What is the single-most defining characteristic of Pakistanis? The question nagged me recently as I read Watching the English, by the English anthropologist Kate Fox, in which she attempts to uncover the defining characteristics of the English (humour, reserve, orderliness, in case you are wondering). Not being an anthropologist and not even being in Pakistan, I had no option but to rely on memories of my considerable time in the country and of interactions with my Pakistani relatives, friends and colleagues as well as to indulge in some necessary introspection before I could suggest the rather startling answer: we Pakistanis do not know how to love!
What can I possibly mean by that, you may well ask. And what kind of love am I talking about? If it is divine love, then surely devout Pakistani Muslims have an excess of it? If it is filial love, then I must be blind to think that Pakistan runs short on that? Or if romantic love is my subject of interest, then I only have to watch Pakistani dramas or visit upscale malls on Valentine’s Day to see that it is thriving. Before this discussion proceeds any further, I must hold up my hands in protest: I am not speaking of any of these varieties of love, but of their much neglected cousin, ‘self-love’.
I can hear myself being attacked yet again: how can I possibly claim Pakistanis lack self-love? Surely, we are as selfish, self-absorbed and self-satisfied as any other nation? Well, that’s entirely the point. When we equate true self-love with selfishness, we are confusing it with ‘love for our self-image’. We don’t love ourselves; we love our feeling of superiority to others (‘Don’t-you-know-who I am?’), our power over our children (‘Obey me, or else’), our patriotism and our divine devotion (‘I’ll kill you if you speak against my country/my religion’). But loving an image is easy because an image is perfect. Loving oneself, warts and all, is an entirely different story.
And why does self-love matter? You see, the bottom line is that it is only when we truly love ourselves that we are capable of loving others, whether it is our professed beloved, our family or even God — it’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask before offering it to others. When self-love is missing, we remain in a state of anxiety and neediness and seek reassurance from everything around us. More often than not, this manifests itself in highly critical or judgmental behaviour towards others — because only when we put someone else down, do we feel that we are worthy. I believe we lack it because criticism and judgment are some of our favourite national pastimes. It is important to understand, however, that they stem not from inherent flaws in others but our own lack of awareness of our shortcomings.
So, how can we go about creating greater self-awareness? One way to do it may be to take a long hard look at oneself and take stock of both the good and the bad, with absolute honesty! It may proceed something like this: Hair? Good. Eyes? All right (with glasses). Ears? Good. Clothes? Best I can afford. And so it goes on. If we are particularly pleased with an attribute, perhaps we can give ourselves a little star in the margins. But it gets tricky when we reach parts of ourselves we are more ambivalent about: Hardworking? Not really. Honest? When pushed to the wall. Kind? Sometimes. The danger in following this exercise is that we may not like what we find. After all, had it been easy wouldn’t we have done it anyway?
But no need to despair, because there is another, perhaps easier way, and that is to treat everyone we encounter with a little more understanding, kindness and compassion. How will that create greater self-love? Psychologists believe that our physical behaviour and our mental state are closely linked. So, if changing the feeling is difficult, change the behaviour and gradually the feeling will start to shift also. It is entirely likely, therefore, that in practising compassion towards others (and thereby inwardly declaring ‘I understand and forgive your shortcomings because I am not perfect either’), we may start extending greater acceptance — and in time, more love — towards ourselves, which in turn would help improve the quality of all our relationships. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. I did.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2016.