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Practice, what you preach!

Huzaima Bukhari

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

There can be no question about the fact that everyone judges everyone although, most of the time, the judged pretend not to care about what others think of them. This is nothing but deception! The fact is that within our hearts we are very conscious about what kind of impression we leave on others. Among the most common known yardsticks for forming an opinion are the way we appear, dress, carry ourselves, our attitude towards those who are on a lower social pedestal and above all the way we converse—our style, choice of words and the topics we prefer to discuss. A lot can be gathered about anyone, using these tools but the truth is that no matter how eloquently we may talk, our actions affect in the most profuse manner revealing our genuine personalities.

This clearly means that notwithstanding what we say or commit, regardless of the sincerity that may be reflective in our words, irrespective of the devoutness we may profess in our statements, our conduct is what actually matters. In the end our actions determine the true worth of our character. How easy it is to give long sermons about good and bad, right and wrong, of being positive, of cultured behavior, of showing restraint in an explosive situation, of being kind and charitable….etc. but when it comes to actually putting these orations in practice, only a miniscule percentage of population might claim success.

For a moment it may be assumed that practical application of preaching is a strenuous job requiring an absolutely healthy mind and body which in today’s unstable world is becoming a rare combination but the least we can do is to acknowledge this shortcoming and not try to prove otherwise. Sometimes, admitting one’s faults is the first step towards improving ourselves. Those who consider themselves perfect are mostly the ones who are good talkers but poor doers. Unfortunately, their words become meaningless when people see their inaction or actions opposed to enthusiastically expressed views.

No one wants to ‘benefit’ from just verbal knowledge of a person—a total failure—whose life portrays anything but his expertise. He is just like a valuable coin that loses its worth if one side is defaced. On the other hand, people are more receptive to what a successful businessman, a competent professional, an accomplished artist, a practicing cleric or a popular philanthropist has to say. His discourses, coupled with his experiences provide him with a keen audience that is willing to learn.

A well-known folklore is that a child who was uncontrollably hooked on sweets was taken to the village elder by his parents to make him understand the bad effects of eating excessive sugar. Instead of reasoning with the child, the elder told the parents to return after a couple of weeks. Much dismayed and unable to argue, the parents went home and came back to see the elder after two weeks. He welcomed them and was about to talk to the child when the father asked him why they were made to go away the first time. The elder replied that since he too was fond of sweets, he needed the time to address and resolve his own issue before he was placed in the position to handle the child. This indeed says a lot about preaching and practicing. According to Immanuel Kant, “Experience without knowledge is blind, but knowledge without experience is a mere intellectual play.”

Based on a research conducted by Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and by Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, power (I would add fame as well) and influence can cause a severe disconnect between public judgement and private behavior making people stricter in moral judgment of others while being less stern when it came to viewing their own.

“This research is especially relevant to the biggest scandals of 2009, as we look back on how private behavior often contradicted the public stance of particular individuals in power,” said Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School. “For instance, we saw some politicians use public funds for private benefits while calling for smaller government, or have extramarital affairs while advocating family values. Similarly, we witnessed CEOs of major financial institutions accepting executive bonuses while simultaneously asking for government bailout money on behalf of their companies.”

Undoubtedly, this kind of a contradiction is conspicuous in the political climate of the Third World countries. Before coming into power what was wrong then becomes right when placed in seats of authority. Dishonesty replaces earlier demand for more transparency in governmental or corporate matters, whichever is applicable. Convictions are substituted with criticism of the prevailing state of affairs, disabling their resolution. In short, anyone who becomes someone is quick to justify actions that contrast with his words. Deceit gets injected and improbity becomes passion. One is hardly surprised to see that lottery tickets or prize bond winnings are mostly claimed by the rich and powerful compared to the less privileged who spend a lifetime in the hope of a windfall gain.

There can be no qualms about the fact that practice is far more difficult than preaching so what is one supposed to do? The best way out is to quit preaching. Instead of wasting time in trying to reform others, one should pay closer attention to mending one’s own ways. Simultaneously, giving importance to other people’s opinions about oneself also plays a pivotal role in distorting one’s personality. No one is perfect. Negative traits can be found in everyone and only they have a right to sermonize who are free from imperfections which is definitely a rarity. Seldom does one come across a person who displays qualities attractive enough to capture an audience eager to gain from his knowledge and experience.

Many idols have got smashed at the hands of their worshippers when their ugly inner selves became public. Whether they were at the helm of power or at the height of their glory or fame, they lost credence just because they failed to practice what they had been preaching.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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