A young father is bathing at the not so deep garden-well with his two kids and the bucket suddenly slips into the well. The little girls look distressed. Their dad thinks that it’s a good opportunity to have some fun at their expense. He pretends to be reflective for a few seconds and tells them that they had better let the bucket be in the well so that the fish could bathe with it! The kids seem scandalized and look at each other and at the father disbelievingly. The father enjoys his joke immensely- for a few seconds, though.
The elder kid picks up the bar of soap ingenuously and drops it into the well telling him “The fish need soap too, don’t they?” Now, it was the poor father’s turn to look dismayed- he had been too slow to have divined what she was up to. That’s hardly the climax, anyway. Down goes the towel next and the younger kid says, “Oh, don’t they need a towel too?” A visibly upset father whose sense of humour is no match for that of his progeny knows not where to put himself. True, the two scamps had looked confused at the beginning – but only for a moment. Next they pretended to believe that the fish actually needed soap and a towel, so that they could afford to have the last laugh by turning the tables on their father.
The episode narrated by a much wiser father to a sniggering audience of officemates the next day might provide comic relief to a layperson’s idle thoughts about belief and disbelief. Did the father succeed in wheedling the girls at least momentarily to visualize a weird shoal of fish bathing with a bucket? How did they, after recovering from the fleeting confusion, build on a blatant falsity to give it a preposterously logical end? Is there a neat fact/belief and fiction/disbelief pairing? Do we use trust and doubt at our own convenience to play the life’s game? Let the experts seek definitive answers. The rest of us may speculate.
Both belief and disbelief accompany us to the grave. They are not averse to sleeping in the same bed, and life is sure to be worrisome if you choose to hold on to one to the total exclusion of the other. And, each of them comes in handy every now and then. It seems as though scarcely anybody could live a normal life without judiciously shifting between these two states of mind- belief and disbelief, or, as some may call them – the twin gears for “cruising in life.” Perhaps, a person newly diagnosed with a terminal illness may find himself amidst the strongest currents of belief and disbelief; the others would navigate between the two consciously as well as unconsciously to the end.
Take children for example. They are natural skeptics and believers at once. Many parents find themselves out of their depth when their children start asking endless “why” questions about anything and everything they see, starting from things like the moon, fire, cow, puppy, shadow, wind, rain, sky or stars and moving towards “metaphysical” questions about birth, ageing, time and death. Even well-informed parents get stumped when they are called upon to explain why the moon and stars wouldn’t fall, why mommy and daddy too have to die one day or why dead people wouldn’t talk, much less wake up. Often the “explanations” need to be fashioned to suit their level of comprehension- so the parents think. The kids continue to believe in them with waning conviction as months and years roll by and sagaciously drop them in favour of more acceptable pieces for the jigsaw of their expanding “universe.”
Some kids “suspend disbelief” long before they hear of Coleridge. As children become smarter or “prematurely mature”- as some hardnosed adults may choose to describe them, they become more and more skeptical about their parents’ obviously guarded explanations on “delicate topics.” They discreetly “suspend disbelief” to avoid embarrassing their parents. Very few of them who may perhaps happen to google Coleridge later would remember that the latter’s counsel to his readers was a trick they had warily used as children to make their parents enjoy their own unimpressive “stories.” Thus, it is hardly likely that they would ever recall using the selfsame trick to optimize their harvest of goose bumps on their arms as they sat cuddled up on the lap of their grannies to listen to the adventures of the brave podi gamarala.
Feigning belief is not the exclusive preserve of children, although the two brats in the above anecdote made use of it to outsmart their father who subsequently became famous among his colleagues for his unlucky ingenuity. Clever grandparents play the same game when they readily believe that their grandchild, who suddenly gets a tummy ache on a Monday morning, is too sick to attend school. When the kid “recovers” too soon and asks for a piece of chocolate to go with the breakfast, she realizes that grandma’s credulity has a sting in the tail. The old lady wouldn’t hear of letting sick children eat sweets- she needs plenty of convincing that chocolates wouldn’t make a stomachache far worse!
