Why are we always bringing each other down?
Society [noun] -- an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another
Toxic [noun] -- extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful
The above two definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a reference point for many in their daily activities and scholarly pursuits.
And I would like to draw attention to my readers to both the words, as by now some can already guess, the toxicity that I am writing here about is none other than our society.
Besides, living most of my life in Bangladesh, I had the chance to live around a year in Manchester, UK, around eight months in Indiana, US, and now for the last three months in Singapore.
My eagerness and curiosity drew me to observe the locals in order to understand their way of life in their respective societies.
All three places had two things consistently in common with each other. One, all three are far more advanced in terms of economy and education. Two, their society, to some extent, matches the definition of society that I quoted here, especially the part mentioning “a cooperating social group.”
This brings me to my next definition.
Cooperation [noun] -- association of persons for common benefit
Putting all these together, a weak and ineffective society would be one where there is either zero cooperation, or very minimal cooperation.
Now, let us take an honest look at what we call society in our beloved Bangladesh. Let’s do a mental exercise, and let’s try and remember the words/feelings/emotions that come to mind, when you think of the society around us.
I am confident to guess that the word society comes both with positive and negative association. But why negative? We just discussed that if society doesn’t exist, or if it is weak, the case will be of minimal or no benefit. However, “no benefit” should have a neutral association, but not negative.
This brings me to my key point -- society surrounding us is toxic to some extent. I know many of you might be angered by this claim, but let me elaborate.
In my personal and professional life as a lecturer, I have seen many instances of this toxicity. I have had students approach me to inquire about their chances of acquiring work at a multi-national corporation or renowned brand, even in positions that are far below their potential. Often, I asked them why they chose to exclude the local companies, perhaps startups, which may offer equal benefits and similar work-life balance.
Despite the same financial benefits and equivalent work-life balance, these people were still desperate to be a part of a “big name.”
That is because it would allow their parents to parade the achievement to our toxic society. What if they go to a “no name” company? Then what would people (society) around them say? How would their parents answer to society?
There are people who are stuck in jobs they hate. Part of it is because of the cash flow, but the other part is the fear of what people would say if they quit the steady job of a banker to become an artist, a movie-maker or a photographer. And this effect does not stay limited to their professional lives.
It extends to personal affairs. While growing up, I saw the society around me, and regardless of how educated they were, I began to see a certain portion to be very interested in my personal misery, in my failures, and in other aspects of my personal life. Sadly, I saw none who were eager to help me succeed.
Unfortunately, I began to see that in our nation everywhere. Sadder still, some people consider this as the social norm, and try to limit their lives, their thoughts, and their endeavours, for fear of what society will think.
And this is the portion of society I call toxic. This really sticks out as the difference between our society and the other ones I have had the luck of experiencing for short periods of time. And I believe, this to be a very pressing and serious problem, one which we need to address. Because in such negativity, it’s very hard to thrive as a good human being, to grow to one’s full potential, and maximize our own well-being. And the solution is simple, understanding two basic things.
One, the time spent thinking and gossiping about someone else’s life neither earns you money nor teaches you a skill that might help you. So rather than just gossiping, do something else -- eat, travel, learn a skill, or even sleep -- all of these are guaranteed to make your life better.
Second, for people concerned about what others will say, their gossip has zero value in your life. They neither make you better nor worse. Your success and your happiness in life are in your hands, and in the hands of fate.
I would like to end with a simple story from history -- once a man came up to Socrates and told him that he had to say something about Socrates’s friend. Socrates asked him whether the information was true. The person said he was not sure of it. The next question was whether the information was good. The person said no. Then came the third question: Is the information useful? The person said no.
Socrates said he did not care about the information, and did not want to know it.
If the Greeks could stumble upon such a simple model of filtering toxicity, then what is stopping us? When will we be mature enough as a society to speak of good and useful things, and help each other reach our true potential?
Khan Muhammad Saqiful Alam is currently a Commonwealth Scholar and PhD student of National University of Singapore, and a former Senior Lecturer of North South University.