The Disguised Blessings in Life

I have a blank canvas today. It is one of those days when I know I am touched by life, but I have not yet found the vocabulary that can meaningfully verbalize what I feel. I have also not been reading much of literature; that has added to the poverty of words that I am experiencing now. This may sound strange, but I do not know where the problem is- am I struggling with organizing all my scattered thoughts into a coherent body of knowledge, or am I groping for the words that can describe my current state of mind? I now understand the dilemma that psychologists talk about- is language merely stuck on to our abstract thought processes, or does it represent the thought process itself? How little we know about the intricacies of our own mental processes!

What is it that has touched me? The sadness of my life has touched me. You see, sadness can mean different things to different people. Of late, my affect to sadness has changed considerably. Sadness does not sadden me any longer; I cherish sadness because I am now aware of the potential of sadness. Sadness is the source of my most profound thoughts; if I have managed to acquire any wisdom over the years, I owe it all to sadness. Sadness is a beautiful state of mind, unlike the chaotic turbulence that sometimes precedes it. Sadness is the most important part of grieving; to be sad is to have accepted the trauma. In this sadness, I become very perceptive to truth. Sadness, when pure and uncorrupted by denial, helps me experience myself as a whole. In these brief moments of grief, my mind is transformed into a unitary canvas of grief– quite like a uniformly dark sky where the stars are clearly visible. Only in this unitary canvas of grief, can I see the pearls of truth that sparkle and transform the grief into an ethereal moment of awareness. This is the divinity that I seek in my life.

What is this sadness that I experience? It is an old sadness- the sadness of loss. There is so much that I have lost to life that I have ended up becoming a very interesting person. I have a textured personality, thanks to the wounds of life. Every wound speaks of an interesting story. For the same reason, I love people whose eyes sparkle through tanned and blemished faces; a flawless pretty face has no character to it- how can it possibly evoke a deeper interest? And so, I urge those of you who are suffering to remind yourself that your suffering will end up making you an interesting person- a person worth knowing. You will have summers, springs, autumns, and winters to talk about, unlike a person whose life is in perennial bloom. Trust me, you would rather live a harsh life and become interesting, than live a comfortable, boring life. To be motivated for as long as you live, is more important that living a life of pleasure or comfort.

There is also the sadness of not having been understood. Even as a child, I don’t think my parents understood certain facets of me. This was no fault of theirs; it was just that I had more depth than they could imagine. Some of my behaviors, motives and perspectives did not receive understanding; some were misinterpreted. I remained true to myself, and privately cherished these poorly understood parts of me. As I slowly stepped out of my childhood, I realized that these were the parts that helped me discover the special people in my life. There is nothing more joyous than finding somebody who finds worth in the elements of your personality that you conceal; the bonds you form with such people are precious. Such friendships helped me realize that not being understood, was also a disguised blessing. It enabled you to bond in ways that are beyond ordinary companionship. Also, some of the most concealed elements of my personality, created enough sadness in me to compel me to find the words that could describe the truth and worth in them. These were the elements from which I created; these were the elements that made me a writer, a psychologist, and most importantly, an empathetic and compassionate human being who could read into people’s silences. The words I have written or spoken, have helped me find my way into many people’s minds; I am cherished by the people who are suffering in some way. This helped me realize that not being understood, helped me discover a world whose beauty and joy would have otherwise been denied to me.

In summary, all our sufferings are disguised blessings. If we can interpret our suffering in meaningful ways, we can gain access to a world of beauty, magic, and fulfilment.

Cinderella Behind the Scenes

Fousiya burst out laughing.

I had just narrated to her my odd predicament of standing in a queue in the ration shop, with no immediate relief in sight.

“But what were you doing in the ration shop?”, she asked.

“Buying ration. It started out as buying ration for our maid. We would use the raw rice to feed the birds. When my maid left, we started using the boiled rice. My mother likes this sort of rice to prepare flour.”

Fousiya couldn’t help laughing.

“Who had imagined that it would be such a long wait? I waited for my turn, and when it did come, the lorry from the warehouse arrived, and the impatient driver started unloading the gunny bags. The storekeeper stopped dispensing the rice and attended to him. We had to wait until all the bags were unloaded. The storekeeper has a strange system. He first feeds everybody’s cards into the system, irrespective of how long the queue is. Only then, does he dispense the rice. So I had to wait again, and by the time I was home, I was in tears.”

“I couldn’t help dwelling on the sad irony of my life, Fousiya. I have spent my years in Kerala queueing up at different places, travelling in overcrowded buses in the oppressive heat, driving people to different destinations, balancing weight on my shoulders like a donkey, negotiating with people who are too thick-skinned to understand, and so much more. Somewhere in between, I have managed to squeeze in my reading, my writing, and everything else that is important to me. Was this the dream that I had hoped to live? “

“Just like you, I too laughed, thinking of my predicament. These are the sort of things that we can laugh at…. and well, cry at. I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What do you think, Fousiya?”