Often there is little difference between feigning belief and believing- in the former you deceive the other; in the latter you deceive yourself, although you won’t often be aware of it. Take any instance where you are accustomed to taking something as a fact because you have believed in it for ages. For example, you believe that the two people whom you have called “parents” all your life are your biological parents – of course, no reason to verify unless something serious happens to make the identification necessary. So is the case with your siblings. It’s the unrivalled example of an intimate term of family relationships gradually acquiring the nuances of an established biological fact.
However, if you were to ask your “parents” to prove their parenthood, you would be considered weird or, worse still, insane. Such a doubt would surely be made to seem irrelevant and redundant by convention. However, in rare situations requiring scientific validation, such “irreverent” identification would be perfectly in order. As such, under ordinary conditions, our habitual belief as regards family relationships amounts to more or less culturally-sanctioned and convenient self-deceit. Here, what should be highlighted is that a perpetuated belief can often pass for fact leaving you to be ignorant of it all your life. Of course, many would hasten to point out that such ignorance is harmless, sure enough.
Generally, we are hardwired to believe. We believe what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Life would be practically impossible if we refuse to believe what our five senses communicate to us. For example, you suddenly spot a snake on your path but choose not to believe what your eyes report to you; you will immediately pay the price. In fact we have been relying so much on our physical perceptions that we hardly factor in “belief” in the transmission process. In other words, the vital role of “belief” in our sensory perceptions is taken for granted. Don’t we unconsciously provide proof of this when we say, “I could hardly believe my eyes.” As such, disbelief, with regard to physical living, is often the exception.
Faith in sensory perceptions is rarely challenged. When we look at the tree out there we ‘know’ that it is there and the question of “belief” scarcely arises. Yet, let’s take another example. Just as the tree in the garden, we “know” that there are stars in the sky, but we are told that perhaps some of them may not be there now, which immediately makes it clear to us that what we thought we knew was possibly an illusion. Only a scientific explanation of the phenomenon helps us to see our mistake.
So, we naturally take what we perceive through our senses to be a fact, and asking for proof is deemed redundant if not hilarious. However, we don’t necessarily have the same sense of complacency when it comes to responding to an explanation. For example, although we don’t ask for reasons to believe that stars are there, we ask for reasons if we were to believe astronomers when they claim that some of the stars visible now may have died out centuries ago. Thus, taking belief with a pinch of disbelief may perhaps make matters in life a little more wondrous and above all serendipitous.
Bernard Shaw is perhaps a bit too disparaging of belief when he says: “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Disciplined society: Bridge too far?
By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana
Discipline, by definition, is the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not. But there is more to it. The government of the day can lay down the rules as well as the mechanisms for punishment if they are broken, but society has even a greater part to play, as disciplined behaviour is mutually beneficial. The behaviour of the majority of the public, rather the misbehaviour, contributing to the difficulty of controlling the present COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.
True, the Pohottuwa government has distinguished itself by scoring many own goals, but it has to be appreciated that the President and the government have done much to control the pandemic, under very difficult circumstances. For an under-resourced country, facing a severe foreign exchange crisis, due to the pandemic, to have vaccinated more than half of the adult population, in a relatively short period, is a remarkable achievement, as it surpasses some developed countries. True, mistakes were made but no country got things correct as this was an unprecedented situation. Had there been more cooperation from the public, including the Opposition, things could have been even better. Having seen how Britain, which was hit very much harder, controlled the pandemic, I wrote an article ‘Learning to live with Covid-19’ (The Island, 26 August) wherein I stated:
“Limitations in force in Sri Lanka, before the imposition of the curfew, were similar to the strictest lockdown measures in countries like the UK. Why is that Sri Lanka needs to go a step further and introduce a curfew? The simple answer is discipline; whereas in the UK the majority show disciplined behaviour, unfortunately, the opposite is true in Sri Lanka.”
Though many appreciated my article written in good faith, to offer scientific facts to convince the public that they have a greater part to play than the government, to overcome the epidemic and learn to live with it, most unexpectedly, the only rebuff I got was from a former colleague of mine. He lambasted:
“I was quite amazed and disappointed about your comments about the vaccination programme here. Every medical professional here, except the ever-diminishing number of those slavishly loyal to the Rajapksas, are extremely critical of the way it is done. This vaccination programme has totally ruined the reputation we had as a country with an exemplary immunisation programme for a long time. When the Army, politicians and other businessmen make decisions, overriding medical opinion, the outcome is obvious.
