Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Gender identity and growing beyond limitations!

Recently we celebrated international women's day, although like many others, I too believe that it is not supposed to be a one day affair. However, I also appreciate that such rituals might have their usefulness, because they force our joint attention towards issues of collective importance.
Being a psychologist, my perspective is also more psychological on this matter, since change in women's status is not only socio-economic, but also associated with a change in the consciousness, not only of women but also of men.

Let me start with a small story, since stories have a way to engage us so. One day Lord Krishna was talking to his beloved Radha, when she said that you can't understand my pain, my experiences. To understand her, Krshna became Radha for some time and this event has been celebrated in Indian art, such as poetry and especially in Indian paintings. To think of it, this was a classic case of empathy, where one is able to understand other's perspectives, their feelings, their experiences. This is the state of consciousness, we need to understand the gender issue. Not where there is resistance and hostility for different ideas, as I sometimes see when discussing gender issues.

As we all know, presently there is a gap in the collective status of women, although it is debatable how much of a gap and reasons behind it (some defending it and some opposing it in the larger society). It is also debatable how much our society has changed over last few decades and given freedom to women. Women in general feel that there has not been sufficient change and men often point to the fact that more openness has come and we can see more and more women in education and jobs. Since human brains are risk-averse, during times of change in status quo, those who lose status, power, resources, often feel the impact stronger than those who gain it. So this difference in perception is explainable. But if we look at the statistics most of us will agree we still need to cover a long distance.

One of the main arguments justifying the gap between different roles and status assigned to men and women are that, they are in essence different not only at body level, but also at the levels of mind and more. These differences justify their unequal status, because one is better or more valuable than the other. The questionable assumptions here are first the differences, and second the values assigned to these differences.

Physically, an alien coming to earth would consider all of us as part of the same species. However, I will focus more at the mind level. After decades of research on the brain-based differences between men and women, a recent meta analysis reached the conclusion that this difference is pretty low. Although women have slightly better verbal abilities and, men have slightly better spatial abilities, still one third of women have better spatial abilities and one third of men have better verbal abilities. Such results are also at the level of statistical averages, and the next woman you meet may turn out to be better at knowing directions and parking her car, and the next man might charm you by weaving a web of beautiful words. These little differences which are present, have been explained by different socialization processes. We bring up our little girls and boys differently, and therefore sex is biological, gender is a social concept.

Further, the traditional research in psychology about traits of masculinity and femininity has gradually given way to research on agentic and communal traits, since the traits associated with masculinity and femininity are not gender specific, every human being has them in different proportions. Agentic and communal traits focuses on different ways of being and connecting. Being agentic is being independent, competent & assertive-aggressive, while communal traits are that of being friendly, unselfish, & expressive. Men are encouraged and expected to show agentic traits and women that of communal ones. But fact is that any woman may be more or less agentic, depending upon her personality, upbringing, unique life experiences etc. and same is applicable to men. Research shows Asian countries have traditionally encouraged communal traits though with increasing westernization entire world is also becoming more agentic.

So, the term 'empowerment' itself is in a way 'agentic', because the idea is of being able to select one's goals, knowing how to reach them, having self-worth and confidence to reach them, gathering both material and informational resources for it and acting upon it.

Now coming to the question of what do we value more as a society - answer stares in our face - men over women, masculinity over femininity and we have valued independence, competence & assertiveness, at the cost of friendliness, unselfishness, & expressiveness. But, when societies doesn't value friendliness, unsefishness, harmony, they end up becoming a violent and selfish societies. Such misplaced values lead to corporate greed, environmental destruction, and massive wars. Agentic self is a disconnected self, from others and from nature, and focus is on the control of others and of nature.

At an individual level, when 'boys dont cry', when men are too numb to feel and express their emotions, they are also cheated of the joys of living. As much as women are robbed of the space to discover themselves and bring out their gifts for the world. So, we miss out on kind, compassionate men, and wise, confident women who can give direction to our future. Everyone suffers, limited by society's expectations.

