A Few Home-truths
Brace yourself. In this essay, I am going to share with you the truth as I see it. The truth is that there is no truth—no single, over-arching, awesome truth. What there are, are a series of home-truths about life as it is. Simple home-spun homilies that explain life and set out little signposts along the way. I will share with you five that come unbidden to my mind on most days.
‘Duniya hai mere peechhe, lekin mein tere peechhe.’ (The world pursues me, but I pursue you.)
This simple line penned by S.H. Bihari for a Hindi film-song in 1968 speaks volumes to me about the way in which most of us live our lives. We forsake the easy and accessible for the complex and unattainable. There is a related Tamil saying that I love which translated means, ‘He ruined a perfectly good conch by blowing on it.’ You take a life that is simple and easy and where you have everything you need. And then you blow on it. You make choices that just make your life difficult. And often miserable. And each time you start to say, "This is very difficult," someone says to you, "But wasn’t it your choice?" This just makes you want to scream.
For many reasons. First, it is not really as though anything else is an easier choice. In fact, I suspect that anything you choose or you have to choose is intrinsically hard. It is in allowing your life to be determined by a series of default options that you make you life easy, always unwittingly. Take the choice of career. Do those who chose to be computer scientists or cost accountants have it easier than those who chose to be political scientists or art historians? They get jobs, and that helps, but their professional lives cannot be a breeze. But I must say that those who have the intuitive wisdom to let their careers happen to them must have it easier. Not having choices or not caring enough to choose must also limit wants and expectations and it must limit the self-flagellating drive to excel. This makes life easier. I think. Do those who choose to marry have it easier than those who are single, and do those who choose to be single or childless have it easier than those who do not? Hardly. But when you choose, you express a preference and then there is a chance that life does not yield to your preferences, at your will, at your convenience. That makes life difficult. There is also a chance that life yields but not quite in keeping with your expectations. That is frustrating. For those who feel compelled to choose, it is hard to accept and be content.
To always want the person who is not courting you, the job that is just out of your reach, the sofa that is just beyond your budget—I think this is the human condition. It makes my life difficult, but it drives me to surpass my own expectations everyday. On the days when I am tired of diligently dreaming all my dreams and assiduously cheering my own way through the obstacle race, it is both the illusion of the finishing line, as well as the fear that stopping will trap me into a life that is not exactly what I want, that keep me simulating motion. When everything in me wants to put my bags down and quit, it is my lust for those words of praise from a super-critical reader that keep me writing. The people who tell me my work is good I am sure are simply responding to the nice person that I am, not the quality of my work. Which brings us to my second principle.
Life is a confidence trick.
Every minute of every hour of every day… you have to convince one person of your worth—as a human, as a scholar, as a friend, as a teacher, as anything—and that is (consistent with the previous home-truth) the most skeptical member of your life-audience. Yourself. Life is a confidence trick and you try every scheme in your imagination and every wile in your repertoire to convince yourself that you are okay. And chary customer that you are, you fail. Again and again and again.
We are all sales-people. We sell ourselves the simple norms with which we live—you sleep at night, work in daylight. We sell ourselves their defiance—balanced meals are for squares. Women should look thus; conversely, ‘thus’ is precisely how they should not look. We sell our wares in the economy at large and in our mating dances, we project our finest feathers. Everyday, we make a million little sales. But at the end of the day, our lives are rather like the temples of Khajuraho and Konarak, without the profound stillness of the sanctum. All the action, all the drama is on the outside. In the inner recesses of our minds, there is only the deconstruction of every word and agony over every action. We lament every missed cue and cringe at remembered embarrassments. The ledger outside that room shows a healthy profit. In our hearts, there is no sale.
I wonder at those who appear to be confident. Are they really secure in their worth? Or like me, do they dread the nightly reckoning? The confidence trick we pull off in public is the easy one. But how do you speak to the heart that does not hear your loud and vehement assertions that you are doing well? How do you convince the mind that measures your worth in every moment, that you are a pearl beyond price? How do you still the spirit that spins itself into a tizzy, worrying about the penalties of contentment and satisfaction? How do you heal the burns and lashings that your preemptive self-flagellation inflicts upon your soul?
Uncertainty is the only thing you can count on.
Thrashing about in the universe of your choices, haunted by the demon of self-criticism, you say to yourself, "If only life/god/fate would just send me a telegram to say that I am okay and that I will make it…" But no telegrams come. All you have is this world you have created for yourself. The only person you can usually (not always) count on is yourself. People tell you that the only certainties are taxes and death, but too many people manage to evade taxes and you know that that no one really knows what death is. Therefore, here you are—little, unsure but demanding you—and there before you is an utterly uncertain universe.
Your heart sinks. Your knees turn to jelly. That voice in your head says, "I told you you were no good at this." Other voices outside seem to agree. Fading out of earshot are the voices of your friends that say, "Pay no heed, we believe in you…" With every passing second, you seem to shrink in the face of the odds before you. Panic seeps through every last corner of your spirit. You can think no more. Here, at last, is the silence of the shrine. But no, it is the silence of the tomb. Still. Quiet. Eerie. Inert.