“I feel the same way about myself. I see people going to work, so sure of what they want, so sure of where they will be in the next couple of years. Their lives are in such order; there is nothing that is at the mercy of fate. All I want to do is to educate myself so that I can raise my son without worrying about being able to afford his education. But look at my plight- I am still struggling. I see all the nurses fly off to different countries across the world, and I wish there had been somebody to advise me when I was in school. We are both walking similar paths- we are deserving, but we are nowhere.”

As an afterthought, she added, “These people do not know the value of what they have. When I was giving my exam, I met some of my batchmates who were far younger. They asked me why I was studying when I had a job. I could tell that given a choice, they would not have taken up this course, or any other course for that matter. All they wanted to do was take selfies, wile away time, and get done with the exam. Why would it matter to them? They neither have the curiosity to learn, nor a compelling reason to learn. But they are the ones who end up getting degrees and jobs, simply because they have people to invest on them. I have neither the time nor the money, and yet I am trying to study in my own way.”

I sighed.

“Hope is a big thing. To tell you the truth, despite the fact that a part of me feels trapped in the web of my circumstances, another part of me is hopeful. There is still a part of me that believes that something really good awaits me. There is no logical basis to this belief, but my perceptions and experiences seed this feeling in me. Somehow, it is more fun to squeeze in the things you truly love in between the hardships and struggles of daily life- they become so precious. I feel so deprived of the things that I love that when I do get to indulge in them briefly, I immerse myself in them so deeply that something beautiful comes out of it.”

We started on a miserable note, but as we spoke, we were back to our laughing selves in no time. With Fousiya, I can always laugh at my sorrows and heartaches. There is something so sincere and pure in our friendship that it washes away the assaults of life.

To Love

From the movie Chashme Buddoor ((1981)

We have all loved somebody- our parents, siblings, friends and partners. We have also received love from people. We know what love feels like. But when we love somebody, our behaviors take different forms. Our love can be aggressive or mellow, demanding or accepting, enslaving or liberating. When we love, whose needs are are we fulfilling? We all seem to understand love as an emotion, but do we really understand love as a behavior? When love operates in a relationship, the behavioral dimension of love is more important than the emotional dimension. We do not seem to recognize this, and this may be the reason why many relationships that started out as love, end up as bitterness and hatred. As with all emotions, love must also undergo a slow process of maturation for it to translate into a behavioral expression that can accommodate the change of seasons in life. Our circumstances change with time, and so do our needs. If love cannot accommodate these changing needs, it has failed the test of life. Such love is worthless.

At different phases of life, I have experienced different shades of love. When I was younger, love was simple. It was about being in each other’s thoughts, being important to each other, and wanting to spend time together. I felt loved when my friends sought my company; when they included me in their happiness and in their grief; when they celebrated my happiness as their own; when they comforted and consoled me in my grief; when they surprised me with gifts and parties on my birthday. Our emotional needs were simple then, and were easily fulfilled. All that mattered was to have a good time together.

But today, are my needs the same? While I still cherish these gestures of affection in my life, I am not particularly touched by relationships where only happiness is shared. For me, the truest test of love is how people respond to the the struggle and suffering that I conceal beneath the masks I wear. As we grow older, we slowly learn that only some relationships can accommodate the sighs and tears we suppress. With most people, we stand the risk of being judged and misunderstood when we share pain. People make you feel inadequate when you talk to them about pain; they give you advice that makes you feel ten times worse. Where once sorrow, worries, fears, and even anger, were a normal part of our emotional life, we live a scripted life today. The script tells us that these emotions are unwelcome and are signs of mental distress. Fortunately, I have learnt to give these emotions a space in my mind. I listen to them, and I respond to them. This is one reason why I write. Words provide these emotions the spaces that they deserve, the voices that they deserve. I also share these feelings with the handful of friends who can respond to them more naturally, uncorrupted by the influence of the script that governs our lives today. We have a good laugh at the jargons that people use to respond to somebody’s pain- meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and well, a whole lot of psychology jargon that they have picked up from the ones masquerading as wellness practitioners and life coaches!

When somebody notices the vulnerability that I have learnt to tuck in so that it doesn’t show, that is when I know that they have a sincere concern for me. How often does this happen? Very rarely. But when it does happen, that person becomes precious to me. The thing I love about such relationships is that they are so effortless. I do not have to waste time and energy explaining what my difficulty is, and I get the behavior I need, without asking for it. Maybe this is why I am attached to people like Fousiya, Maya, Kasthuri or Beena. I love their wisdom, their truth, their ability to accommodate different types of people, and their ability to see what the person is not saying.

