Max Weber wrote that “The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life …” The disenchantment of the world leads to the modern view of the heart as merely a pump for circulation of blood. The ancients had deeper understanding; as Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” Elevation of the head above the heart has led to a loss of wonder at the myriad mysteries of creation which surround us, and also caused deep damage to human lives in many dimensions. As our poet laureate Allama Iqbal emphasised: “At the dawn of Judgment, Gabriel told me, never accept hearts which are enslaved by the mind.”
To make the best of the few moments that we are granted on this amazing planet, we must learn to appreciate the multiple paradoxes of this precious gift of life. On the one hand, “All we are is dust in the wind” — within the grandeur of the universe, and as just one among billions of people currently alive, my life is an insignificant speck. On the other hand, my life is all that matters to me, and the entire universe is contained within, and created by my imagination. This simultaneous awareness of both truths diametrically opposed to each other is not accessible to reason. However, poets have no difficulty with it; as Rumi said, “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean, contained within a drop.”
When the heart and soul are removed from the picture, reason reduces man to a material object, just a drop in the ocean. Then it becomes possible to say that the value of a man’s life is the sum of his lifetime earnings. Initial statements to this effect by secular and materialistic philosophers like Hume caused shock and horror. Nowadays, it has become widely accepted. The effects of this reduction have been profound in all dimensions of human life. Instead of recoiling with horror, we eagerly accept as the latest wisdom the idea of the ‘human resource’. Economists discuss human beings as inputs into the production process. The goal of the economic system is seen as the production of wealth, and the worth of a human being is calculated according to his ability to contribute to this goal. This comes from looking at only one side of the picture, the insignificance of a human life.
The other side of the picture is to realise that human lives are infinitely precious. Each human being is unique, with experiences and history like no one else. Each moment in our lives is new — no such moment has even existed before, and no such moment will ever arise in the future. Every moment presents us with unique opportunities to progress towards the infinite potential for growth planted within our souls. If we can grasp these opportunities, we can reach to heights that have never been scaled before in human history.
Consider the miracle of the seed, which defies all logic. The tiny seed has no arms, legs, eyes or moving parts. Buried within the ground, it seeks out, and extracts from the soil, the hundreds of different chemicals required to manufacture roots, trunks, leaves, fruits, etc. It unerringly sends roots downwards towards water, and the shoots upwards towards the sun, though it has no mechanisms to perceive directions. Within the seed, the Creator has implanted not just the design, but the full capabilities to manufacture not just a tree, but a forest. The potential planted within a human being is far greater. Those who realise it can achieve marvels. With training and discipline, humans can walk barefoot on fire, slow life processes down to survive being buried, break bricks with bare hands, accomplish incredible athletic acts, write literature and poetry of enduring excellence which inspires millions, and even greater spiritual feats which cannot be witnessed by others. To put it in more prosaic and less poetic terms, the purpose of wealth is to provide the opportunity for all human beings to fulfil this potential, which cannot be measured in monetary terms. This reversal of the ‘human resource’ idea is the central contribution of the capabilities approach to development, which emerged from the emphasis on human development pioneered by Mahbubul Haq. This focus on the intangibles of human experience, which lead to the development of capabilities, is precisely what has gone missing from economic cost-benefit calculations.
Disenchantment, as reflected in the banishment of the ultimate and sublime values from the public domain, has resulted in impoverishment of human lives in many dimensions. We have learned the false and misleading lessons that our lives should be devoted to careers, production of wealth and the pursuit of pleasures. Recent research shows that while we are attracted by material possession and short-term gratification, long-run happiness comes from seeking enriching experiences, and emphasising experiences over possession and consumption. Bringing back the magic into our lives requires paying heed to the wisdom of the ancients. Most important to our personal happiness is investing time on the social threads with which the fabric of our lives is woven. Generosity, acts of kindness, service to others, even at personal cost, contribute more to long-run happiness than selfish maximisation of short-run pleasure. It is a central lesson of Ramazan that abstaining from desires, as well as other vices, and striving to do virtuous deeds, leads to spiritual growth, which is the core component of the development of character and capabilities. Let us use this opportunity to make a commitment to improving ourselves as human beings, as this is the most effective way of making the world a better place for all.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2016.