The vaccination queues are the latest super-spreaders. Many have got the infection few days after attending a mass vaccination site. The latter have become carnivals with the army band providing music and the President making a supervisory visit every now and then.
“You have suddenly found Sri Lankans to be very undisciplined. With such a set of power-wielding uneducated, undisciplined set of leaders, what did you expect the people to be? Living thousands of miles away, your extreme ignorance about the ground situation here, coloured by your unwavering loyalty to some politicians, is not surprising.”
I was shocked that a member of my profession sought to politicise a serious public health issue. Whilst pointing out that routine vaccination programmes are not comparable to a programme conducted during an extreme emergency and that many, including Dr. N.S. Jayasinghe, a much-respected physician, has written to newspapers praising the programme, I addressed the issue of indiscipline with the following response:
“I know from personal experience how undisciplined Sri Lankans are and it is not a new discovery! I left the GMOA because I was against strikes, a sign of lack of discipline among the members of the so-called noble profession. If you think Sri Lankans are disciplined, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land! Your statement that the vaccination programme acted as a spreader proves my point. If it did occur, it is because people do not know how to queue. They think if you push, things would be done quicker! If the Army had stood outside ordering people to queue properly, the Opposition would have claimed Gota was using the Army to tame the public!”
The last thing I wish to do is to criticize my brethren unfairly, from a distant land, but I am not left with much choice. It is pretty obvious that indiscipline has grown, as much as each successive government in Sri Lanka, since independence, becoming more corrupt than the previous.
We are supposed to be a Buddhist country and we expect the disciples of the Buddha to be the most disciplined. A Buddhist priest trying to assault a vaccinator, because the stock of vaccines runs out, may be interpreted as an isolated incident, but it is not. Utterances by some Buddhist priests in public are cringeworthy. A Buddhist priest leads a nurse’s trade union; much against the code of conduct laid down by the Buddha and adds insult to injury by getting them to take trade union action during a grave medical emergency, endangering lives. Buddhist priests are seen joining the teacher’s strike, too.
What about the noble profession of mine and my friend’s? Even before the pandemic, their trade union did not care two hoots about patients’ lives; going on strike being their first response to any problem! Unashamedly, they risked innocent patients’ lives during a pandemic to get their demands.
Not that there are no disciplined professionals. Much was made, in the media, of Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema’s resignation and a few others from the expert committee. One of their colleagues has written to this newspaper that they owe it to the public to declare why they resigned. The resignation itself says it all and that is the way decent professionals protest.
Now teachers have joined the strike bandwagon to settle a dispute that had been lingering on for over two decades. They do not care a tuppence about the future of our youth and in the process have lost all the esteem the public held them in. My friend, very conveniently, has failed to notice that the virus spread due to demonstrations held by teachers breaching COVID-19 regulations, despite it resulting in the unfortunate deaths of some teachers.
Leaving politicians aside, most of whom are undisciplined, irrespective of their complexions, when respected segments of the society, like the clergy, medical professionals and teachers, display gross indiscipline during an unprecedented period like this, can there be any hope? I wonder! I do hope the next generation ‘rebels’ against these, as generations do, so that a disciplined society may not be a bridge too far; I can only hope!
Coming back to the political accusations my colleague made, my reply was:
“I am not ashamed to admit that, any day, I would prefer Mahinda, Gota and Basil to Ranil or Sajith.”
Just a few days after my comment, Sajith made his declaration that there should be a snap-election. My assessment was confirmed by the leader of the JVP who responded by saying that Sajith should have his head examined!
Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Considering the number of protests and trade union actions that have taken place in spite of the continuing national emergency, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that there is a hidden hand behind all this. Maybe, Sajith let the cat out of the bag by his unguarded comment.
On top of the inherent tendency, it looks as if there is planned indiscipline too!
When Susanthika did Lanka proud
As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.
The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.
Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.
As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.
That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.
As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.
Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.
So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.
Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.
Give teachers and principals their due
Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.
The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.
The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.
What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.
Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?
In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.
True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.
The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.
To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.
The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.
The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.
Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?
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