Monday, May 21, 2007

The Sisyphuses' of Today

Sisyphus was a Greek king who was made to push a rock up a mountain again and again, only to have it roll back down each time. But he persisted incessantly in this never-ending effort, without despair.

The world today has more people like Sisyphus than ever before. Unlike the original Sisyphus who pushed the rock alone, there are many more Sisyphuses' today and they can together push the rock over the mountain. They can together change the world.

Who are these Sisyphuses' and what do they do? Why do they do what they do, and from where do they draw their inspiration? Is their work of any good? Will they be successful? Should we help them, and if so, then how?

Who are these people?

You just have to look around and you will find them everywhere! There are so many of them now! They are the Mahatama Gandhi's of today, the Mother Teresa's, the Martin Luther King's, the Swami Vivekananda's... All multiplied a thousand times over! They are the people who work with social development organizations for your good -- not for their own, but for the good of others. They are the people who help educate the illiterate, who help the poor fend for themselves, who try to convince the governments to do something about climate change... They are the people who make sure that the municipal corporations responsible for keeping the streets clean, actually keeps them clean. They are the technologists who make technology available to those who don't have it, they are the doctors who provide healthcare to those who can't pay for it, they are the journalists who give voice to the voiceless, they are the social entrepreneurs who relentlessly persist in pursuing their vision to change the world and make it a better place... And there are lots of them now!

What is common among all of them?

All of them have a vision of a better world. They are all working for the good of others to change the world but they face huge challenges, yet they keep on going. They are trying to push the rock up the mountain and it slides back down each time, but they persist in their efforts and do not give up. Mahatama Gandhi was arrested so many times, yet he never resorted to violence and kept up the struggle for Indian independence. Mother Teresa faced many financial difficulties time and again, yet she kept on going and never gave up loving and caring for the sick. Martin Luther King persisted with his struggle for justice and peace and eradication of poverty despite all efforts to silence his views. Swami Vivekananda wandered as a beggar across the length and breadth of India in search of the right path to bring equality among all and inspire millions of Indians to be proud of their heritage and realize what it means to be a good human being. The Sisyphuses' of today are doing just the same, keeping up their struggles and never giving up. Different efforts by them face different challenges: financial, legal, technological, social, cultural, but they always find ways to meet these challenges and move forward. They are not paid to educate the illiterate, or to train the poor in different skills, or to stand in protest rallies against the current government policies to tackle global warming. In fact, teachers are often misunderstood on unreasonable cultural grounds such as religion and caste, grassroots social development workers often get caught in local wars and conflicts that can even be fatal, and protesters often find themselves in jail. Technologists often find their hard work being neglected because it may not be economical to provide services to the poor, doctors often find their hands tied because they do not have adequate finances to help those in need, journalists often their work being sidelined because it does not agree with the commercial and political outlook of their publication agencies, and social entrepreneurs are always hard pressed for time to expand their work and do more. Yet they always find ways to work around the problems and keep on going.

Why do they do this?

Their life cannot be imagined to be comfortable when they have to surmount obstacles at each step. Why then do they not give up and settle back for a relaxed life like so many others of us? They have nothing personal to gain out of their huge efforts. Why then do they bother? For each problem they solve, new problems arise and the chain seems to be never-ending. Why then do they keep working to achieve an ever-receding target, especially when they know that they may never reach it? I do not know the answer, but I do know that all of them have a vision, they believe that this vision is good, and they believe in the religion of pursuing this vision. This is apparent from some quotes by these great people, and which serve as an inspiration for the Sisyphuses' of today.

"I do not care for liberation, I would rather go to a thousand hells, 'doing good to others (silently) like the spring', this is my religion" -- Swami Vivekananda

"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree"
-- Martin Luther King

"If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning" -- Mahatama Gandhi

"I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world... I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish that He didn't trust me so much" -- Mother Teresa

All of these quotes indicate a vision and an undying energy to pursue it to the end, to tackle problems when they arise, and never despair. Just like Sisyphus, they keep on going. The small and big successes every now and then probably gives them satisfaction, or their self-confidence maybe propels them forward, or as Camus puts it in the ending lines of his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, "... one must imagine Sisyphus to be happy"; this happiness they derive in pursuing their visions for a better world is probably what is common among all of them. But whatever be the reason, the important fact is that more and more people today are finding reasons to pursue similar visions, and this is really good.

What are these visions that they are pursuing? And why do I say that pursuing these visions is good?

On the contrary, having a vision and pursuing it relentlessly sounds quite fundamentalist, and the word has unfortunately gained much negative connotation lately. Having a religion and preaching it to others can also be considered as conflicting with the freedom of actions endowed to human beings. In fact, even Lord Buddha once said, "... when I speak to you, don't accept it blindly, because you love and respect me. But, examine it and put it to test, as a goldsmith examines gold by cutting, heating and hammering to know whether it was genuine gold or artificial one. If you see it is acceptable, only then accept and follow it".

The reason why I say that these visions are good, is because they are all based on sound scientific, economic, and religious principles for which I have not found any refutation so far.

Scientific principles such as sustainability have become the holy grail of today. Unless our resource consumption is not countered with a recreation of equivalent resources elsewhere, our activities will deplete the planet of its natural reserves. The Sumerian civilization was wiped out because they did nothing to desalinate their agricultural fields, the Mayan civilization perished because deforestation washed away the top soil from the mountain slopes where they grew their crops, and similar consequences arose in other parts of the world where ever unsustainable agricultural practices were followed. Today, our activities related to resource consumption have gone beyond agriculture to fuel consumption, minerals, and energy generation. Unless we do not understand the underlying processes and make sure that they are sustainable, our civilization will have terrible consequences to face.