And in this second, your life changes. The spark in you that is your divinity shows you that in the face of this endless night of uncertainty, you have nothing at all to lose. Unexpectedly, that is the most liberating thing you have ever realized. Success and failure, life and death, happiness and misery—they are all governed by the same truth. Nothing is certain. All anyone has is the freedom to try and some control over the nature of that effort. You can try and make a good career. You may or may not succeed. But whether you try half-heartedly, whether you are ethical in your work and whether you are diligent are at least in your hands. You can speak of love. But whether you are jealous, whether you love unconditionally and whether you can love without rationing are up to you. And then you realize that while you may not become a millionaire and while you may not star in the romance of the century, nothing and no one can alienate the quality of your endeavours. The outcome is uncertain, and therefore, immaterial. The process is all there is.
Patience is of no use on a monument.
So you rise every morning, fresh from the inner battles of the night before. It is a new day and you will conquer it, armed with the knowledge that it is the means that count. It is by not trying that you most conclusively fail. Not by choice, not by assurance, but by effort is your life to be measured. You toss aside your blankets and march forth into the day.
Your frozen fingers struggle with the tangles in your hair. You pick up the kettle in a hurry and pour hot water all over the counter-top, scalding the back of your hand as you jerk it back. Your frenzied mopping topples the sugar bowl. You abandon the kitchen to its fate, pick up your back-pack and run. Only your guardian angel stops you from dashing across the road in the middle of the traffic. You send email and then start looking for replies immediately thereafter. You leave one, two, three, a dozen phone messages. You follow up every lead. You answer every request. And still, like those awful nightmares, all that running and you are exactly where you started. You mutter. You curse. It’s all those slow people out there. And all those people who do not check their mail or use their fax machines. You wish you could wind up the world and make it go at the pace you want.
But what is the hurry? The sun still rises and sets if you don’t get a reply. More caustically, someone points out that other people have other priorities. Yes, yes, you reply, I know that but then they should be quick to communicate that to me. Your old nemesis, the reality check, points out that you are not the center of the universe. At that, you wish to stamp your feet and say, but, but, but, I should be! However, you are a grown-up and you quell that petulant reply. The sanctimonious voices in your universe suggest that delayed gratification builds character. You fume, "Character?! I have enough character to have a characterectomy!" And there is some truth to this. How long have you passed by the things—big and small—you long for in your life, knowing that it is in a good cause? Must you be judged when the waiting wears you down? This is not a novel you long to read, or the perfume you love and cannot afford, or the massage that would take care of your aching neck-muscles, or the lovely soft sweater that would make your winters bearable, or the treat of a delicious dinner, or those vacations you dreamt of taking as a child. This is your life. How long must you delay gratification until you can live?
Your voice breaks as you ask. The tears fall freely. Like Alice in Wonderland, you free-fall from the lofty heights of your earlier resolution into a despairing heart-ache. Like a child, you say, I tried, I truly tried. My back is weary, my head hurts, my wrists and fingers are bent out of shape, and I have taken as much of the callousness of this world as I can. You are too tired even to be angry by this time. Afraid to look at your life in case all you see is failure. Your determination appears futile. Your efforts look pitiful. Your enthusiasm resemble folly. Your dreams are but delusions of grandeur. You have now climbed high enough to fall fatally off the precipice of your dubious achievements. The summit is still distant. Like Patience on a monument, it is useless to you at this moment. What you need is patience in your heart and the summit beneath your feet, now. At this very minute.
When you count your blessings, the best ones come up ‘people.’
But look, look, you are still standing. You have not fallen. You have not melted away. You have not turned back. And you are not alone.
You stand on your precipice, surrounded and propped up by dozens of people posed precariously on theirs. Below you to check your fall, are others who are trying to make the same climb and others anxious to keep you safe. Ahead of you are those who are beating down a path for you, and those half-turned towards you and holding out a hand to beckon you. If you choose to see those around you as obstacles, those below you as cobble-stones and the hands that are reaching out as waiting to push you, then you totter on the precipice, shaken by your own lack of trust.
Yes, yes, I know that life is not always good to everyone. And people do despicable things to other people. And some people do end up alone and forgotten. But does assuming the worst help your progress along? Or is it easier to assume the best until you are proven mistaken?
People enter our lives in a million ways. There is the family you are born into and there is the family that you make as you befriend strangers. But apart from these long-term players in the drama of your life, there are those who stop by for a second. Some stop to give and some to take. Some stop to admire the view and some to adjust the angle of the picture-frame. The person next to you on the bus or train or air-plane who tells you exactly what you needed to hear. The person who sells you stamps year after year and becomes a fixture in your life. The person who shows up when you have an accident and calls an ambulance. Outside the world of feel-good television programming and magazine articles, these people exist. They exist and they buttress our solitary efforts at making a life. They stay only as long as they are needed, but curiously, so do any of us. Not everyone is for every purpose and every mood and forever in our lives, as we are not in theirs. But each person, playing their part in our lives, at their turn, is irreplaceable and unforgettable. The gifts they bring are unique as are the qualities they evoke within us.
In the here and now of life,
people mark the process and things seem to mark the outcome. However, when
at the end of the day, we look at a life and remark that it was a good
one, we look not at the degrees or the estates or the compositions but
at the people that were touched by that life. When we count our blessings,
it is usually people we end up counting.
And so my friends, I have shared
with you a little of what I have learned so far. These things seem to me
to be true this weekend. Perhaps, in the absence of one universal truth,
the best thing each of us can do (and does) is to go from day to day, figuring
out each day’s big questions and each day’s revelations afresh. And if
there is one thing I will offer you as my advice on how to navigate these
confusing waters, it is this: pay no heed to lists like this.
East Lansing, 8-19-00