The solution is that we all find our personal balance of independence and connection, instead of it being forced upon us. Because we cannot put together a specific gender and a specific way of mental framework in a rigid way. For example, we want loving mothers, but we also yearn for loving dads, as we want strong, protective fathers but also strong, protective mothers. Each one of us is a unique being with our special abilities and potentials. Let us recategorise the main struggle, the main issue, which is not only for women but also for men to be able to find themselves and bring it forth. We all have to find our power as well as realize our inherent connectedness. Infact psychological androgyny (a balanced mix of masculinity and femininity, or agency & communion) is a healthy state and often found in most creative, mature, fully-functioning individuals.

I wish to end with the another ancient myth, that each soul was divided at the beginning and since then we have been feeling half, feeling incomplete, and are going around looking for our soulmates, another person, who will make us feel whole. But then this is a Greek interpretation. The Indian idea is that we discover both male and female aspects within us, and become whole, become divine. This is what 'ardhanarishwar' symbolizes at an intra-personal level. And at an interpersonal level it symbolizes the state where men & women, although different but come together as an equal partners.

Once that is realized, then there won't be any need for a separate women's day!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Re-leaving (or relieving) India!

Today, almost first thing in the morning I got an email with just one link (with an implied expectation- have your own opinion :)

Email was from a New York based friend, and link that of a blog post in their city newspaper (with an international reach ;) New York Times. The article was by Sumedh Mungee (lets call him SB for convenience) explaining why he left India-again. This sounds familiar!

Hundreds of involved comments, this sounds familiar too ... reminded me of another India-bashing article which attracted loads of comments (it even had some funny co-incidences in my life).

By late afternoon I got another email with links to Chetan Bhagat's response to the SB's article. Hmm...

Choosing to leave or live in a country is a very individual decision, supported or hindered by multiple intra-personal, interpersonal, as well as social/systemic factors. Though with post-globalisation-fluid-boundaries, a new highly-skilled migratory class has emerged and is swelling everyday.
With respect to India, discussions over brain-drain and songs like 'Chitthi aayi hai...' are old story. Although India related articles often attract heaps of comments from non-resident Indians (NRIs) betraying their continued strong preference/aversion for India, I am choosing not to focus on that group. I don't think it is required or even desirable for every NRI to return back to over-crowded, bursting-at-the-seams, metropolitan cities of India. Even if spread across a map, they can always share the spirit of 'one-world-one-family' (ancient Indian saying - vasudhaiv kutumbakam) beyond any cliched ideas about 'Desh'.
Those who happily return & never regret, are a class apart and I am not even discussing them here.

I'm more intrigued by a small proportion who return back to India with (apparent) hopes of 'till-death-do-us-apart', and then one day suddenly leave - again, with bitter taste in their own mouth, and thus I guess, bad-mouthing India in the popular media. I am tempted to look deeper and analyze further... I can't help it, its a professional habit!
So I will pick only SB's article and try to understand something about others too. I also hope at least one or more person reading this blogpost will think deeply before making similar choices in her/his life. So let us start...

(I don't know if it was sheer creative liberty, or really 'Swadesh' was being played in the flight to India. Truly a very interesting co-incidence due to its underlying contrast).

Motives behind the move

Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist and holocaust survivor would often mention what Friedrich Nietzsche's said, "He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How''. 
This 'why' is about having a deep meaning in life. However SB's primary motives were purely functional, a mix of personal preferences and professional reasons. He was going back to 'an India that offered global companies, continental food, international schools and domestic help; an India that offered freedom from outsourcing and George W. Bush'.
So he was clearly looking for an escape from one comfort zone, due to economic and political reasons, and expecting another. He was not looking for something uniquely Indian, there was no acceptance of the Indian reality and certainly there was no commitment to the place. Certainly it was a bad start! (Btw, Acceptance & Commitment Psychotherapy tries to help people deal with inevitable problems in life).

Relationship with India
Since SB has used the metaphor of a 'break-up', I am tempted to use a well known theory applicable to love relationships.

