In Contemplation of Youthful Yawning

When I was a young boy, I was taught what was proper and what was improper, what was decent and what was indecent, what was good and what was evil. I was taught all the codes of conduct, the manners and mannerisms, the morals I was expected to uphold and display. All the variations in the vast expanse of “public decency” were taught to me with patient and determined endeavour on the part of my parents. No stone was left unturned. All the methods that could have been tried, were tried, and it resulted in a boy who, no matter what his other faults, had impeccable manners. For a while, at least.

Adulthood brought the inevitable deviation from the expected norm, the distancing of the man from his childhood self, a self rebellion of sorts. In many a way, as is usually the case, the teenage years marked the seismic shift from the quiet, shy boy to the boisterous, overconfident, belligerent young man. But no matter how much one changes, one can never (and this is one of those rare cases where there are no exceptions) escape from the effects of one’s upbringing. I am no different. Looking back with an objective eye, I can see clearly all the effects that are still in me, residual or dominant, that to this day dictate my actions and reactions to living experience. Even my widest “Deviations” or “Rebellions” from the path that had been set out for me can be viewed as the direct reaction of my mind against walking a predestined path without having any say in it. In some cases it was merely rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

But the problem is, so many of these issues are ingrained so early, that they lose all significance in the conscious mind and merely fester and grow roots in that dreaded underworld of the mind, the subconscious. Even someone as self obsessed and someone as prone to self examination as myself took 23 years to realize that a lot of the tinted windows that I viewed the world through had not been put there by me but by the creators of me. I speak not only of my biological creators but everyone who ever influenced or moulded my brain in any particular way. And in this context, authors of a distant past must share the blame equally if not more than those who are my kin.

Coming back to my childhood and methods used to teach me manners, I had been taught quite early on that it is rude to yawn in public. One must always cover one’s mouth if a yawn can’t be stifled. Fair enough. But as kids will be kids, a mere dictat is rarely enough for them to obey it. There needs to be a justification. The one given to me was a religious one. “If you yawn without covering your mouth, Satan will enter through your mouth and make you have evil thoughts.” It was a simple explanation, a terrific one that my childish, yet imaginative mind clasped onto instantly. I immediately began viewing Satan as this sneaky voyeur who just waited around for you to leave your mouth open unprotected and snuck in and perverted your mind. I immediately resolved never to allow him the chance. So, you could say the explanation served its purpose, a child now consciously avoided something that is considered improper. And you would be right in saying this, had the thought ended just there.

But one of the greatest tragedies of human education is that the educator rarely realizes what impact his words are having or in what manner it is impacting the pupil. The educator can do everything right, yet the innate disposition of the pupil will determine whether the message is received in the manner intended or taken in a wholly different manner altogether. My mother gave me a straighforward answer, invoking God and Satan and my fear of both of them to prevent me from doing something that was frowned upon. It was impossible to explain to me at that age the importance of public decorum and man’s responsibility as a public citizen. Even today I struggle to understand much of what is expected of me by society. A six year old version of me stood no chance. But the explanation had an effect no one could have foreseen.

Yawns were now intimately associated with evil thoughts in my mind. Once I yawned for about half a second before my hand leaped to cover my mouth. My mind went into a fear fuelled overdrive. When you are desperately trying to avoid thinking about something, your mind will ensure that that is all you can think about. I was fearful that my half second delay had let Satan into me, did this mean I would think evil thoughts? Right on cue, all that constituted evil in a six year old’s brain began flashing in front of my eyes like a powerpoint presentation. Where before I would have yawned a huge yawn five seconds long without the least consideration towards how it affected my train of thought, I was now engaged in an unwinnable battle with my brain to rid itself of the thoughts Satan brought into it. Of course, at the time I attributed this to Satan him(or her)self, not to the human brain’s often vindictive behaviour.

