I was recently thinking of the iconic scene in 3 Idiots when Farhan goes to his dad and says, "Nahi banna papa engineer. Banunga bhi toh bohot kharab engineer banunga."
His dad snaps, "Arrey hasenge log. Kahenge final year me aakar chhod diya."
This moment is crucial in an existential sense. The individual tries to exercise his freedom of choice, and is met with resistance from 'log kya kahenge.' As we go through adulthood, we will face such choices all the time, and we must decide whether to give in to 'log kya kahenge' or stand our ground.
How do we make these choices, and navigate their consequences? That's the question I want to think about with you today.
Log Kya Kahenge
In Farhan's case, it was Kapoor sahab, who told his father 'khushkismat ho tum ki tumhara beta ICE me padhta hai.' In your case, it might similarly bring to mind an aunt or uncle. Let's think of some things people say:
"25 ke ho gaye ho, it's high-time to settle."
"Girls should not wear shorts in front of elders."
"Shaadi toh sabko karna hi hota hai."
The people who say such things are in a convenient position: they do not have to defend their own speech. They can hide behind 'this is common sense. this is what the public thinks'. Such opinions are endlessly repeated, but not a single person will truly own them. It's simply 'what the public thinks,' and hence, it's what we all think and what no-one thinks at the same time.
For our own lives, this is far more serious than we realize. In 'The Present Age', Soren Kierkegaard writes,
"A public is everything and nothing, the most dangerous of all powers and the most trifling: one can speak to an entire nation in the name of the public and still the public is less than a single real person."
The danger of the public, for Kierkegaard, is that it takes away our individuality, flattening us all into mediocre beings.
I stay up at night worrying about the fact that I'm 25 and I still don't have a stable income. I imagine soon I will be 30 with little full-time experience and nobody will want to hire me. If you ask me why I have these worries, I will say,
"This is what's expected of us, right? I'm in my mid-20s, I should've gotten a well-paying job by now. Soon I'll have to get married, get a car, start a family. I am nowhere near getting those things."
I want to comply with the public's timeline because it feels safe. Note that it does not guarantee my happiness. I might end up miserable, but at least it won't be me that caused the misery. The most horrible scenario would be to follow my own convictions and end up miserable, because Kapoor sahab would look at me and say, "Dekho kya bewakoofi ki ladke ne. Ab 30 saal ka hogaya hai aur gharpe pada hai. Khush hai kya voh?"
The hold that the public has on my life is far deeper than career choices. It has to do with how I dress, how much I work, what I eat, who I date and what desires I even allow myself to feel. Some of this I'm alright with. I cannot fight the battle on all fronts. Some battles, however, might be worth fighting.
Navigating our relationships
It is not enough to say, "Don't worry about what others will think," because there are real people in our lives whose thoughts we value deeply. In exercising our freedom, it is imperative that we figure out how to take our people along.
The good news is that the public will never interview us, never ask us what we're doing with our lives, never check if we've missed life's deadlines, for the simple reason that the public does not exist.
That 'the public is less than a single real person' implies that every single individual is more than the public. That gives me hope. Individuals have far more depth than 'the public', and they're far easier to negotiate with, as long as we do it with heart. That's why when Farhan's dad went to him with tears in his eyes, his dad understood, and ultimately kept the public aside.
"Jaa beta, apni zindagi jee le."
This Week's Recommendation
I started thinking about this after reading Soren Kierkegaard's The Present Age, which is a philosophical text where Kierkegaard chides his 'present age' for imitating everyone else and not being rebellious enough.
If you'd like to go into the primary text, which is difficult but rewarding, here it is. An easier read might be this article by Charles Taylor on 'the phantom public', which we talked about in this week's newsletter.
Let's think specifically about the areas of life where 'the public' is most active: marriage, career, sexuality, politics.
Are you living your life to comply with the public? What would you do if you weren't afraid of the public's judgement?