Attraction is more common than love, but it is often misinterpreted as love. In the daily course of our lives, we meet people from different walks of life, and though we may have spent very little time with some of them, we find ourselves instantly attracted to some qualities they manifest. Based on these qualities, we imagine them to also have other qualities that we generally associate with these qualities. But the truth is that we are biased in our perception. As long as we interact with them in similar contexts, we may not discover other traits that we did not expect to find in them.

To give an example, I once met a student who came across as cheerful, friendly and vulnerable. Her vulnerability made me assume that she was also honest, truthful, empathetic, considerate towards others, and grateful. We interacted for a long time in the same context, and I grew fond of her. However, when the context changed, she revealed a side of her that I could not place in the mental model I had constructed of her personality. I could not imagine her being manipulative, ungrateful and aggressive. It took me some time to figure out that these were coming from a place of failure and denial. In her case, she was sincere in her feeling for me- she genuinely loved me. But the behavioral dimension of her love, was corrupted by other drives that superseded this feeling.

I suppose we express love in a manner that reflects our own needs. For instance, I hardly buy gifts for people or pamper them, unless they are very young children. Sometimes, when I know people expect it (my students, for instance), I do it, just so that they are not hurt. But I am not able to maintain consistency because I probably do not see these as reflections of love. I love in my way, and I therefore look out for people who are needy of such love. When people approach me with their suffering, I cannot turn them away. My way of loving is to read into what people are not saying, even as they talk to me. My way of loving is to look within my own self for any inner experience that may connect with their experience, and share this experience with them. My way of loving is to help them see within me a little bit of themselves so that they do not feel judged or misunderstood. My way of loving is to share with them the life truths and the wisdom I have discovered from my own experiences. My way of loving is to lend them my deepest self so that they can drink from it and feel motivated. I cannot offer empty words of comfort to people who are suffering; I cannot say “Don’t worry, it will be fine.”

This is also the kind of love I expect from people. But over the years, I have become more practical. I have realized that we are all under different stresses, and that our behaviors at any given point in time, are governed by different motivations. I have therefore learnt to cherish the instances where people give me this kind of love, and to move on, without expecting more of it. I have also learnt to use the instances where I can be valuable and make a difference to a suffering soul, as experiences to fill the void. Oh, and I also love art and nature, and in return, art and nature love me back too! I am aware that my behavioral expectations are too idealistic, but I have figured out my own ways to compensate for the deficiencies and deprivations.

β€œIt is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.”

-Vincent Van Gogh

The Need for Wisdom

Every crisis is a quest for wisdom. The first crisis that I recall in my life was the crisis of rejection when I was in college. A friend rejected me, and I was devastated. There were people to give me practical advice, but my broken heart was looking for something that could mend it; no logic could permeate my grief-stricken heart. God sent two mentors to my rescue. These mentors did not counsel me in the manner that counselors counsel today; they gave me words of wisdom. Not knowledge, but wisdom. There is an ocean of difference between the two. It takes wisdom to mend a broken heart, to overcome a crisis, and to find ample reasons to live and love. Today, our world suffers from an abundance of knowledge, and a scarcity of wisdom.

The second crisis in my life unfolded as a series of crises when we moved to Kerala. I did not know whom to turn to, but my need for wisdom was perhaps so imperative that I turned to cinema. Cinema was a repertoire of the wisdom I needed to stand up to the real challenges in life. Cinema and nature served as the mentors who could teach me life. They saved me from the kind of outcomes that I see in some of my students. I owed my sanity to cinema and nature.

There were also the occasional rural folk whose sublime statements hid beneath them a wealth of wisdom. This would have been lost upon me, had I not been so needy. To this day, when my heart aches, I turn to people like Fousiya. I once asked her if she had arguments with her mother.

“Of course! I would fly off the handle. But that was a long time ago. I had plenty of time to waste on silly debates then. How naive I was! When I got married, there was no time- to expect, to grieve, or to think. My only thought was to take my life forward. I was too preoccupied with the problems that life meted out to me to be able to fret over things that people said or did. Life taught me the value of the good things because I had too little of them.”

She paused and continued, “You know, on the day my father passed away, he was unusually nice to all of us. He had never given us a moment’s peace, but on that day, he was strangely peaceful. He died of a heart attack, and I was by his side when he was dying. Despite all the bitterness I had for him, I was glad there had been no argument at home that day. Unlike him, my husband was a gentle soul, but his illness made him irritable most of the time. Yet, we had those moments when we would be cheerful and conversant. The day he died, we had been good to each other. Looking back at it, I am so thankful.”

She then talked about her mother.

