Guilt has “quick ears” to accusation even when it’s not articulated, even if it emanates from deep within oneself. Asked why he spent much more time at office than he needed to, a leading CEO once told me, “I’m not sure but I think it’s triggered by guilt for earning the high salary I do. My father slogged all his life, but he made barely a fraction of what I earn. I know about inflation but, still, I find it hard sometimes to justify the difference to myself.”
The conversation took place some 15 years ago; the CEO was already in his 50s. Significantly younger than him, I’d never examined my feelings on the subject. I hadn’t lived enough or succeeded enough for it to matter. But I immediately understood where he was coming from. How could I not? I had older family members posted at similar milestones.
Guilt was the middle name of their generation. Guilt over making big money; guilt over doing better than friends and family; guilt over being able to acquire—oh so easily—objects that their parents had only dreamed of; guilt over not doing enough for those not as “privileged” as themselves (never mind that those others didn’t work one-tenth as hard as them). It wasn’t as if they didn’t take pride in their own triumphs. Of course they did, but it was pride tempered by a (not-so) secret fear that they had got more than they deserved; that their fortune had been made at someone else’s expense. And so they toiled harder and harder in compensation. If you had asked them who they were trying to compensate, I doubt whether they could have answered. Or even knew.
But you couldn’t blame them. Theirs was a generation that was brought up on the Bhagwad Gita message of working with no personal gain in mind. Karm karo, phal ki chinta mat karo. Care and share was almost the national motto. From an early age, people were told that if there was gain to be had, it had to be shared with others. Being proud of one’s wealth was a sign of immaturity, because it could vanish in a moment. Because “you came empty-handed; you will leave empty-handed. What is yours today belonged to someone else yesterday, and will belong to someone else the day after tomorrow. You are mistakenly enjoying the thought that this is yours.”
But then Gordon Gekko of Wall Street came around, saying greed is all right, it works.
”It clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.” Gekko may have been fictional, but his words rang loud and clear through the world in real time. They started in the West, but formed a Message Sans Frontieres soon enough. And, little by little, people began surrendering their guilt over success—personal, professional, financial—and embraced gilded growth instead. We Indians kept step. With the rest of the world, we learnt to be selfish and to capture every opportunity that success handed us. We learn to want it and flaunt it, and became warriors instead of worriers. But they say life is cyclical. So maybe the old CEO will be back in a new avatar, carrying an old copy of the Gita.