Ahmed Afzaal


If we could grasp the whole of reality all at once, we would know that it is not just fair but unimaginably good and benevolent.  As things stand, this grasping of the whole seems to be clearly out of our reach. Read More

A Grand Delusion

A delusion is a false belief that is tenaciously held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Delusions are not the sole property of clinically insane individuals; they are the common lot of humanity. Despite the suffering they cause, the vast majority of human beings continue to live under the influence of one or another set of delusions.  The worst of our delusions are those that become so ubiquitous as to acquire an aura of facticity.  They go unchallenged because they are not seen as false by any of the significant individuals around us.  In effect, we confirm one another’s delusions by acting as if they were true.

One of the most pernicious of these false beliefs is the delusion of ownership.  This delusion emerges in childhood when we invest words like “my” and “mine” with too much reality.  Since the significant individuals around us appear to be functioning under the same delusion, they do not challenge our misuse of these words.  Soon, we start taking these words not as useful metaphors or convenient fictions but as accurate indicators of the way things really are.

The delusion of ownership is associated with a long list of symptoms, each of which leads to further suffering.  If I believe that something belongs to me, that it is “mine,” then I feel justified in holding that (1) it’s mine because I deserve it, (2) my worth is a reflection of its value, (3) nobody has the right to take it away from me, (4) if I lose it my worth will come down, (5) I am free to use it any way I please, etc.  A large number of human predicaments, from neuroses and political conflicts to global climate change, can be traced to one or another manifestation of the grand delusion of ownership.

We frequently derive our sense of worth from what others say about us.  What others say about us is often related to how many things we own, or can own if we choose to.  This is no longer a subtle or unconscious phenomenon but has permeated into ordinary language in a blatant way.  When we hear a sentence like “how much he/she is worth,” we immediately know that the number of zeros in a person’s bank balance are at issue, not his/her moral qualities or character traits.

Not only our sense of worth, but in the final analysis even our sense of personal reality has become bound to the delusion of ownership.  I own things, therefore I exist.  If I lose some of them, I am diminished in the hierarchy of existence.  If I notice that you own more than I do, then I immediately feel small in relation to you.  This may lead to a sense of resentment.  Even if I own more things than you do, I still feel a gnawing dissatisfaction because the world dosn’t know this yet.  In order to feel real and worthy in the eyes of the world, I must display my property in one form or another, letting everyone know that I do, in fact, own more than you.  I have now become the object of other people’s admiration and jealousy, therefore I exist.

Yet, no human being ever owns anything.  Things do find their way into our possession and we do use and enjoy them for a while, but eventually they degenerate or are taken up by natural processes of recycling or they move into the possession of someone else.  As soon as we realize the movement of time across eons and millennia and even across decades, the fictive nature of ownership is exposed.  Yet, entire economic systems are built on the unreal foundation of this very fiction.  There is, of course, a limited use for this fiction in the legal system and in the proper functioning of social relations, though even here we find the devastating tendency to take this metaphor too literally.

To imagine ownership as real is possible only by pretending that time is unreal, that change does not exist.  It is only by making time stand still, only by refusing to acknowledge the reality of perpetual change in the universe, that we delude ourselves into thinking that we own anything at all.  On the other hand, if neither us nor what we possess and use is here for ever, if the only constant in the world is change itself, then we are mere custodians, guardians, trustees, stewards… anything but owners.

Like toddlers in a day-care center, we are allowed to play with the toys but we can’t take them with us at the end of the day.  Someone else owns them.

Be the Lament, or don’t Bother Singing

Here is an Urdu couplet by the Indian mystic-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.

The words of this couplet are fairly simple and the symbolism is traditional; yet its meanings are fresh and the underlying concepts have a distinctly contemporary flavor.  A simple paraphrase follows:

In this garden, either be a follower of the nightingale or a disciple of the rose; either become the lament [like the former] or refrain completely from singing [like the latter].

The symbols used in this couplet are familiar to any student of Indo-Persian literature. They have been used over and over again over many centuries, but usually within a limited range of semantic possibilities. It is this well-established cultural tradition that makes these symbols immediately recognizable all over the Persian and Urdu speaking societies of Asia. In this couplet, however, Iqbal manages to do something novel with these old symbols, reviving them as effective metaphors by pouring into them fresh insights.

The garden is obviously the world; the nightingale and the rose are two ways of being in the world, the former representing a life of self-expression and the latter a life of quiet contemplation. The nightingale sings, not out of joviality and celebration but in response to her pain. The nightingale’s pain is one of longing, of separation from the beloved (which is usually the rose). The song is therefore a lament. Innumerable poets have seen a reflection of their own yearning in the nightingale’s anguished song. The rose, on the other hand, is self-reflective, almost self-absorbed.

The symmetrical form of the couplet seems to indicate that there is nothing wrong with either of these options; it is as legitimate to be a rose as it is to be a nightingale. Whether one becomes this or that depends largely on one’s temperament, which is at least partly inherent and fixed. Yet, both lines of the couplet are in the imperative case, suggesting not only the possibility of choice but also its inevitability.

Jungians would say that the nightingale stands for extraversion and the rose for introversion. They would also see nothing wrong with either personality type, though each obviously has its limitations. Most Jungians would probably agree that a great deal of one’s propensity to be outward-looking or inward-looking are biologically given, more or less fixed, with only limited possibilities for conscious change.

From a religious viewpoint, being a nightingale amounts to prophetic religiosity that emphasizes practical ethics, and being a rose amounts to mystical religiosity with its stress on contemplative prayer and spiritual experience. A person’s inborn personality traits are obviously relevant to the kind of religiosity that he/she would find most satisfying. Both the prophetic and the mystical kinds of religiosity have existed throughout the recorded history of religion. Who is to say which of the two is superior?

But if nightingale and rose are two ways of being in the world, the issue at stake goes considerably beyond the question of types. In order to be in the world, i.e., in order to practice authentic being, a person has to take into account not only his/her own psychological propensities and subjective preferences but also the external demands of the moment. As we experience and encounter them, the objective demands of the world are never static. Sometimes the world allows and even encourages a person to be a rose; it provides opportunities and incentives for quiet contemplation, silent meditation, introspection, introversion, and self-exploration. At other times, the world is experienced in diametrically opposite ways, when it demands action and struggle directed outwards into the objective reality. At such moments, authentic being can best be practiced by becoming a nightingale. In times like that, self-expression is preferable to contemplation; one must stand up and speak out. To remain a rose when the world demands otherwise is not only to forsake one’s duty, it is also to suffer diminishing in being. One ceases to be real insofar as one ceases to be authentic.

For those individuals who are accustomed to being roses, the call to self-expression naturally provokes great anxiety. One response to such an existential challenge is to find refuge in a false sense of modesty or of self-imposed limitations; another is to accept the call but only half-heartedly, saying yes while insisting on a plethora of ifs and buts in small print. Iqbal’s couplet is a critique of this very reluctance, this avoidance of full commitment, that precludes the actualization of being at the precise moment when it is most likely to bloom into unforeseen beauty. In a state of being neither here nor there, one desperately seeks the comfort of remaining a rose, dreading the risks involved in living the life of a nightingale but also realizeing at some level that one’s very reality is at stake.

There is, then, no middle ground between the silent contemplation of the rose and the loud and daring self-expression of the nightingale. If one lacks the courage to be a nightingale, then Iqbal suggests it is better to remain a rose; there is no point in getting up on to the stage if one is only going to clear one’s throat, make a few practice notes, and then end one’s performance with a whimper.

Be the lament that’s in you, Iqbal says, or don’t sing at all.

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