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Semester at Sea Fall 2007
John Denver, in love with Annie, wrote in a song to her: "You fill up my senses". I love India, and in my several trips there, I have found that India doesn't just fill up my senses, it assaults them. No where have I found so much of everything to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. I have seen the ugliest, and I have seen the most beautiful. I have tasted some of finest food; and I have been the sickest from something I shouldn't have eaten. I have felt the highest, and I have felt the lowest of any place I have ever visited.
In psychology we refer to the term cognitive dissonance when we are faced with two conflicting or opposite feelings or thoughts. Many people deal with that dissonance by finding a way to delete or brush away one of those viewpoints. We often do that by censoring or judging that which we don't like to see or hear or feel. If we can label something as "bad" or "wrong" or "unjust" we settle the dissonance we feel from experiencing an ugly or distasteful experience. I would encourage you, when you visit India, to put your judgment and labels aside for a few five days. Allow your senses--all of them--to fully experience all that India has to offer.
I remember watching from a bus just at nightfall as a young girl, probably not yet a teen, put a baby (probably her sibling) down to sleep that night. It was on a busy sidewalk, cluttered with trash, and both the blanket the child laid on and that which covered her were tattered and dirty. And yet I have never seen more tenderness in a face, more gentleness, more care, as that young girl put that younger child down to sleep. The feelings I had were so dissonant, so opposite each other, and they were all so terribly powerful. It would be easy to label, to judge, to try to "fix it". But I could not fix it. I could only record the experience, avoid making an easy judgment or drawing a simple conclusion. To do so, when I could not know all that was happening there, would only have diluted the power of the experience.
When you visit India, you cannot change it. Believe me. But you can change you. You can risk living with dissonance until you return home, after this voyage. And then you can ask "What can I do about hunger in the world? About over-population? About children and women who are without the power to change their situation. About aids, and sickness, and disease." It is not an easy answer, and each of us will experience a different process as we search for answers. That is what this voyage is all about. It is a challenge for you, and me, to experience a tiny part of each culture we visit and then ask ourselves, in light of what we have been learning in classes, and reading and hearing from those who understand the cultures better, what we can do to make a difference. But that will come with time, and cannot be answered in the short time during and immediately after we visit India. So I invite you to take a risk. When you see the ugly, look for the beautiful. It will be all around you. When you feel helpless among the vast number of beggars, use the power of your mind to file that feeling for later reflection. Let your senses be assaulted. Try living for a while with the dissonance.
Marilynne Glatfelter, Mental Health Professional