortality is a reward that comes to those who are qualified to point out to us what is important and what is not important; what is transient and what is abiding; what is superfluous and what counts in the scheme of things. People like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

I do not mean to say that an affluent society is an enemy of the creative spirit. But, indeed, a man who serves no other purpose except to accumulate wealth is obstructed in his career in life by his possessions. He eventually comes to sustain a false relationship with the world in which he lives. Societies with a vision are not worried only about raising of living standards of people but also about the standard of their lives. In the societies with a vision people do make money, a lot of it, but once they have enough to live they do not let carrying wealth become a burden. Any one like Bill Gates who wishes to leave a mark on history does not busy himself with loading his life with material trappings of wealth but is growing in spirit. He leads a life of constant endeavour for attaining something greater and nobler than himself. In spiritual archery, only when we aim at the Heavens can we be at all able to shoot the tree.  Life, like the flowing waters of a stream, retains its freshness only when in aspiration it keeps on moving forward.

 

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