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View from US: Stories we live by

August 21, 2011

Our lives are a patchwork of fiction, we console ourselves. Life looks too artificial to be taken seriously, we say. People we interact with daily are unreal, we internalise. Existence itself is an upside-down show, we philosophise. Aliveness is a bubble that can burst anytime to end life. Are these thoughts and feelings merely a web of our imagination beamed from an alien planet or are they a reflection of how we perceive life?

And thereby hangs a tale, not told by an idiot, hopefully as Shakespeare said in 'As you Like it,' about the 'motley' fool moralising about the passage of time while telling the cynic Jaques  "how the world wags… from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale."  But seriously, how do we as individuals perceive the microcosm we live in? I am neither a philosopher nor a pop psychologist. But it would not have hurt to be one.

I think the Science of Mind should be a compulsory subject in our school and college curriculum. It can help us understand why we have been sent in this world. Many of you may ask what I mean by the Science of Mind. Simply stated it is a philosophy that "integrates spiritual truths with science and philosophy." It teaches us the unity of all life. The magazine called 'Science of Mind' helps us further with this concept by stating: "we believe that the secret to living a successful life is to consciously choose positive and productive thoughts. Put another way, 'As you think, so you become.'"

This is sage advice. For humans diverting the mind from the mundane to the profound is understandably difficult. We as mortals are prone to the banalities, rivalries, malice and commonplace enmities. That is why it's important we start learning about the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful early in our formative years. The best way to learn is through telling stories.

Let me begin with telling you a story by a professor of psychology who has analysed President Obama's failure to tell his story. Drew Westen, writing for the Sunday Review of the New York Times describes the speech made by Obama on his inauguration day back in 2009:  "It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear - and needed to hear - but he (Obama) didn't tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it… The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to 'expect' stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought."

None can put it more eloquently than Prof Westen has. Obama's biggest mistake: fighting shy to tell the full story. When he was canvassing for president he would often speak of "the arc of history," referring to the immortal words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

When Obama took office he declined to tell the American people why and who really was responsible for the economic collapse he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. His stories could have mattered and won him the hearts of the suffering Americans. Instead he rehired the same people who were responsible for the financial debacle, losing forever his credibility. "He's just a one-term president," the electorate is heard vowing. "He's let us down very badly."

A Pakistani-American who describes himself as a Republican Party supporter said after Obama won: "He's a disaster in the making. He is not a businessman. He has no sense how capitalism works. At best Obama is like an English professor whose flawless diction and silvery speech is a showstopper; a crowd puller. But beyond that, he's nothing. America is headed down south during his presidency."

I respectfully disagreed with his dark predication, even calling him a 'prophet of doom.' He merely smiled. Today, he must be smiling a little more because his horoscope on Obama's handling of finance is 100 per cent accurate. Under Obama watch, America has lost its triple A credit rating because it's being perceived a nation unable to manage its finances because of the inability of Congress to unanimously agree on one plan.

And this brings me to the second 'sin' - ego. Had the law makers in Congress kept their egos in check, America's first time in history downgrade could have been avoided. Ego is an intrinsic characteristic of us humans. Shaking it off is difficult. The "Tea Party" who are a minority in the Republican Party coalition exercised total control on how far the Republicans could go in bringing about a compromise.

In the end there was a puerile solution of handing over the task of reducing expenses to a "Super Committee." Congress virtually admitted before their electorate that they could not come to a solution themselves. The question many asked was why they were there at all.  The answer to this is that their egos got in the way.

In our daily lives, we allow our egos to dictate how we should treat others. Here's a small parable you may relate to: there once lived a man who through sheer hard work became an attorney and then a senator and then the president of the most powerful country in the world. His book 'The audacity of hope' became an instant bestseller. He promised change but change never came. We expected that time would ripen qualities like the value of identifying with the whole, having courage, moving with the natural flow of events but Obama who turned 50 last week instead held fast to his ego. It has proved his undoing.