NOSTALGIA is one hell of a drug. Easily available to all and with as much mind-bending potential as any other narcotic, it performs the peculiar and comforting function of making the past seem rosier than it was. It imbues those who — like myself — have suffered through more than a few decades of life with, at the very least, the belief that things were once better; that society itself was better than it is today.

Was it, really? It is hard to be sure, and despite the insistent tide of romanticism trying to shipwreck you on the distant shore of constructed memory, one cannot shake the belief that every generation stretching back to the dawn of humanity has felt the same: that it used to be better in their days. Undoubtedly, I am doing the same. Things may look bad, but maybe they always have been more or less the way they are now.

And yet one cannot escape the feeling that the threads that tie together the very fabric of society are fraying faster than ever before, that the centre cannot and will not hold. There is a feeling of an inevitable and inexorable decline in every aspect of society, a descent that leads not to rock bottom, but to quicksand: you don’t land with a thud and a splatter; you just keep sinking.

Everywhere, there is anger: an ugly, bubbling, boiling and foaming rage that seems to rise from the belly to the brain, short-circuiting our nervous systems as it goes. Unfocussed and unreasoning, it is an anger that needs targets, and those we find all too easily everywhere around us.

While concerted attempts are being made to render Pakistani society homogenous, the threads that bind us together are fraying faster than ever before. What can be done to forestall the impending gloom.

We happily police the lives of others, because our own lives are so lawless. We find it all too easy to pass judgement on strangers, loudly censuring even the most minor deviations, while refusing to apply the same lofty standards to ourselves. We point fingers like it is a national sport, while ignoring the fact that when we do so, at least three fingers point right back at us. After all, nothing feels quite as right as self-righteousness. Everything — patriotism, virtue or religion included — is now a commodity to be bought and sold.

Our principles are as disposable as single-use plastics; our truths, buried under terabytes of lies; hypocrisy, our stock in trade. State repression is bad if those we support are its targets. Establishment’s interference is to be lauded, but only if it takes place against our opponents. Like a cancer of the soul, the malignancy spreads and metastasises from the top down, producing polarised generations for whom black is white, and up is down. Words themselves have lost their meaning from overuse and misuse, degraded in large part by those who have a mouth full of scripture and a heart full of hatred. And it is going to get far worse before, and if, it ever gets better.

How we ended up like being this is not a mystery. In fact, you could even say that it was inevitable given everything we have been through as a nation: we were born in the blood and chaos of Partition, the trauma of which, like a treasured family relic, is passed down from generation to generation. We were orphaned at too early an age and raised by a succession of adoptive and often abusive parents. The heroes we elevated to near-godhood always turned out to have feet of base, stinking clay.

No wonder then that more trauma followed; we have warred and continue to war against ourselves, with our victories all too often turning to ashes in our mouths as yesterday’s patriots become today’s traitors. We are still fed on a diet of falsehoods, raised on a regimen of denial, told that our problems were not our fault but that of others. Over and over, we were deceived into thinking that (if only) some messiah would appear and clean up the whole system, we would finally achieve our destined glory; that if only someone would free us from the shackles of (insert your preferred bugbear here!), we would inevitably rise to prophesised heights. It is a seductive lie, one that appeals not only to our ego, but provides the fuel for the rage that is then so easily directed towards whatever target the false prophets of the day choose.

Like good little lemmings, we have happily been marched off many a cliff, and told we were flying. Worst yet, we seem to be happy with the deception, and why wouldn’t we be when the lie is so much more comforting than the reality? What could be easier than to deny our own responsibilities and agency, and instead ascribe our failures to dark forces beyond our control? Isn’t this why we choose to cling for dear life to the wildest conspiracy theories rather than face the sobering realisation that we are the architects of our own fate in a chaotic universe?

It is also not a surprise that, despite so many decades of existence, we are still in the throes of an identity crisis. The geniuses who consider themselves the architects of our fate found diversity of opinion, faith, ethnicity and ideology to be frightening and tried to steamroll us into an imposed homogeneity. In retrospect, it seems obvious that any such effort was always doomed to backfire, given that it is much like trying to hold water in your hand by squeezing your fist.

In the name of strength and unity, they put us in straightjackets and now they wonder why the world around them looks like an insane asylum.

We find ourselves in a position where the very institutions that brought us to this pass themselves stand diminished and discredited and unable to command or demand respect. Thus, it is natural that, in the face of such crippling uncertainty, we form tribes. We divide and subdivide ourselves into the ‘us’ who will set everything right, and the accursed ‘them’ who stand in the way of all that is holy and righteous.

Now, you could argue that it has always been this way, and you would be right. But today there is also a crucial difference: today we are at the mercy of social media algorithms that harness our anger and hate to maximise engagement. Now, the tribe is a click away and the pressure to hate what they hate and love what they love is well nigh impossible to resist. That conditional validation is what we crave, that rage is what we use to fill the abyss of our souls, that fleeting dopamine hit that joining the mob gets us is our drug of choice, and, like addicts, we live in constant fear of withdrawal.

We mistake bravado for bravery, but this is just cowardice masquerading as courage; rage alone isn’t going to build us a better society and bitterness certainly is not going to lead to a better future. For that to happen, we need to develop the ability to talk to, and not at, each other. For us to move forward we have to treat conversation not as a blood sport in which there can be only one victor, but as a collaboration in which one can learn and, perhaps even more crucially, unlearn.

And make no mistake: progress is not and will never be linear. For every step forward, there may be three steps backwards and we must shed the somewhat arrogant belief that positive change is only worthwhile if it takes place instantly, or at the very least within our lifetimes. The fact is that you could struggle your entire life for a cause only to find that victory denied you. Struggle anyway. Sometimes, you must build a bridge of your own bones, knowing you yourself will never get to cross it. Build it anyway.

The writer is a Dawn columnist.

Opinion

Editorial

Kindness needed
20 Jun, 2024

Kindness needed

TODAY, on World Refugee Day, we pause to reflect on the many challenges faced by refugees across the globe. From...
Fitch’s budget note
20 Jun, 2024

Fitch’s budget note

PAKISTAN’S ongoing economic crisis is multifaceted. At one end, the government must pursue stabilisation policies...
Cruelty to animals
20 Jun, 2024

Cruelty to animals

TWO recent incidents illustrate the immense cruelty many in this country subject voiceless animals to. In the first...
Price bombs
Updated 18 Jun, 2024

Price bombs

It just wants to take the easy route and enjoy the ride for however long it is in power.
Palestine’s plight
Updated 17 Jun, 2024

Palestine’s plight

While the faithful across the world are celebrating with their families, thousands of Palestinian children have either been orphaned, or themselves been killed by the Israeli aggressors.
Profiting off denied visas
Updated 19 Jun, 2024

Profiting off denied visas

The staggering rejection rates underscore systemic biases in the largely non-transparent visa approval process.