“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The above quote is the last paragraph of Dr. King’s final speech. It was engraved into my mind sophomore year because I listened to it daily, not for inspiration, but rather in hope that I too will see ‘the promised land.’ This is all too ironic because I am from the Promised Land. On the surface I knew Dr. King was alluding to the grand day when African Americans would be treated as equals and given their due civil rights, but I sensed that there had to be a deeper meaning to it. Equality and freedom are infinitely significant; I know because my people lack both. However, the real Promised Land must be a destination reached internally, not one mandated by external factors or circumstances. As I passed through the ancient valleys of Hebron and Jericho on my way to board my flight to India I convinced myself that I was leaving the literal Promised Land to learn how to define the figurative one. Once I figured that out, I thought, I could assist in implementing Gandhi and King’s philosophy back home.
Initially India betrayed my expectations. Poverty was nothing new to me, but the scale of abandonment was. It hurt to see people disserted on the loud and dirty streets of Delhi, especially children. I would look for the essence of the Promised Land around every corner only to find more poverty, abandonment, inequality, and Gandhi. At home I could sit down and converse with anyone, especially the poor and disenfranchised who used to substitute their misfortune with hope. We could share our frustration with the current state of things and discuss how to bring change, or - more often - if things could change at all. This way I would at least know where the people stood, why they thought their situation was so bad, and hence how, in communion, it could be changed. In India, my inability to communicate with the men, women and children on the streets of Delhi stripped me of the excitement I came into the program with.
On the other hand, the daily lectures from well known scholars and activists were eye opening, provoking, and filled with lessons I will carry for the rest of my life. A lecture on Gandhi’s determination to experiment with his ideas before asking others to do the same resonated with me as a scientist. One example of Gandhi’s experiments is the story of an old woman whose grandson ate too many sweets. After travelling a long journey she asked Gandhi, her grandchild’s hero, to advise against eating sweets. Gandhi told her to return to her village and come back in a week. She did so discontentedly. When she returned a week later Gandhi told the child to decrease his consumption of sweets. When the grandmother asked him why he didn’t just say that a week ago, and instead chose to put her through the troubles of traveling to Delhi again, Gandhi replied by telling her that he also ate a lot of sweets and had to make sure he could stop doing so before he asked her grandchild to do the same.
As the trip progressed, I realized how difficult it was to experiment with what one believes, especially when those beliefs reach the limits of idealism. Personally, I feared that if I could not fully execute actions and beliefs I know are needed to make the world a better place, and myself a better person, then I would begin to crumble under my own expectations and thus lose faith in the notion of a ‘promised land.’ I decided, however, not to shrink from this responsibility. Doing so was extremely difficult. I failed time and time again. I still fail in many experiments today. Even so, failure only makes the challenge sweeter because nobody wants to give up on the dream of a better future. Now I believe that Gandhi’s ‘Experiments with Truth’ were his greatest strength.
Simultaneously, Gandhiji’s Achilles heel was that he took many of his experiments’ results too seriously, often generalizing the results he obtained through his personal experiments to all human beings. Generalizing was wrong not because Gandhi was a saint who could carry out great feats which are impossible for others, but rather because people’s circumstances differ. For example, it was wrong for Gandhi to assume that if he can stop eating sweets the child could stop, for the same reasons, too or even that the child should follow his example in doing so. Therefore, I believe that the basic message extracted from the Mahatma must not be based on the lessons learnt from his experiments with truth. Rather, the lesson must be: experiment with truth. The question remains, however, what does one do when he sees the truth, is faced with the urgency of now, and thus has to mobilize people to act in communion quickly without allowing them the time to fully experiment with their own beliefs?
Luckily we had another lecturer partially answer this question by speaking about rational dialogue which is ‘going extinct’. His opinion is that most of the conflicts around the world, from the war in Iraq to ethnic violence in Africa and religious strife in India, could be solved if rational dialogue was revived and made appealing to the masses. Hence, he states that Gandhi’s success was ‘largely dependent’ on his ability to make sense of the circumstances he was in and appeal to the Indian people and the world’s reasonableness. Gandhi succeeded in communicating to the masses because he never disconnected himself from them. He never allowed his knowledge, the books he read and his reasoning abilities to carry him into the ivory towers where many of the brightest minds flock. By being a populist and remaining amongst the masses Gandhi managed to convince millions of the results of his experiments with nonviolence.