“My mother is a very traditional woman. She is subservient to her son, but very assertive with me. I am the sort of person who is happy weaving small dreams and celebrating little joys, but my mother often pours water on them. She doesn’t do it intentionally, but she doesn’t understand how important they are to me. She worries and complains all the time; she brings a lot of negative energy into our conversations. But I also know that my mother has led a loveless life, and she speaks from her insecurity. Besides, she wouldn’t be able to see things from my perspective. So let her be. The only way out is to trivialize the arguments and the complaints; to talk to her about all the happy things I witnessed. I bring to her the incidents and experiences from my outdoor life, and that changes the mood. My mother does not have long years ahead. Her life with my father was devoid of any meaning or happiness. I might as well light up these last years of her life with some happiness; she perhaps deserves it more than any of us.”

“But what about your happiness?”, I ask.

“Did I tell you? I go on house visits now. There are many patients who need nursing care at home. I do dressings for diabetic patients, I teach them to inject insulin, I change catheters, and I am an expert at cannulating! Can you believe that? I had never planned any of this, but a few patients had approached me initially. I felt sad for them because the hospital rates for home visits are very high. Out of compassion, I agreed. But word spread, and now, I have calls every day! I feel so happy because I can be of use. There are BSc. nursing students in the neighbourhood, but they don’t have time. Some people are fortunate in that they can study whatever they want to and get certified. I may be unlucky that way, but I have found my own ways of being a nurse. Time is the only constraint. Sometimes, I reach home so late that I can’t spend much time with my son.”

“How is your son finding the new school?” I asked her.

“He is happier. At the other school, he was always sad because he would inevitably compare himself with his peers who came from wealthy families. Now, he doesn’t feel deprived. His father’s family takes care of his expenses; that is a relief. Recently, his aunts asked me to see a counsellor. They said I was not being patient with the child, and that I need help. I did not want to offend them, so I obliged. I met up with the counsellor, and I responded to all her questions. She was astounded by my story. Do you know what she said at the end? She said that the ones who sent you here, need counselling. I couldn’t help laughing. I requested her to call my sisters-in-law and convince them that there was nothing wrong with me.”

Life snatched away much from her life, but Fousiya has not lost her innocence or vulnerability. She is still the little child who believes that God will watch over her, and that everything he puts into her life, has a purpose in the larger scheme of things. Where there is innocence and vulnerability, there is wisdom and God. If we could turn the clock back, she would have found a place among some of the finest characters portrayed by Deepti Naval, Smitha Patil or Shabana Azmi, back in the days of parallel cinema.

Life is a Long Lesson in Humility

That is how it stiffens, my vision of that seaside childhood. My father died; we moved inland. Whereon those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle – beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete: a fine, white, flying myth.

-Sylvia Plath

We all have those turning points in life where a sudden gust of wind rattles our unsuspecting castles of happiness, until they come crashing down. For some, it is the unexpected loss of a parent, a financial crisis, an accident, or a debilitating disease. For others, it is a break-up, a marriage, or a crisis in the family. For me, it was none of these. My life took an unexpected turn on that overcast, gloomy day when we said goodbye to Bangalore. Kerala welcomed us with the most severe rains of the season, perhaps heralding what lay in store for me. When we arrived in Kerala, I had never imagined that I would spend over a decade here. I had arrived with the notion that nothing bound me to this place, and that I was free to move out as soon as I had found a motive. But life had other plans for me. That was my first lesson in humility; life taught me that we must accept with grace what it makes of us. As I navigated my journey in Kerala through unfamiliar and hostile terrain, the world I had known until then slowly faded away, and became inaccessible. In Sylvia Plath’s words, I found the vocabulary to describe this world that I was alienated from.

Over the years, I have lost the ability to talk about myself. I have lost the ability to talk about the paths I walked, the people I lost, or the opportunities I missed. I have lost the ability to talk about relationships- about love, friendship, or family. To the random stranger who asks me about my life, I respond with a wordless sigh.

Let us talk. But let us talk about you, and not me. For if I grope for the words that could possibly describe the events of my life, they may very well die in my throat. A nameless fatigue is all that remains in their place- a residue from all the emotions spent. For where does one begin? And what does one say? No, let us talk about you, and not me.”

But fortunately, I have not lost the ability to write. Or to feel all that I want to feel. I have learnt the art of weaving the past, present and future in ways that enable me to construct higher meanings out of them. I have no memories of my suffering; I cannot narrate with clarity the details of any of the harsh paths I walked. In place of the memories, are the life truths that my suffering unveiled in these paths. I carry into my future only these life truths, and they are treasures, as I have discovered. There is an abundance of knowledge in the world today, but there is a scarcity of wisdom. What people don’t realize is that it takes wisdom to heal, to construct meaning out of life, and to be happy- the sort of happiness that previous generations talked about and experienced. These days, conversations are more often about things people read, hear, or watch online, rather than about what they learn from their life experiences. Perhaps, people do not have the courage to confront themselves. They would rather fill up their solitude with the virtual world, than face themselves. The most recent bout of wisdom I received, was from Fousiya. I shall save it for my next post!