You can find in some of world’s literature and religions humanity’s deepest passions: the passion to unify our many parts which throughout life have been scattered, neglected, abandoned, even tragically damaged or exploited. The call to unity nowhere is so alluring than in the teenage years. The hippie movement was originally a youth movement; their ethos, to live in harmony with nature, people and the world. We all know what happened to it. In October, 1967, a mock funeral heralded the symbolic death of the movement, urging people not to come to San Fransisco to join them any more.
Teenagers are both passionate and vulnerable, it is not their fault. They are merely responding to the strong urges of their soul to unify themselves and their broken world. They experiment with drugs, rebel against conventions, die in car crashes or drug overdoses, join cults or sadly even commit suicide. The demons of adolescence are real, mean and powerful.
J.D. Salinger the American author, believed that the world of adults is twisted and corrupt and children lose their innocence at a great cost. When he was writing parts of his book, The Catcher in the Rye, he was also fighting the Germans in France and witnessed children being thrown into the German army in a desperate attempt to win the war. Holden Caulfield, the seventeen year old narrator in the novel, like those children who died helplessly on the battlefield, is not a hero. In fact on his own admission he was easily ‘yellowed’. He is full of anger, frustration and contradictions. However, also sensitive enough to feel the pain and sadness of others, and be depressed about it. More importantly Holden had a unique voice. And that’s the main appeal of the book which has sold more than 65 million copies so far to both men and women worldwide. An adolescent with a voice that echoes the universal angst of teenagers, Holden longs for authenticity and labels the many people around him as phony. He mistrusts a lot of the stuff that his pop culture also produces. The book has been interpreted ultimately as tragic. What happens to Holden at the end? He more likely became part of the same establishment that he detested or committed suicide.
The world today is very different. Opportunities for cross cultural interactions are plenty. If in the ancient or medieval world there were only a handful of cosmopolitan cities there are now many where people from many different backgrounds live together in relative harmony. Those cities are mainly in the west where political and economical stability attract migrants. A high percentage of people currently living in western countries were born overseas. In the U.K. 11%, Australia 25%, Canada 18%, Germany 13%, the U.S. 13%, Switzerland 23% to name only some. Some western politicians in Europe are against multiculturalism and see it as a failure. The only reason for a government to announce that cultural diversity has failed is to admit to their own lack of vision for the future. Instead of trying to create the next generation in their own image governments need to facilitate people to love and explore their cultural connections, through language, history and the arts. Understanding and appreciating cultural diversity shapes the cultures of the future which hopefully would then be more inclusive and not so easily threatened, and more importantly lead to more vibrant and dynamic societies. Western countries by taking more migrants can only hasten the coming of a new age where cultures could reach new heights and the mission of uniting oneself and the world would become less daunting and more realistic. Unification of the self is not separate from unification of the world. In a recent interview with Mohsen Hamid (the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist) he said something simple, yet very true: Migrants should be encouraged and not frowned upon if they have the capacity to love the country and the culture that they have left behind and the country and culture that they have come to call home.
Is there a limit to the human heart and mind as to how many languages someone could speak? How many friends people can have or be loyal to? Why loving two cultures is strange? Why does it have to be one or the other? The world can become a friendlier and more unified place with people who have the capacity to love and keep the best qualities of the cultures they see themselves as part of. Cultural homogeneity is only inflexible and promotes exclusion, elitism and a limited view of the world. It lacks future vision.
The intolerant elements of the dominant cultures usually criticise new migrants for their lack of integration, especially when the host language is not learned properly, is spoken badly or with a heavy, incomprehensible accent, or if these migrants are racially and religiously very different to the mainstream culture. However a host culture needs to take into account that it takes time to integrate. And the focus should be the future. Human interaction should not just be about language or shallow communication (as often is these days) but also about understanding of each other at a deeper level and about showing kindness and respect. Andre Agassi once said that English was the second language of the three people closest to him – his father, his coach and his wife. Language is only one important aspect of a meaningful relationship. Those of us who have had intimate relationships, either romantic or platonic probably have discovered that there is a mystery at the heart of all relationships which is beyond our understanding; and one that no language can quite define.
To become whole and experience unity within our lifetime is an ancient human desire, deeply rooted in our psyche. Buddha talked about it in the context of nirvana or enlightenment. Zoroaster, a forgotten prophet outside his native land, emphasised the importance of good deeds, good thoughts and good words as we go about our daily lives. Jesus preached about the kingdom of God as a place where everything is so radically different from what we currently know or can understand; yet the seed of that place, that new beginning, is in all our hearts. And Socrates questioned the prevalent wisdom and understanding of his dominant culture in the hope of making his people realise that they don’t know that they don’t know. St. Paul expressed it succinctly in one of his letters to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully…” Rumi’s personal transformation came as a result of meeting someone. He changed from merely a dry, Muslim scholar to the world’s greatest mystical poet. No one really knows what happened but through that encounter he was changed forever.
Encountering the other at some point in our lives can be the most powerful life changing experience. Such life changing encounters cannot be engineered, scripted, staged or acted out. They are serendipitous. They could come when we are looking for something else. Or when we have hit the bottom and have nowhere to turn and what we know have proven to be useless in the face of crushing challenge. The encounter with the other could also be with the great works of arts and of course with nature itself.
All our transformative encounters, great or small are just as important. They are the greatest gifts – not just to ourselves but also to humanity. I hope we all experience it in our lifetime because when we are ready to meet the other we always change for the better and the meeting is as unique as our countenances and as illuminating as the sun’s rays penetrating the darkest and remotest caverns of our souls. And the end will never be tragic; but fulfilling, because the ultimate aim to a more unified self is to love ourselves better and show more compassion to each other and heal the broken world.
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