Gandhi’s efforts can be contrasted to scientists’ efforts to convince the American public of the safety and importance of alternative energy resources. Another example is professors and some public servants’ efforts to convince the American people of the dangers of going into Iraq before the war began. Ironically, the substantiation for the need for alternative energy and the evidence against going to war in Iraq are more tangible than Gandhi’s evidence for the use of nonviolence. These examples underline the costs of failing to revive rational dialogue and the eloquent communication of truths, especially in our world today where huge chunks of information are floating around everywhere, and communicating is a million times easier.
But is doing good unto others always rational? No.
Hence, can one rationally persuade others to do good?
I have found no logical explanation for why people do good things. Professor Carson, in one of the lectures he gave, and during a discussion I had with him at the airport in Delhi, mentioned that during the plague many people chose to do good knowing that they were putting themselves in danger, and not getting anything in return. Similar examples are all around us. Every human being, at his or her core, is infinitely good. This entails that every human being can accomplish great things. I am aware that this is an extremely optimistic view. However, I believe that it is as optimistic as it is true. Here lies the hope of mankind. Our innate goodness is not always obvious, and we seldom act on it. Yet there are times when the situation is so tough, our love is so deep, and our pain so fresh that this innate goodness spells out our duty in time and space. Since doing “good” is innate people do not have to be persuaded to do it, but rather they must only be assisted in finding it. I was given the opportunity to see glimpses of this goodness while we were in Ahmadabad.
The final part of this voyage was the most exhilarating because we saw service in action. Most of the people we met in Ahmadabad had decided to dedicate their lives to service. We were met by extreme kindness and grand generosity. Breakfast was ready at 4 AM for those of us who were fasting, complete with hot tea. It takes determination to wake up and eat before the break of dawn when you know you must fast, so imagine the level of hospitality needed to wake up at 3AM and cook food for three men, when you do not have to fast. Handing out nutritious milk with the youth of Manav Sadhna underscored just how little the children living in the slums of India had. I asked one of the volunteers at the daycare centers initiated in the slums if she thought the children would get their daily intake of milk otherwise. Her response: ‘I grew up in the slums and a cup of milk was at most a biweekly treat.’
The beauty of service and hospitality we saw in Ahmadabad was blemished with some racism we heard about and experienced. As I walked through the Muslim market in Ahmadabad I sensed lingering fear. At one point during the trip a good man was trying to convince me just how innately evil Muslims were, and how they had destroyed India, obviously not realizing I was Muslim. I felt the need to respond but decided not to because I did not know what the source of his racism was. In Ahmadabad, I later found out, racism is entrenched through continuous separation. Due to the separation the inhabitants of the city do not see the other as their brother or sister, but rather through the prism of the past: occupiers and looters, notions associated with the centuries of Mughol rule. Racism has become part of the city’s milieu. I understand how a people can develop extreme opinions about their occupiers because I live under occupation, especially if their new leaders work on engraining those opinions. The British took advantage of the religious divide in India instead of healing the wounds. Modi, the governor of Gujarat, and the BJP are continuing the policy of the British, using even more vicious tactics which materialized into Genocide. Ahmadabad underlined the amount of work that must be put into healing the wounds between Palestinians and Israelis for eternity because I saw how long those wounds could last. One of the ways this can be done is if we, the Palestinians, adopt the force of love to convince the Israelis to end their discriminatory policies against us.
The cover of racism in Ahmadabad, however, is punctured by powerful pockets of hope. One of those pockets is located in a slum where Muslims and Hindus have lived in peace for decades. The creative system they have developed makes them strongly dependent on each other. If a Hindu extremist comes to start trouble the Hindu community asks him to leave. If he refuses they punish him. Similarly, when a Muslim extremist bothers the Hindu community the Muslims in the slum demand that he leaves. If he refuses they punish him. This system is only the embodiment of ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ In my opinion, it must be meticulously developed wherever there is ethnic strife, especially in the Holy Land.
The figurative Promised Land is a jigsaw puzzle in my head. I leave India with most of its pieces in place. I leave India convinced that nonviolence will succeed in Palestine and Israel. The means of its implementation will have to be different from Gandhi’s methods in India and King’s methods in the U.S. because we live in a very different world, and are dealing with a different type of conflict. However, its base will be the same; the innate goodness of mankind. The innate goodness I saw glimpses of in the words and actions of the friends I made in India.
Regardless of what the Promised Land looks like, basing our actions on our innate goodness is the key to reaching it.