What about economic principles? You may argue that leftist ideals such as equality and justice that most Sisyphuses' of today support strongly, are all too socialist and history has proved that it is not practical to pursue them in the long term. The demise of the Soviet Republic and the large amount of social inequality still present in China, indicate that socialism and communism may not be the right path to follow. Capitalism on the other hand, which relies on letting society progress as fast as it can, regulated by the free market, has led to rapid technological developments that have benefited the rich and the poor alike. These rightists argue that competition solves everything; the rich may become richer faster than the poor, but the poor also become richer much faster than they would had leftist agendas been followed. Keynes summarized this by saying "... the road to heaven is paved bad intentions, for foul is useful but fair is not". Policies in the world of today can however not be simplified in terms of left and right alone. Pursuing a completely leftist agenda may surely lead to stagnation, but a completely rightist agenda will also kill the system because the world is so much more connected today. The newspaper was responsible for the French revolution, the television was responsible for the uprisings in S. Africa against apartheid, and the cellphones were responsible for turning over the government in the Phillippenes. The poor and underprivileged are no longer alone but they are connected with each other and can topple the system if it goes beyond tolerable limits. Most of the world's population lives in democratic countries today, and political will can easily be turned one way or another because the mob is no longer stupid but smarter than ever before. They know how to demand equal opportunities for their economic upliftment, and they know how to make their demands heard by others. Capitalism vs. socialism, or left vs. right, or liberals vs. democrats, is no longer a valid classification for economic policies. Free markets have to function together with state control for democratization of opportunities to create wealth, big corporations have to make sure that their activities do not exploit the poor, and banks have to help the poor create enterprises instead of focusing only on the rich.

Religious principles such as love, caring, helping, and not doing harm to others that the Sisyphuses' promote, are common to all religions. You just have to take your pick! The objective of Nirvana in Buddhism, or Heaven in Christianity, or unification of the soul with the Brahmana in Vedantism, or any other religion for that matter, is immaterial because the path to attain this objective is the same for all religions. Buddhism argues about the middle path to life, Christianity argues about donating your wealth and being good to others, Vedantism argues about realizing the effects of your actions, but all these philosophies can be followed in only one way: by loving and caring and helping your fellow human beings and other living creatures. There is no other way of life that remains in consonance with these religious philosophies. It is important not to confuse religion with God though. There are atheists like Dawkins who claim that science can explain everything, or those who say that economics governs the rules of living in this world. I myself do not have strong stands about the existence or non-existence of God. But people who come from this point of view should understand that it is their most important responsibility to extend their scientific and economic theories to explain phenomenon that their theories cannot explain so far. If science and economics is their religion, then they should make sure that they understand it much better. Buddhism, Christianity, Vedantism, and other religions essentially set the bounding lines for human actions whenever there is a lack of knowledge or ambiguity in the results of our actions. The modern religions of science and economics should do the same and come up with bounding lines for life whenever their theories fail to predict the best way forward.

The Sisyphuses' of today may come from a religious point of view, or from economics, or from science, but the principles which form the basis of their vision and the philosophies they promote, are all backed up by solid theories that validate their actions. This is why I say that pursuing these visions is good because there is reason behind them.

Will they be successful, and how can we help them?

What is different today is that there are many more Sisyphuses' around us than ever before. And they do not function under a single umbrella, but the social movement is completely decentralized. It is easy to put an end to a centralized entity, but distributed systems are extremely robust and hard to break. This is why I have a lot of hope that the mini-movements started by these Sisyphuses' will keep on going, transforming and mutating, but never dying. Never before in history have there been so many leaders doing so many diverse things. There can be many reasons for this. It may be because communication is much better now, and therefore people can draw inspiration and ideas more easily than before. Or, it may be because societies are more democratic now, and therefore people can pursue their vision of a better world more easily and efficiently. Or, it may be because civilization and improved standards of living lead to a more ethical and cooperative society. It will definitely be good to know the right reasons so that they can be reinforced, but there is much that we can do even without knowing these reasons accurately.

The biggest contribution we can make is to join them in their struggle and not leave them alone. The world needs these Sisyphuses' because they are ones who impose checks and balances to put the systems of the world back on track. They are the ones who observe the flow the money and power, and try to divert it for the good of others. They are ones who make sure that democracy works correctly. They are ones who make sure that the poor are not left behind in the continuous struggle for progress. The world needs them for its survival, we need them for our survival, and the least we can do is to help them. And they need our help now because the problems they are trying to solve are huge! E.F.Schumacher in his celebrated book Small is Beautiful, remarked "If you imagine that at least two people are required to look after a hundred, it means that the entire educated population of India needs to start helping the uneducated". Although the statistics are a bit old now, you can estimate the enormity of the problems. The rock is getting bigger and heavier each day, and unless we do not join the Sisyphuses' to push it over the mountain, it will roll back down again.

On an ending note, I want to write about what I am doing to help them. If you believe it makes sense, let me know and we will do the job together. I work with Udai, which is a student organization at the University of Waterloo and the University of California at San Diego, to give technical help to NGOs in developing countries. You can take a look at our projects on the website. For my PhD research, I am working on a information recommendation system that tries to spread news about the great work that many NGOs are doing, assist in citizen journalism by connecting remote rural areas to the Internet, and to ensure that people are not presented with just one point-of-view but a diversity of views so that they can use reason to make better choices about various actions they take.