how to make urgent as important: Ways of Knowing, Feeling and Doing

A paradox of modern times is that as our awareness about new knowledge is increasing, our ability to develop a feel for the problems around us is decreasing. It seems we are getting immunised by an ever expanding exposure and awareness. Thus while we develop feel for only a very small part of our daily knowledge, we take even lesser initiatives for taking action or do something about the things for which we feel responsible.

What is the point about having more knowledge which not only increases our inertia but also makes us less disturbed to feel the need for change around us?

One way to resolve this paradox is to problematise the situation around us and our place in it. Let us take the example of Bhanumati Ben, a primary school teacher who was disturbed about why girl students did not come to school in a large number. She had enough knowledge about the reasons why girls were prevented by their parents to come to school. She also knew why this problem was rampant all over the country. She cared about the issue but it still was not lecturing the parents to do what she wanted them to do. She did not try to persuade them to send their daughters to school. She did not just appeal to their good sense. She problematised the issue.

 

She invited all the parents on Raksha Bandhan (the festival when sisters tie a thread, rakhi, on the wrist of their brothers to seek protection and brothers offer a gift in return). After she tied the thread on the wrist of all the men, they offered to give something in return. They asked whether they should get a fan fitted, a room built or a cooler installed for the school. Bhanumati Ben said no to all these suggestions. The men were getting restive. They insisted on giving something. Bhanumati Ben kept refusing. They got a little angry.  When Bhanumati Ben said that they would not be able to give what she would want, all hell broke loose. How could she say that?! They insisted that she would get what she would ask for. Bhanumati Ben said, “Please give me your daughters.” She addressed the challenged not by persuasion but by problematisation.

Contextualisation of a problem makes a big difference to its being felt and acted upon. Recently, when SRISTI organised a summer school on designing technologies for the elimination of child labour, the first thing that the participants had to do was to feel the pain that the actual workers, including children, go through. The challenge was to remove the tasks in which children are engaged and improve the productivity of their parents so that they earn enough money to send their children to school (www.sristi.org/nochildlabour). Without assimilating the context, the content of empathetic innovation would not have emerged. Similarly, during the recent Shodhyatra in Wardha, when the yatris found at least two ponds having sufficient water even in the month of May, there was no way they could accept the absence of ponds throughout the walk of 120km. The presence of a tank based sprinkler irrigation system generated a lot of curiosity and interest among the villagers. Several other innovations, including a cycle-based sprayer, made farmers realise that solving problems is not too difficult. Physical demonstration changes the context in which local solutions are often searched. “Doing” becomes easier when “feeling” emanates from practical knowledge and not just theoretical knowledge.

Another barrier to action is the lack of feeling for a problem which is distant and not proximal. However, the zone of responsibility becomes very narrow if responsibility extends only to the proximal environment. To overcome the insularity, the Honey Bee Network deliberately pursues Shodhyatras in distant places.

One of the dilemmas that arises while appraising one’s own feelings about different matters is which one to act on first. Inertia soon creates apathy and eventually disowning of responsibility. It is also true that one cannot be equally responsible for all the things that one feels strongly about. The challenge before educationists and others in society is to sharpen the scale by which we measure the urgency. Else, the urgent becomes important rather than “important” becoming urgent.

Each one of us can look at the domains of responsibility for private, common and public goods. If the sense of urgency emerged during the previous week only for private concerns, I will not only be less happy but also be less enriched. The moment we begin to engage with common and/or public goods, our connection with the larger parts of society starts getting stronger. The distant is no longer less important. Importance is not just given to private interests. The criteria for defining what is urgent become more obvious. Let each one of us ask ourselves how we defined our priorities during the previous week. Let us get the answers about the composition of our portfolio of problems that we care about. The transition from knowing to feeling to doing will find its own rhythm.

 

anilg

Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place

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