It took almost two decades for this behaviour trait ingrained deep in my childhood to surface once again in conscious light. Last week I yawned, and being much more comfortable with obnoxious behaviour as an adult than I was as a child, I did not bother to cover my mouth. If society did not like the look of my innards then they could look elsewhere. But almost immediately my mind filled with a train of thought whose perversity shocked even myself. “Where did that come from,” I wondered at myself. And then it hit me, that childhood story had never left me. I had long since given up any fear of, or indeed belief in Satan, but the reaction to yawning without covering my mouth, that never left me. Eighteen years later, my mind still clung to the belief that an unabashed yawn brought evil into one’s mind. I wonder now, what is a bigger crime. Yawning in public, or having to deal with the guilt of thinking uncharacteristically perverse thoughts every time one yawned for eighteen years. Which one made one feel more unclean, more unworthy?

The contrast between the innocence and the simplicity of the explanation offered to me as a child and the adverse psychological effect it had on me, made me ponder the topic in depth and at great length. And eventually my mind moved on to generalities. Who decided what was good and what was evil? Public welfare is generally considered to be the standard, but is there any such thing? Is there anything that can ever be equally good for everyone? Does every good for someone not have a flipside for someone else?

And, as a logical counterpart to the above questions, came the question of who decided what evil was. A lot of what seemed to be considered evil today seemed ridiculous to me. And the standards kept changing arbitrarily, usually decided by the dominant religion or culture of the area, only giving me further proof that there was no innate ideal goodness or evilness, just our conception of it. Very well then, if that were the case, why would man go through the trouble of creating these concepts at all? What was the way of mankind before these concepts came into existence?

The way was simple and pure. The will to power.

Before good and evil existed as concepts, before man had progressed (or regressed depending how you look at it) as far as that, the simple factor that decided each action was the strength of the perpetrator in relation to the subject of the action. Whoever was stronger, decided the course of events using his strength, and the sole aim was the propagation of his species. Survival of the fittest in the truest and purest form. Even in the primeval civilizations, the strongest of the tribe, clan, group or gathering always claimed the best shelter, the best females, the lion’s share of the food for himself. He did not bother to think of the handicapped child who was not getting enough to eat, it was none of his concern. He was the best of the species and his responsibility was to protect and enhance his genes. The other’s must take care of themselves or die in the process.

But then came the big upheaval. Ironically, it was with the arrival of “reason” that this most unreasonable of errors was introduced permanently into human civilization. The concept of equality, the concept of charity, the concept of goodness were introduced. How else were a mediocre mass of people to control the exceptional individual? It is no coincidence that most of what constitutes “good” in all of today’s leading moralities is the controlling of one’s urges or refraining from indulging in one’s pleasures. It has its origins in a concept that had been devised to prevent the strong from exercising their strength. Of course, no human dictats would have been adhered to, the Gods must necessarily be invoked. And thus, Gods that were previously viewed as distant, intangible, indecipherable beings that were distant and uninterested and merely existed and caused all to exist, suddenly transformed into Gods who were minutely interested in every single action of every single person and dealt swift and harsh retribution whenever man fell out of line. God took on the role of a moralizer and man (even the best of whom is regularly fallible) was now subjected to a constant torrent of inner guilt. It proved an efficient deterrent, and one of incredible cunning.

Mankind today exists in an unceasing, unrelenting state of continuous self loathing. The noblest of men, the purest of heart, even they have moments in their past that they are secretly ashamed of. Even if it never comes to be acted upon, a single unseemly thought can haunt a mind for years if not for a lifetime. And herein lay the double masterstroke of the masses.

Firstly, the greater the scope of a man’s actions, the greater his potential for guilt. A man who never did anything of significance in his life probably would not have much on his conscience either.

Secondly, the state of self loathing was one already common to the layman. It is natural for the inferior to feel chagrin at his inferiority. The great, however, were not used to such considerations. They were unused to guilt. And now they found it shackled to their every deed. The concept of evil was tailor made to fit the deeds of the strong that the weak could not hope to match or perform. And by contrast, every act of mediocrity became exalted as the good. Thus in time pride, once considered the noblest of emotions, is now considered a vice while humility, once viewed as a manifestation of cowardice, is now hailed as a great virtue.

Religion fine-tuned itself, perfected its methods, absorbed human psychology and historical knowledge into itself and has today become the most ruthless, efficient means of killing an individual and creating a pliant, submissive cog. Wherever one finds disrespect of geniuses, one will not have to look very far to find religion.

All this I gained from reflecting on a yawn in my childhood.

Only this and nothing more.

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