Honeymoon phase: This phase is 'the best', for sprinkling the fairy dust on everything and making it look good, feel good. Our author too had a good start. 'Our move was a success by any metric...'. Career, life style, children's education, all was well.
But the inevitable next phase always comes too soon ...
Reality dawns: This is 'the most important' phase of any relationship. Things which seemed neat, nice and pleasant earlier might shock you now with their ugly shadows. Most people are not ready for this dis-illusionment. Our author too could not digest the reality bite as he says ... 'But then the metaphors started to fade and the daily grind set in'...
Separation: In this phase there are only 3 options, separate, manage the differences, or grow. Separation without some kind of understanding leads to anger, while with it leads to deep sadness.
Much of SB's article indicates this transition from anger to sadness. Being fair to SB, he did try to navigate the local rules 'Within weeks, I had joined the honking swarm driving in Bangalore', but then 'That’s when it started going wrong'... and he 'hated what I was becoming'.

In such times the only real move towards sanity (or peace of mind) is 'serenity to accept what one cannot change, courage to change what one can and wisdom to know this difference'. Clearly serenity of acceptance was lacking from the start, and courage to be the change-agent was not in the agenda.
But it goes to SB's credit that he had wisdom to know the difference... he not only knew what he can change, but also did act upon it. Leave India-Again!

It is more interesting to notice the afterlogue, the reflection process ...
- SB shrugs off any suggestion of betrayal by mentioning he is not even at home in US.
- Indicates some sense of lingering belongingness, because, India hurts more.
- There are traces of guilt, almost like checking-in one's old parents in an old age home, because they have become too inconvenient.
- There is also a shame of letting oneself down 'Everyone in India has to deal with this, but I coped in the worst possible way: by dehumanizing her and other people like her, ever so slightly, ever so subtly — chronic amoebiasis of the soul'
- And an acceptance of something lacking within to contribute to the emerging India 'It’s just that I’ve realized — I’ve resigned myself to the fact — that I won’t be a part of that future'. He is too impatient for the outcome, he can't be bothered about the process of change.

American psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book paradox of choice (2004) referred to what economist and historian Albert Hirschman wrote in his book 'Exit, Voice, and Loyalty' (1970). Hirschman theorized that when one is unhappy, people have two general classes of responses available- they can exit the situation, or they can protest and give voice to their concerns. In the marketplace, exit is the characteristic response to dissatisfaction and so we exit from restaurant, breakfast cereal, favorite vacation spot etc. 'One of the principal virtues of free-market choice is that it gives people the opportunity to express their displeasure by exit.
However social relations are different. We don’t dismiss lovers, friends, or communities, the way we dismiss restaurants, cereals, or vacation spots. Treating people in this way is unseemly at best and reprehensible at worst. Instead, we usually give voice to our displeasure, hoping to influence our lover, friend, or community. And even when these efforts fail, we feel bound to keep trying. Exit, or abandonment, is the response of last resort'.

In his book Barry Schwartz goes on to give many advices for chronically dissatisfied people (you can watch TED video here). Some of the ways to increase one's happiness applicable in this situation are: don't be a picker, satisfice more, make your decision non-reversible, practice attitude of gratitude, regret less, control expectations, learn to love constraints etc.

The sense of entitlement sans concern/ duty towards 'other', not only plays havoc in relationships, even if it is with one's country of origin or of current living, it also never brings any real happiness to oneself.
So my advice to SB would be, at least now, do not continue being an 'alien' in USA. Be there and belong there, commit yourself to its growth instead of living like an outsider, everywhere, forever.

And let one man's pain be others' gain. Those who nurture 'some day I will return' dream in an ambivalent manner, should remind themselves that living in any country including India has its own demands. Look within to find if there are basic value conflicts, between what you want and what a place has to offer. Then you will not have to grumble in public someday.
Finally, there might be some truth in what J.F. Kennedy said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'. Those who had asked this question before landing back in India, usually do not regret that decision. For them it has been mostly a journey of fulfillment!

(Update: I noticed this blog post was featured on NYT, as well as on Mr. Mungee's website and a couple of other places)

Why this blog?

I often have long discussions with my friends over psycho-social issues, leading to this idea that we need to have a voice which will add psychological perspective to the discourses happening around various events especially in India.
But due to being busy and lazy both, we have not yet posted anything here :) Although I do blog elsewhere sometimes, and at other times jot down my thoughts on paper. So here we start ... (though I never thought it will be an issue like this)!