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19 Sep, 1999

Warning: Beware The Consequences of Not Heeding Warnings

Originally Published: 19 Sept 1999

We live in a world full of warnings.

Read any newspaper on any given day, and you will see the word “warning” at least once in a headline, especially in the business and environmental sections.

Now that the Asian economic crisis is sort-of over, we are hearing warnings about the overheating US economy. In addition, warnings abound about the upcoming devaluation of the Chinese yuan, globalisation, currency, stock markets, exchange rates, recession, depression, hyperinflation, privatisation, liberalisation, wars, famine, poverty, pollution, deforestation, genetic engineering, corruption, guns, media violence, fast food, cholesterol, cigarettes, prostitution, disintegrating families, casual sex, lack of exercise, the Internet, and so on ad nauseum.

In daily life, children get warned by parents, employees by employers, the weak by the strong, the poor by the rich, the public sector by the private sector, and vice versa.

Even products on supermarket shelves contain warnings, mostly on labels about the right procedure for usage, accompanied by: “Keep away from children”; “Do not get in your eyes”; “Do not fill higher than the marked level”; etc. Invariably, the consequences for incorrect usage or ignoring those warnings are quite regretful.

Warnings come in many shapes and forms. Some are emotional and metaphysical, others are rational and scientific. All are designed to prove that certain actions will result in certain basic reactions. The cause and effect theory kicks in. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As you sow, so shall you reap.

The “reaping” can be either short- or long-term in nature. Some produce immediate results, others are stretched out over time. Invariably, human beings assess their response to warnings by the degree of risk they face: What are the chances that the warned outcome will in fact materialise? How severe is it likely to be? And over what time-frame?

For example, if you are warned not to put your hand on a hot stove, you would probably not do it because the immediate result is a burnt hand, which no-one in their right mind wants.

However, warnings on cigarette labels are long-term; smoke today and you may get cancer years later. There is an element of risk involved, but there is also a chance that you might not get cancer. So why not just do it now and worry about it later?

Risks we take every day of our lives. The AIDS epidemic was probably the first to highlight the term “risky behaviour”. You had a higher-risk of getting AIDS if you shared drug-injecting needles, were a homosexual, had many heterosexual partners, or practised unprotected sex. Those warnings appear to have been heeded — according to a recent Reuters report, deaths from AIDS in the US declined by 20% in 1998 over 1997 and the number of new cases dropped 11%.

Killing, lying, cheating, defrauding people, sleeping with someone else’s spouse, etc., is also “risky behaviour” but somehow, does not seem to count. People do it all the time, until they get caught.

There is nothing really new about warnings: Religions, prophets and philosophers have warned us for centuries about the results of veering away from the straight or middle path, shunning the basics of morality and ethics embodied in the holy books. They have used various formula to convey the righteousness of the message: More aggressive warnings about the fires of hell to more subtle methods like parables.

Last week, in the wake of the horrific Turkish earthquake, a story ran on CNN about religious Muslims who said the disaster was sent by God upon a society full of misfits, adulterers and debauchers. Others pooh-poohed the idea, saying it had nothing to do with the state of the society and that divine punishment could not possibly include innocent young infants and children.

When a warner is proved right, he/she immediately becomes a “guru”, a “star” who correctly forecast a future event. Perhaps it is time for an assessment about whether or not our prophets have been proved right in their ancient warnings and wisdom. I think an objective analysis will find that they have been mostly right, and in those instances where they have not been proved right, it is not a question of if but when they will be proved right.

For those who read the Bible, the chapter on the Proverbs of Solomon is full of warnings, beginning with the warnings against rejecting wisdom, and going on against sinning, adultery, sloth and many more.

The Qur’an reaffirms all the warnings of the Bible and reinforces the rules of reward and punishment for those who respectively accept/reject the “straight path.” It also holds out numerous warnings about being prepared for the accountability one faces in the hereafter — which is similar to the accountability that one faces in daily life, except that punishment tends to be more immediate down here, but a matter of conjecture up there.

Buddhism is replete with warnings about getting attached to worldly possessions as well as straying from the middle path. In the same vein, the Bhagavad Gita warns about indulging in all forms of excesses, especially food and recreation. In the final analysis, the Gita warns, “the man who is ignorant, who has no faith, who is of a doubting nature, perishes. For the doubting soul, there is neither this world nor the world beyond nor any happiness.”

Human beings, being all naturally good lawyers, land up quibbling about the definition of “sin,” seeking evidence of the “hereafter,” and other such courtroom-type drama in order to seek out excuses to continue to do what we are doing.

Today’s global religious renaissance serves as a reminder about the truth of the original warnings. As people get more and more victimised by the sheer pace of life, and inability to keep up the Joneses, they will slowly but surely seek shelter in religion and then suddenly discover that the warnings expounded by those original masters were really true.

Thence will come the final warning about not listening to warnings. Hopefully, it won’t be too late, though it probably will be.