Sanity in the age of hate and conflict

We are living in an age of unprecedented pain and suffering

Farrukh Khan Pitafi January 20, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates

This piece could have very easily been about the recent Iran-Pakistan diplomatic spat. But mercifully, it is not. There are two reasons. One, it is still a developing story. Pakistan has retaliated and the caretaker premier has returned from his foreign visit to convene the National Security Committee’s meeting. Two, a wise man once told me never to speak or write anything while angry. So, I will give Iran’s own goal at least one more week to mature. Until then I can tell you what I am going to stop doing. For a long time, I have advocated that Pakistan should defy international pressure to alienate Iran. That boat has now sailed. You cannot woo someone who is neither self-aware enough nor cognizant of your importance or the present moment’s significance in history. It takes two to tango. I will stop advocating for our one-man tango. Upon Tehran’s neck be it.

Now, I want to discuss something I consider critically important. Our mental wellbeing. I am particularly alarmed by the number of suicides we keep hearing about.

We are living in an age of unprecedented pain and suffering. Even if one accepts Steven Pinker’s assertion that violence has declined throughout history, one cannot deny that technology has helped mankind in cataloguing and revisiting tragedies at a hitherto unknown scale. Add to it the fact that our population keeps growing and that a population of this size (8 billion and counting) always finds new ways to suffer. And finally, because of social media, it has become remarkably easy to inflict pain. The question then is how to preserve one’s sanity in such an age. I am not a qualified practitioner. The first reasonable advice I can give you is to seek professional help. Counselling from a licensed shrink can help you a great deal. So don’t expect professional advice in this space. What I can offer you here is a host of tricks that I use when the going gets really tough.

The first trick in my book is to reaffirm my self-worth. Remember, your self-esteem is the first thing that gets injured in any kind of conflict. People who want to hurt you know well how to get to you. But that is not all. Given the financial difficulties, diseases and destruction of our age, we mortals often have to live with what is called the survivor’s guilt. You made it and someone you cared about did not and it is now killing you. So, it works in both directions. You need to remember you are an important human being with a lot of value. And you, despite many good things going for you, are a mortal with some very serious limitations. You are not a god, nor a superman. You did what you could. The rest was in destiny’s hands.

The second useful trick is to unplug. You want to stay informed. Fair enough. But the universe is infinitely bigger than your reach. If you are not mentally healthy you cannot do much about the world as it is. Stay informed but don’t allow yourself to be flooded by distressing news.

The third important thing to do. Find your happy place. It doesn’t have to be a physical space as you know well. Just something that gives you comfort and happiness. It can be a book, some music album, some TV show or film. It is important to remember that life is too long and you may encounter many impossible days when you may think that end will never come. But every hardship ends. When you cultivate a healthy respect for your existence you will be able to appreciate the scale of every problem. But what helps you overcome them is a healthy distraction. There are problems which need your utmost attention. But luckily such problems are fewer in number. Most of the time we are distressed about things which are not within our control. And these distractions work both as a downtime and for recharging us. Breaks can help you accomplish the goals that were never possible.

Point four. Find an avenue for catharsis. It can be primal screams at your rooftop or it can be a journal, a vlog or anything of significance. Blogs and vlogs have public exposure. So, it is up to you to decide whom to bring into your circle of trust. But the main consumer and beneficiary of this activity has to be you. This is how great art is created. But primarily this is how you heal.

Five. Look for small victories. Our social life forces us to run after huge goals that take a lifetime to accomplish. It is important to have small milestones to achieve so that we get a sense of fulfilment. It can be any side-project. You have to decide what works for you. But these small victories help you feel alive.

Six. Find someone with whom you can discuss any problem in life without any judgment. It can be a friend, a colleague, a relative or if you are lucky, your partner. But there is an element of trust involved. Someone who does not use your weak moments against you. If you cannot find someone with that comfort level or you have serious trust issues then how about giving a chatbot like Bard or ChatGPT a shot? Some of your information can indeed be reviewed by a human but what are the chances of that individual knowing you in person? Next to nothing. If you can afford it there are chatbots even meant for therapy. Give them a shot you will be surprised by the therapeutic effect.

Two more things. The belief in a higher power and something aspirational. The belief in a higher power, may that be religion, the universe or something more mundane like the system, keeps you grounded and gives you hope in your fight. It is also a humbling idea. Prayers can help you feel that someone is looking out for you.

Finally something aspirational. When we set out to make something of life at an early age we usually start with great ideals. But as time passes by the realities of life obscure those ideals. It is important to keep a reminder of what those core ideals were. Even if you are not anywhere near accomplishing them, you know you can always go back to them. It can be your reset button, your rosetta stone or your true north. It can be something that you wrote early in life or something someone else wrote. Since my father introduced me to “Warren Christian Apologetics Center › mac... MacArthur’s Prayer for His Son” in my childhood I found comfort in reading it. Look it up. Or find or write something to this effect. You will find it useful.

These are some steps that have helped me. I hope they help you too.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2024.

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