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To recognise yourself, look down

Customer: ‘I need a rope.’
Shopkeeper: ‘What’s it for?’
Customer: ‘Suicide.’
Shopkeeper: ‘That will be two hundred shillings.’
Customer: ‘What? That’s too much. I’ll buy it elsewhere.’
Shopkeeper: ‘What does it matter to you? You’re about to die anyway!

That was a scene from a movie I watched decades ago. I laughed at the time, but years later I reflect on the exchange. What does it tell us about ourselves?

Our interactions with most other people are just transactions. One side of the transaction must protect its gains and its profit margins; the other must recoil at any suspicion of being over-charged. The actual need behind the transaction is ignored, and irrelevant.

Why would the shopkeeper not react with sympathy, rather than see a chance to make a quick buck? Why would he not try to talk the customer out of his intention? And why would the customer not let the shopkeeper have his profit, since he would be departing anyway?

Because we have wired ourselves to maximise our gains from everything we do, big and small, that’s why. We don’t see the human being; only the net gain or loss. Even when a death is looming, we are maximising.

The one place people do sometimes stop to take stock is the funeral. I heard a comedian say the other day: at funerals everyone becomes a philosopher. When staring at the dead body of someone known to them, they say things like ‘you can’t take it with you’; or ‘in the end the only property we own is that six-foot casket.’ The mourners gain some profundity; they see something bigger than their material belongings.

But immediately upon departing the funeral, the very same people can be found loudly haggling about the taxi fare, or making phone calls on their mobiles to make sure they got the right price on some deal or other. The philosophy only lasts as long as the funeral does.

Early in my book The Bigger Deal, I reflect on this phenomenon:

‘Other people’s funerals are a good place for deeper thought. Observing endings is a suitable time to dwell on the meaning of your own life. Many people experience a moment of realization during a funeral; most, however, walk away brushing it off. They get back to their lives, get on with their work, make themselves busy – anything to not have to think about the thing, that unsettling, scary thing. And the thing is this: we are all, all of us, insignificant. It doesn’t matter whose eulogy is being delivered: whether it’s a loyal employee or a respected CEO; a plumber or an epoch-creating president. It’s all the same. In the end, all earthly achievements fade away. Life goes on. People move on. Memories fade. None of us wants to accept this, yet all of us must.’

It would serve us well to reflect on our own insignificance throughout our lives. Not just when confronted with the deaths of others, or our own mortality, but always. Consider these lines from Baba Farīd, renowned Sufi poet and mystic, as he gazes upon a burial:

Look Farīd.
The dust has been opened
And dust is being spilled on dust.
The dust that used to laugh
The dust that used to cry
Is now back to dust.
Just dust.
Look Farīd.

Even in our happiest moments, we are but dust. It is dust that laughs. Even in our times of triumph, we are merely dust. Even when we score the winning deal, it is only dust that wins, and it wins only dust. And when we lie defeated, we get a premonition of where we will eventually lie. Back in the dust.

This recognition would help us make better sense of our lives. It would help us stay grounded, stay humble, and place our wins and losses in perspective. The recognition that we are nothing would, paradoxically, help us to actually become something. We are merely passing through this life; we are merely taking a shape. If we must maximise something, let those things be compassion and goodwill – the things that make us better than just dust.

Kick up some dust now, and look at it. Recognise yourself.

(Sunday Nation, 22 September 2019)

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