Uroboros

Around three years ago, I felt a general sense of unease invade my being. It seemed that everyone around me, including strangers on the internet, possessed a core set of beliefs and values and I did not. I grew up in India and then moved to the United States for college and graduate school. The individualistic culture of the American college environment presented a stark contrast to my upbringing. It took me a while to realize that something different was expected of me in the U.S. I could no longer rely on straightforward adherence to the values of the collective. I instead had to develop my own unique system of values, my own beliefs about what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust. What a drag, I thought. 

There seemed to be some guidelines, however, for dealing with this intimidating process. A cursory survey of the decades of injustice towards certain groups in this country taught me who is to blame. And since I now knew who was to blame, I developed moral positions on socio-political issues: I was a person of color who was in a struggle against the Whites to find my unique voice, an Indian who faced microaggressions in my interactions with ignorant White people, and a member of a minority group who had to resist the White majority’s attempt to pigeonhole me for their own convenience. I was a feminist who would stand firmly alongside women in their fight against the patriarchy. I was a liberal who supported equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community. I was a globalist, ever welcoming, ever-inclusive. 

I went back to India equipped with these wonderfully progressive ideas, certain that I would change the regressive thinking of those around me. There was just a tiny hitch. In India,  almost instantly, I was situated within another reality. A reality in which I wasn’t a victim.There’s no White majority in India. Instead there’s a Hindu majority, which is guilty of its own pernicious attitudes towards the Muslim minority. I am a part of that majority. As a Hindu Brahmin, I sit atop a dangerously constructed caste system. What’s more, I am a Hindu Brahmin male, part of the patriarchy which has used religion and “tradition” to subjugate women. And I am straight. For the first seventeen years of my life, I thought that a gay person existed simply as a source of comic relief.

So I began to wonder: What am I supposed to be? Am I the victim or the oppressor? For some time, I tried desperately to cling to the position of the former. It was comforting. It absolved me of my guilt. Most of all, it gave me someone to blame for the ambiguous crime of oppression. But this simply wasn’t viable in the long term. Especially because I started acknowledging how I sometimes would have thoughts regarding moral positions which were contradictory to the ones I believed to be right. I got annoyed when I saw someone on my Facebook news feed ask for donations to a relief fund for Syrian families. I sometimes thought of Trump’s Muslim ban as a sensible proposal. I occasionally got off to porn videos with women being degraded in them. I would look at photographs of a Pride parade and wish the LGBTQ community could just stop being so damn proud of itself. I would then chastise myself for not being compassionate enough, for thinking bigoted thoughts, and I’d feel bad for not being a feminist or a good liberal. And I would tell myself that these thoughts and feelings were an aberration. Momentary lapses in conscience. Residues of prior worldviews which had no bearing upon my intentions and actions in the present. Except, these momentary lapses in conscience were quite frequent. Frequent enough to render futile my attempts to intellectualize them away. 

I was so certain that my time in the States had washed me clean of my prejudices. But no. Within a few months of being in India, a nagging, jester-like voice became my constant companion. Diligently, it mocked my attempts at forming any sort of moral stance on just about everything. At every instance that I tried to formulate a perspective, it presented me with a contrasting viewpoint. And just when I felt I was nearing the truth about a matter of socio-political importance, the jester obliterated the mirage. All that was left was the echo of his gleeful cackle, and a fog of dread. I felt tired and confused. In my conversations with people, I became silent. Everything I said started to disgust me. The sentences I uttered were cut from the agendas and opinions of some writer for the Atlantic or the New Yorker, and pasted onto my tongue without a shred of confidence. This simply would not do, I thought. I needed certainty; I needed to know the truth. The truth about reality, the truth about society, the truth about my identity. The truth that would transcend cultural and political contexts, the truth that would placate my crisis of morality. The singular truth. 

So, naturally, I turned to philosophy: Aristotle, Montaigne, Hegel, Kant, Hume, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir, Rand, Foucault, Arendt, Vivekananda, Osho, Sadhguru, Krishnamurti. Vedanta, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching. From some of the grandest theories on human life and its evolution, all I gleaned was that every brilliant philosophy could only speak for the subjective experiences of its proponents. There was no truth, but rather, multiple truths. Which is why there are so many philosophies. Which is why no one has ever proposed an irrefutable truth.

It would be narratively gratifying to attribute this insight to a single moment of revelation. No doubt, it would have helped my pocket if I had to read fewer books to come to this conclusion. But maybe that’s precisely why I came to this conclusion. Each book I read simultaneously revealed the validity of the philosopher’s thought, as well as the incompleteness of his perspective. And it was only after surveying the perspectives of a certain number of thinkers, that the moral uncertainty, and contradictory nature of human consciousness started to become apparent to me: No one’s good, no one’s bad. Everyone is just confused, unable to be completely virtuous, unable to be completely evil; in fact, simply unsure of what is virtue and what is evil. Everyone is simply drowning in the vast oceans of information, unable to take everything into consideration, and hence putting forth theory after theory, letting loose arrow after arrow…at once in the dark and in the light, at once right and wrong, at once hitting their mark and missing completely.

After working in India for a couple of years, I am now back in the States, pursuing my Masters degree in counseling psychology. I have felt the need to develop a political stance, not just situate my work as a therapist within its social context, but to also be cognizant of how the “personal” of my clients is affected by the “political.” However, the personal and political reality of each of my clients is different. And each of their realities has provided them with a different set of values, which often stand in stark contrast to my own. It is during one such encounter that I became aware of the practical implications of the uncertainty which I have philosophized about so far. It struck me that that which I cannot stand within my client is also that which I have disavowed within my own self. The beliefs or ideas or agendas of someone else which seem so unpalatable to me, are always those which I have felt ashamed of harboring at some point, or to some degree. 

What I’ve learned through this multitude of interactions is that each of us may be likened to the uroboros; the serpent that eats its own tail. An archetypal, transcultural symbol for wholeness, it represents that from which everything originates, and that into which everything dissolves. Each of us contains within us the beauty and the ugliness, the virtue and the vice, the feminist and the misogynist, the globalist and the exclusionist, the powerful and the powerless, the meaningful and the meaningless. And once we truly give equal value to these contradictory postulates, what results is a formless and aimless uncertainty. Detached, and yet not indifferent. This might seem quite dreadful. But I see it as liberating. Freed from the opposites and freed from the desire for certainty, we accept the whole within us.

About the author

Nikhil Vinodh is a second-year Masters student in the Counseling Psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is currently interning as a therapist at a private practice in Manhattan. He values the healing potential of intimate conversation both within and outside of the therapy room. His areas of interest include anxiety, depression, existential and spiritual issues, life-transitions, morality and ethics.

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