Measure of a Man

Imagine being born several thousand years ago, in a world where you have to hunt for food, climb trees, live in caves. And you ‘re part of a tribe whose population fluctuates even with small changes in weather. A social animal as you are, you have a ‘community’. A group. A heirarchy. Superiority. And inferiority. The criteria for individual worth is brutal strength. The strongest man is the ‘best’, the most ‘successful’. He is respected and admired by others, and enjoys a high ‘status’.

This criteria for individual worth has changed rapidly with time. It used to be strength, then it became power, religious command, artistic skills, scientific skills, and money.

I often wonder how setting plays such a huge role in the way we look at history. How would individuals have fared if they were born in different times? Imagine Bill Gates being born in pre-historic era. Forget microchips and Windows, there’d not even be enough bows and arrows for hunting. Not an extra-ordinarily strong person himself, Bill would have to struggle to climb trees and find food. Let’s now imagine a Shakespeare or a Ghalib being born in a time where there were no alphabets, no script, no language. Literary talents would be irrelevant when expression itself is so primitive. There must be lots of Ghalibs and Shakespeares we just don’t know about.

The fact that you should be born at the right time at the right place, for things to click, is obvious. What is not obvious is whether the criteria we use to ‘judge’ and ‘compare’ individuals is justified. One of the most striking features of the modern world is its unprecendented emphasis on individual comparison – be through school-tests, sports, financial markets, science or art. Individuals are supposed to derive their sense of self-esteem, superiority or inferiority – as the case may be- from these yardsticks. And people treat each other based on the ‘status’ thus acquired.

But a person who fails a mathematics test might still be a good singer, just as a poor farmer in an Indian village might have done exceedingly well in a B-school. Countries, communities, abilities, all play such a big role. There exist talents we don’t even know yet. But in spite of that, we compare individuals, almost attach price-tags on them, term some as heroes and dismiss others as worthless…

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